MONTES AZULES, Chiapas -- Peering through the gathering rain clouds from the air, Nuevo San Gregorio appears a solitary cluster of huts at the geographic heart of the vast wilderness known as the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. This 331,000-square-hectare sanctuary represents the last stands of Chiapas' paradisiacal Lacandon rain forest.
Closer to the ground, the reality is muddier but no less Edenesque. Howler monkeys and garish red macaws gather in the crowns of the colossal mahogany trees at dusk.
The 30 families nestled here under the vibrant canopy arrived in this dangerous, eternally verdant paradise 30 years ago from the rocky highlands of Chiapas and are Tzotzil Mayan speakers, a linguistic rarity in this "desert of solitude," as the Spanish explorers once described the Lacandon.
Now, abruptly, the community of Nuevo San Gregorio has become the target of an orchestrated campaign being waged jointly by heavyweight environmental organizations, transnational bio-prospectors and the Mexican government, its bureaucrats, soldiers and police, all of whom seek to evict the Indians from their Eden.
One of the original settlers, Don Manuel, tells me, "In old San Gregorio, there was nothing for us. We had no land and there was nothing to eat," he recalls.
Each year, Manuel and the other men from the village laboured on the German-owned coffee plantations in the state's central sierra.
Biblical exodus "We started in the dark and it was dark when we were done. We were like slaves." Instead of wages, the Tzotziles were paid in chits redeemable at the plantation store.
Infused with the liberation Catholicism of their bishop, the recently retired Samuel Ruiz, or "Tatic" (father), as he's known to the Mayan faithful, the families of old San Gregorio set off on foot in search of a better life, a year-long biblical exodus that ended when they found sanctuary here at the heart of the Montes Azules reserve.
Thirty years later, more than a generation have lived and died in this jungle community with its one-room schoolhouse, rustic chapel, one store sparsely stocked by bush pilots, and the inevitable basketball court, all just an idyllic pinpoint in a sea of green trees beyond the pale of government authority.
The campaign to erase Nuevo San Gregorio and dozens of other Mayan settlements from Montes Azules has its most public face in full-page newspaper ads accusing the Indians of destroying the rain forest and demanding their removal.
One of the ecological groups hostile to the Tzotzil settlements is Conservation International. Field director Ignacio March, based in Chiapas, says his group has been working with the Lacandon Mayans for several years to encourage sustainable development but that the newer communities are illegal and threaten the integrity of the biosphere reserve.
"We understand that these people need to live somewhere, but they cannot be endangering the property of other Indians who came several hundered years before them,' he says. "We support negotiations with (the newcomers) that consider human rights, but if they are there illegally, they should be removed, yes.'
In response to the conservationists' demands, Mexico's environmental secretary, Julia Carabias, has threatened to send in the nation's new Federal Preventative Police to dislodge the Mayans if they refuse to negotiate their own eviction in good faith.
A handful of villages aligned with the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party have tentatively agreed to removal in exchange for cinder-block houses, government food supplies and a few hectares of land outside the reserve.
But most Montes Azules communities, many with government-signed legal documents affirming ownership of the land they have pioneered, are not budging. Neuvo San Gregorio is one of a dozen communities strung along the Rio Negro that are resisting relocation.
The villages along the Negro are affiliated with the "ARIC-Independiente" (Independent Rural Collective Interest Association), an indigenous campesino organization with much support in the Lacandon region whose political allegiances lean toward the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
The EZLN has been encamped in the Montes Azules since its inception in the 1980s, and many partisans suspect that the current campaign to oust the Mayan villagers is directed at isolating the Zapatistas from their bases of support.
Entire Lacandon Having originally invited landless Indian farmers into the jungle in the 1950s and 60s, when the forest was deemed Mexico's new agrarian frontier, the Mexican government reversed its policy in the 1970s and sought their exclusion.
In 1972, President Luis Echeverria deeded the entire Lacandon to 66 families of the Lacandon Maya, the Indians who have lived for the longest time in the jungle that bears their name, but by no means the only Mayans settled here. Some charge that the Lacandones subleased their forests to rip-and-run loggers who clear-cut the area's most precious hardwoods.
Similarly, President Jose Lopez Portillo's establishment of the Montes Azules reserve in 1978 and the subsequent use of the military and police to uproot settlers from the sanctuary were tied to resource exploitation.
Lopez Portillo, a president closely identified with oil boom and bust, had learned of petroleum deposits in the Lacandon and declared the reserve off-limits to the Indians, affirms Autonomous University geo-politicist Andres Barreda, who maps the region's resources.
The 1994 Zapatista uprising focused military attention on the Montes Azules once again. Army bases border the reserve, and military and civilian construction crews have girdled it with access roads.
For the past 10 months, Zapatista villagers and soldiers have stood nose to nose at a barbed-wire barricade in Amador Hernandez, just outside the forest limits, through which the government seeks to drive a road that the rebels say will ease access for timber thieves and biodiversity "prospectors," and consolidate military occupation.
The military is already operating inside the sanctuary. In 1999, President Ernesto Zedillo led 7,000 troops into the Montes Azules on a dubious tree-planting mission to reforest patches burned in vast fires.
Some ecologists, such as Miguel Angel Garcia of Wood for the People, based in Oaxaca's beleaguered Chimilapas forests, question the military tree-planters' impact on Montes Azules' biodiversity.
"The forest regenerates itself in balance. The tree-planting had no environmental justification and was really just a pretext to force the EZLN to take cover," Garcia explained during a late-May forum, In Defence Of Life, The Land And Natural Resources, assembled by the ARIC-Independiente in Nuevo San Gregorio.
This year, once again, spring forest fires were used as a reason to push the Mayan communities from the Montes Azules. Blaming the Indians' traditional "rosa, tumba y quema" -- slash-and-burn -- agricultural techniques for setting over 200 fires inside the reserve, Carabias called upon the Federal Preventative Police to pressure villagers to abandon the sanctuary.
Meanwhile, eco guru Homero Aridjis, a poet and organizer of the prestigious Group of 100 (Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are members), accused the Mayans of "ecocide," saying, "A few hundred families are destroying the patrimony of mankind."
But indigenous spokespeople say there was only one fire, close to a bio-prospecting outpost, and that traditional slash-and-burn techniques for preparing fragile rain forest soils for planting are being replaced in ARIC and EZLN communities by "rosa, tumba y pica" -- the use of decaying jungle vegetation to compost corn patches.
By late May, the first rains mooted the pretext of campesino-set fires to dislodge the communities, but the threat of eviction still hangs as heavily as the swollen rain clouds over Montes Azules.
Experts like Barreda are convinced that resource exploitation is once again at the bottom of the current campaign to oust the Indians. Oil production has been ongoing for several decades just east of the reserve, bordering Guatemala's Peten. Then there's the transnational exploitation of the Lacandon's world-class biodiversity.
Evening frogs Representatives of 32 forest communities, ecologists, PRD politicos, the press and the government environmental secretariat dropped into Nuevo San Gregorio for the May 20 forum, where participants watched the children of the community crayon posters of parrots, toucans and jaguars adorned with the legend, "We have a right to live here in harmony with the animals and the plants! Señores of the Environment, do not evict us please!"
In the evening, amidst a racket of frogs and crickets and ululating howler monkeys, young Porfirio Encino, the indefatigable ARIC organizer, gave voice to the Declaration of Nuevo San Gregorio, which proclaimed that the communities are "the guardians of the Montes Azules" and demanded an end "to the thievery of our plants."
Then, in the way such assemblies are often adjourned in this jungle where both Bishop Ruiz and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation still wield considerable influence, the village catechist offered an Our Father in Tzotzil, and the settlers sang the hymn of their resistance, and everyone dashed for cover as the rain began to fall thickly upon the forest.
Research assistance by Geoffrey Chan and Tabassum Siddiqui