The few remaining indigenous Lacandon are locked in a struggle to protect their ancestral home: the last pocket of tropical rainforest in North America.
There are only about 1,500 Lacandones left, scattered in a handful of settlements across the 1,280 square miles (3,312-square-kilometer) Montes Azules jungle reserve on Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala.
Over the years, other indigenous groups like the Tzeltales and Choles have settled in the jungle. But these groups plant large fields and raise cattle, something the Lacandones don’t do.
Known for wearing their traditional loose white cotton tunics and long hair, the Lacandones practice sustainable low-impact agriculture, clearing small plots and planting a close-packed combination of food crops. They then rotate cultivation to another clearing that has been allowed to rest and recover for several years. They don’t have cattle.
In August, residents of the reserve held elections for officials who will finish marking each group’s territory in the reserve, and the Lacandones say they were locked out by their more numerous, newer neighbors.
“We know how to preserve the Lacandon jungle,” said Chankin Chambor, a leader of the community. “We are the owners of the Lacandon jungle, we conserve it.”
He said: “The choles, the Tzeltales devastate the Lacandon jungle. They don’t respect Lacandon territory. They introduce cattle, they make pasture for cattle. They intentionally burn the jungle. They illegally cut down trees.”
There are arguments on both sides.
A federal official familiar with the situation who was not authorized to be quoted by name said the problem partly involved “financial interests, like receiving compensation payments.”
The government spends millions of dollars paying jungle residents for their land under a federal plan to regularize the jungle communities that can’t be removed from the reserve, and remove those that are willing to be moved.
Up to now, most of that money has gone to the Lacandones as compensation for settlements that moved onto their land in decades past.