Breaking: Indigenous Mayans Beaten Just South of Cancun

November 25, 2009 - The following is a translation of a press release I received from contacts in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo, Mexico. It describes the situation that began when the government promised to reimburse farmers for crops lost due to the lack of rains during the monsoon season this year. The government lowered the reimbursement to 50%, prompting the farmers to block the main highway leading to Cancun in protest. Police then went through town and apparently beat and detained anyone who looked like an indigenous farmer. This is exactly the sort of situation that is becoming more and more common as climate change leads to conflict. The original document is attached.

Why are the Indigenous Mayans of Quintana Roo being Beaten and Detained?

    Through this medium we want to inform of the arbitrary detentions that have been suffered by the ejidatarios (communal landowners - editor's note) of the Mayan communities of the municipality of Felipe Carrillo Puerto. Given the events that took place on the highway from Felipe Carrillo Puerto to Cancun the past night of November 24 where various groups of ejidatarios took the aforementioned highway in protest of the insufficient pay of 50% offered by the SEDARI (The state Secretariat of Agricultural and Indigenous Development - ed.) due to failure of farmer's crops from [this year's] lack of monsoon rains.

    Following these events state and federal police officers have taken illegal actions beating, abusing and encarcelating the ejidatarios; it is worth mentioning that these acts were realized in the interior of the city, in the streets, and even in the central park on the 24th and towards people who because of their simple appearance were considered to be ejidatarios, detaining in this matter 228 campesino farmers.

    We mention also that these actions of the peasantry are a product of the evident inequality and the contrasts that exist in the state of Quintana Roo[, Mexico] which receives a great deal of investment in the north, in the turist zones and we see that there are no development projects for the mayan communities that live in the same conditions as they did five hundred years ago while these communities are owners of the natural resources of the state.

    For these reasons we demand the liberation of the 228 citizens who are imprisoned.

For the prompt and immediate liberty of the 228 imprisoned indigenous mayans of Felipe Carrillo Puerto! 

Ejido commissioners and Municipal delegates of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo

Felipe Carrillo Puerto, on the 25 of November of 2009

* Original Document can be downloaded here.

**Click here for a good history on ejidos and ejidatarios. 

Maya Fashion

I took the van from Santa Maria Poniente back to Carrillo on Saturday, and I've been organizing my data from the field work in that ejido over at the OEPF* office. At lunch today, I checked out "Moda Maya," a clothing and crafts store set up by OEPF to sell products made in the Ejidos.

Among their wares are some really cool wood carvings, mixing ancient Mayan themes with modern cutting techniques and imagery, and also a lot of traditional embroidery work. The embroidery, worn mostly by older Maya women at this point, is at great risk of becoming extinct, so its heartening to see traditional embroidery used on more modern "sexy" designs.

I feel like a lot of this stuff would do quite well in the US, and hope to bring some of it in one day. Check it out and tell me what you think:

Woodblocks and Jewelry Boxes

"The Ancient"

Some of this handmade embroidery is really intricate, and I think there is a bit of competition among traditional Maya women to see who can do the most elaborate and colorful designs.

A Mayan take on a western classic, the little blue dress.

Doña Eunice Be Chuc, who runs the shop, and me.

*OEPF stands for "Organicacion de Ejidos Productores Forestales", which is the community owned forestry group I've been working with in Quintana Roo. Their website is a work in progress but can be found here:


The small bikepath through the woods to the laguna does a good job of concealing it until you're there.

Suddenly you catch a glimpse through the vegetation and are shocked by the size of the thing. If this is how big the lagoon is, how big is the 16 hectares of forest that engulf it?

I asked around about this cayuko later. Turns out it doesn't belong to anyone in particular, since everyone uses it.



I've measured production and effort in the forest, so now it is time to measure the most "environmental" and the most depressing variable - destruction. Specifically, the question I'm trying to answer is
"How much forest is crushed to pull out one tree?"
I've hired a "tecnico" from the ejido, Valentin Canul, who I noticed last week had an uncanny ability to remember plant names. Well, uncanny from my perspective anyway, here its just a little better than normal.

Valentin is a local tecnico, meaning he was trained by the ejido union, Organizacion de Ejidos Productores Forestales de la Zona Maya (OEPF) to do tree inventories and collect forestry data. Since the hurricane hit, he's been working on a tree inventory for the Ejido, a requirement before new logging permits are issued. He's not paid for this work, but he knows there won't be a job for him or others in the ejido if they don't get new permits.

He explained a little bit of the methodology* for the tree surveys while we were trying to figure out how to answer my question. The ejido's property is divided into a series of transects, or straight lines across the land.

Starting on the transect line and moving away from it in both directions, Valentin or another tecnico measures all seedlings (over 5 cm tall) for the first 10 meters. From the 10 meter line, he measures only the big stuff, everything larger than 20 cm measured at the height of his chest.** From the 25 meter line to the 100 meter line, he only measures the commercially valuable species.

With this (rather impressive) amount of information, the government and OEPF can gain an accurate picture from which to decide how much wood can be harvested each year. Valentin says they have enough information right now for the next 5 years in their 25 year cycle.

In order to make my measurements of destruction fit into OEPF's methods, I used their size classes and worked out the methodology with Valentin. We decided to follow the Treefarmer, which is a sort of cross between a bulldozer and a tractor used to clear a path to a tree and pull out the log. The Treefarmer is the most destructive part of the logging operation, and its also the part we're hoping can be eliminated once the microsawmills take over and people are pulling boards rather than logs out of the forest.

We spent the day behind the Treefarmer measuring 30 meters with our measuring tape before stopping to  count all of the plants in our sample. The sample was 1 meter long and as wide as the obvious impact of the tree farmer, which varied from 4 meters to 7 meters. Valentin identified all the plants, gave me their names in Spanish or Mayan (whichever one was shorter) and I simply wrote them down. It felt like Valentin could have done this on his own, but I did insist on counting all the plants, even the tiny ones, which might not have happened if it was just him.

Turns out, it took almost half a hectare (1.2 acres) of Treefarmer destruction to get 16 trees, about 0.03 hectares (0.07 acres) per tree. Thats a half hectare of impact and soil compaction, but nobody knows how well the Treefarmer trails recover after they've been used. Of course, my sample is also really low because I was only able to get out there and measure this for one day, so its best you think of it as a detailed anecdote.

Attached is my data, categorized in Spanish. Checka checka checka if you think its cool-



* I realize this is a really geeky article, but I always wish I could find stuff like this on the internet so here it is! Enjoy it, rising forestry geeks.
** This measurement, called Diameter at Breast Height or DBH, is a standard measurement in forestry that has survived the ages despite its innate subjectivity as to what "Breast Height" is.

Savannas, Huamiles, and "Orchids"

The road out to the logging site is a tour through the diverse local ecology. In addition to the forests themselves,* there is also a seasonally flooded "Savannah," fallow slash and burn farms that are grading back into forest called "Huamiles" and the Matorral, a sort of thorn scrub forest that gets a little less flooding than the Savannah.

   The Savannah is as interesting as it was unexpected. Formed around a vast floodplain and covered in crawfish holes, the savannah has annual floods and muddy (probably anoxic) soils to keep trees from taking root. The landscape offers sweeping views that are impossible from within the forest, and a light morning mist makes it all the more sublime.

   There´s a very distinct line that separates the savannah (and the lagoon that forms there) from the thorny Matorral.** Beyond the line is a scrubland of white bark and green leaves. Among the brambles, one starts to notice what the locals call "Orquidias" a word that cognates to orchids but has been expanded here to include most epiphytes. Though there are a few true orchids, the majority of what people are calling by that name are classified as bromeliads, the little house plants with a water cup in the center.

Closer to town are the "huamiles" the old milpas (traditional slash and burn farms) that have been left fallow after one to three years of harvest. I was surprised at how quickly these regenerated - after one year, you could barely see an old corn storage structure rising up over the palm trees. After 3 to 5 years, it begins to feel like a forest again, with Zapote and tzalam (two valuable tree species) growing back on their own. Usually these huamiles are not allowed to grow back into forests but instead are cut, felled, and burned (roza, tumba, quema) back into milpas after four to seven years.

We often hear about slash and burn farming as an environmental swear word, but most of that bad rep comes from areas where regeneration is slow and community ownership of the land non-existent. The fact that these people can slash and burn the same plot of land multiple times gives me quite a bit of hope that they will not begin to eat away at the core of their forest anytime soon.

Though it will happen eventually.


* Wild areas with trees on them are classified by height of vegetation in Mexico - monte alto, monte mediano, monte bajo refer to tall, medium, and short vegetation
** I drew this little diagram in my notebook. Not the best artist, but I hope it helps!

Nececitamos Capital

The people learning to use the microsawmill* weren't able to work today (friday) or last monday, in large part because they had no gas or oil to run their machines, and no money to buy the materials they need to work. This seems to be a common problem with project funding in Mexico- grants often pay for an initial upfront cost, such as buying machines or planting trees, but fall short when it comes to long-term support needed to operate, maintain, or care for that initial investment.

Another example of the problem is the dozen or so ejidos that received woodworking machinery to build furniture, but can't turn the machines on because their villages don't have high voltage electricity. Only one ejido, Reforma Agraria, is operating a woodshop because they could afford to bring in an electrician to convert the machines to run on the lower voltage.

In this case, there's a gap between learning to operate a microsawmill for a few weeks and producing enough boards to make the first sale. In the words of one** of the ejidatarios, "We need capital."

These guys pretty much know how to make boards, and have the machines to do it. They also have the will to work, and want this project to succeed because they see the value it will add to their wood. They went door to door yesterday and today trying to find enough motor oil to keep the chainsaws going. The problem is, until they can make that first sale, they won't have the money to keep producing boards and make that first sale.

Its a catch 22 from hell.


** I don't want to get anyone in trouble, so I won't mention names.

Spanish Vs Maya: Colonialism Continues

Maya is the first language of the people of Santa Maria Poniente, and their ability to speak Spanish varies widely by age, gender, and amount of time spent working on the outside. I've met people who couldn't speak a word of Spanish, those who understand it but can't speak but a few words, and people who speak so well you would never guess this is a second language they picked up as an adult.

The age and gender stratification is really interesting. Older women are the least likely to speak Spanish, since they've neither had schooling in Spanish as a child or worked outside the village as an adult. Older men have worked on the outside, but were never taught Spanish in school, so their ability varies widely and by effort. Younger women have been schooled in Spanish but don't normally leave the village, so the Spanish fades with age. Finally, younger men and children of both genders are the strongest Spanish speakers, since they have constant reinforcement from either school or work.

At the moment, school is taught entirely in Spanish, but there's a popular policy proposal on the table to make Maya mandatory in every school in Quintana Roo. The state of Yucatan just passed a similar law, and its looking very possible that it will happen in Quintana Roo as well. Its one of those rare political moves that could single handedly rescue and entire language and culture form slow, generational extinction.

Variations of Mayan are spoken in four Mexican States and in four countries, so I doubt very much that it could ever go completely extinct. Compared with Mayo and Yaqui, the native languages of Sonora (where I'm from) spoken by a few thousand people each, Maya is in a pretty good place.

Local extinctions, however, are entirely possible, a fact that the Mayans of Santa Maria seem keenly aware and afraid of. I've heard horror stories about other villages were everyone speaks Spanish, about kids who come back from Cancun refusing to speak Maya, about young men who speak perfectly well but are ashamed to use the language of their parents. The good news is that there's also a lot of Mayan pride, a relatively recent effect that is just starting to kick in.


* Picture is of Cecilio Yam Can, who speaks pretty good spanish and learned as an adult.
** I'm reposting this to better reflect the chronosequence. Sorry for the repeat!

The Other Team

The "Patrón"* sponsoring Placo's salvage logging team has pulled out, saying that the wood is now so rotten and the forest so thick that it is no longer worth it for him to log in Santa Maria. Therefore, today I monitored the time and output for the other team of salvage loggers.

The main difference between the two is the management. While most logging teams have a field supervisor, representing the interests of the ejido and making sure its management plans are followed, this team has a second, extra "supervisor" who represents the interests of the Patrón.

The guy, we'll call him Umhelio, started the day out by informing us that "the boss doesn't want any more mahogany." Apparently, when the global economy tanked, it took with it the market for precious, luxury woods like mahogany. Because of its high price, pulling out the dead mahogany rather than letting it rot is a boon to the community but a burden on the Patrón.

"Supervisor" Umhelio (pictured at left) constantly called everyone "amigo," the Spanish equivalent of a demeaning, obnoxious "buddy." He bickered with the ejido's supervisor Miguel (pictured above, pseudonym used) over every tree, arguing that this one was too rotten, that one looked too crooked, the other one too hollow. All of this might have been fine had he been correct, but over and over again he was proven wrong by the rest of the group.

At one point, when he had reiterated that the boss did not want any more caoba (mahogany), Miguel looked Umhelio straight in the eye and told him "Yes, but we have a contract. A certain about of caoba for every tzalam** you pull out."

"Oh yes buddy, of course buddy, of course, of course buddy."

In between all of these arguments, I had a great conversation with one of the "Chalanes" (helpers) about Mayan culture and the kids that are not adopting it.

But that's another story.

* "Patrón," the word often used to describe a boss or the funder of an activity, tastes a little bit of colonialism to me.
** Tzalam is a local hardwood, which has recently become very popular because it is both extremely strong and extremely cheap.

Featherless Chickens!!!

Just a couple of fun videos today:

These were meant to be two takes of the same shot, so its a little repetitive, but I think you'll appreciate seeing this strange little creature in action:


Food Independence

Its monday, but I wasn't able to work today. More on that later. I did manage to make it out to Cecilio Yam Can's land and talk to him about the food he grows for his family. The most exceptional part about it is that its completely unexceptional. So check out the interview (in Spanish) and let me know what you think:

If it seems like I'm leading him to say particular things, thats because I am. I don't think he had ever been interviewed before, and it felt like he wasn't sure what to say and was trying to say what he I wanted him to say.

I can say that we had pretty much the same conversation as we were walking around before the interview, although it was much less awkward since there were no cameras involved. Needless to say I need to work on my interviewing techniques.


Living in the Tree

I'll let the video introduce itself:


Life and Sustainability in Santa Maria Poniente

Its Sunday, so there's not much to do besides swing on my hammock and think about how awesome this place is. The view out my window pretty much says it all: a house made of wooden poles and thatched with palm leaves, a coconut tree, a stone wall overgrown with cacti.

The outside world could literally disappear and life here would go on without a blink. In fact, it might even improve for lack of alcohol and cultural imperialism. The forest would continue to produce enough poles for housing and palm leaves for roofing. Coconuts, limes, oranges, guayas, mangoes, and more would still grow in the front yards of those houses. And judging from the road out to the forest, you'd better believe there's enough stones to go around.

Beyond the home, the ejido is also essentially self-sufficient in terms of corn, beans, vegetables, spices (except salt), and even eggs and meat. Though most people say they don't get enough meat, there's plenty of chickens around. The town is full of animals, from chickens and turkeys (both wild and domestic breeds) to pigs and the occasional cow further out. The forest also provides in this regard, as twice this week one of the Canul brothers has come back from the milpa with a deer.

How many communities can claim that salt is the only thing they'd need if the world dissapeared?


* "Need" can be a relative term, and most of the people of Santa Maria would tell you that they also need health care, education, electricity, and water, all of which do come in from outside. The main point is to compare this community to say, a standard US suburb, which could produce none of its food or building materials in the present configuration.

** This happens to be the 100th blog post I've written since embarking on this journey. WOOT!