In the farthest corner of Mexico in a region dotted with villages controlled by Zapatista revolutionaries, another quiet revolution is underway. The subsistence economy of the Lacandon Mayans is being transformed. With a paved road now linking the Lacandon Jungle with the rest of Mexico, Mayan communities are now cashing in on ecotourism.
One of the indigenous entrepreneurs is Ricardo Chambor Kin, owner of Campamento Río Lacanjá, one of a handful of jungle camps in the hamlet of Lacanjá Chansayab, Chiapas, a stone’s throw away from Guatemala.
Located a mile off the pavement, Campamento Río Lacanjá has welcomed visitors since 2000. Chambor, who is middle-aged with only a primary education, opened the camp after completing classes in sustainable tourism offered by Mexico’s federal tourism department. His commitment to the environment is evident. On the wall of the open-air dining room is a framed certificate attesting to the camp’s compliance with Mexico’s stringent sustainability in ecotourism standards, one of only a handful of ecotourism sites in the state to earn the honor.
“It’s not about a piece of paper,” Chambor says in Spanish. “It’s about doing what’s right for the environment.”
At Campamento Río Lacanjá, that means separating trash into three categories -- organic waste, cans, and plastics/glass/paper. The camp also has a small rainwater harvesting system to capture runoff from the roof.
“During the rainy season, the water goes through the biofilter and we use it for the camp instead of taking water from the river,” Chambor explains.
The camp has restrooms with toilets and showers kept spotless by regular cleanings throughout the day. To process the sewage, Chambor has installed biodigesters rather than septic tanks in a country where all too often sewage is dumped into waterbodies with no treatment at all.
“People here told me I should put in more cabins so I can make more money during the busy season but I don’t want to do that. It’s not about making more money. It’s about conserving what we have.”
Each rustic cabin is located in a private site down a gravel path through the jungle, with some enjoying riverfront views. The cabins themselves have no coverings on the windows and the rough wooden poles of their construction, little more than big sticks, are joined by nails rather than mortar, leaving noticeable gaps in the walls. Nonetheless, the swinging hammocks on the front porch and the comfortable bunks with thick mosquito netting inside make the rough-hewn cabins a comfortable resting spot.
Campamento Río Lacanjá’s commitment to sustainability goes beyond its handling of water and waste. Professionally-made wayside exhibits and a small open-air museum give visitors insight into traditional Lacandon life and the jungle ecosystem. A 650-meter nature trail takes hikers through three distinct ecosystems – acahual, or jungle disturbed by human activity; selva alta perennifolia, or undisturbed jungle; and milpa tradicional, or the traditional Lacandon agricultural plot with a mixture of crops including corn, banana, and pineapple. Another area is clearly marked as a restoration zone where a slow process is underway to revegetate with native trees like mahogany and cedro to reverse the damage wrought by humans. Other signs encourage visitors to conserve resources and minimize their impact on the environment.
The efforts are paying off. Guests are as likely to be awakened by the eerie grunts of howler monkeys high in the treetops as the crowing of roosters in the nearby village. Toucans, iguanas, and the elusive ocelot also ply the jungle environs.
Many in the indigenous community at large are benefiting from the success of businessmen like Chambor Kin. To run his camp, he hires local men, women, and youth to prepare and serve food, manage the property and clean the facilities. Chambor Kin’s clients often sign up for whitewater raft tours on the Río Lacanjá or guided hikes through the jungle led by members of the community. Nearby attractions in the Lancandon Jungle include the archaeological site of Bonampak, famed for the best-preserved paintings of the Mayan world, where indigenous men operate a bus service that shuttles visitors from the parking area to the site entrance while others can be hired on as guides. In the nearby border town of Frontera Corozal on the wide Rio Usumacinta, the local ejido, or indigenous collective, assesses a modest ecotourism fee for visitors who arrive on the main road. Another cooperative offers boat rides down the Usumacinta to the majestic riverside pyramids of Yaxchilan.
Women are not left out of this economic revolution, either. In Frontera Corozal, they operate small lunch counters serving inexpensive and tasty antojitos or Mexican tortilla dishes, to visitors. Women in the Lacandon Jungle also collect seeds, like the lobster-colored colorín, and other products from their forest home to make jewelry for sale to tourists.
The competition for tourists’ pesos can be intense. One Lacandon jewelry-maker in Lacanjá Chansayab, wearing a traditional loose-fitting tunic, complained about the poor quality of products sold by her competitors in Frontera Corozal. “You never have to take off my bracelet. You can take a bath in it and it will still look good. But that cheap stuff they make in Frontera Corozal will fall apart if you get it wet,” she advised us in accented Spanish.
Nearby is the 400,000-hectare Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, lauded by Mexican President Felipe Calderon at an environmental conference as “one of the most impressive natural reserves of Mexico and, I am sure, of the continent…” Home to 341 bird species and more mammal species than any other place in Mexico, it’s also been the site of a bitter territorial dispute involving the government, environmental organizations, and various ethnic groups, resulting in the forced relocation of non-Lacandon settlers, some of whom were accused of committing environmental crimes. President Calderon’s support for Environmental Services Payments to compensate indigenous communities for preserving and restoring Mexico’s wild places may offer hope for avoiding future conflicts with residents of the nation’s reserves.
Life in the Lacandon Jungle is undergoing a transformation. Bonampak, now a world-renowned archaeological site, was abandoned to the wilds 1200 years ago and remained a secret to westerners until 1946. In the generation since the pyramids’ re-emergence from the jungle, the indigenous community itself has emerged from isolation and subsistence into a new economy that draws visitors from across Mexico and the world. By honoring their majestic past and respecting the natural resources of their forest home, the indigenous peoples of the Selva Lacandona have the opportunity to chart a sustainable path for the future.
IF YOU GO
Campamento Río Lacanjá charges 140 pesos/night (about $10) per person for a bunk in one of the rustic cabins, which sleep up to six. The simple meals are 55-65 pesos/each ($4-5). The camp serves egg dishes for breakfast while dinner consists of meat, soup, and beans. The camp’s black beans flavored with epazote (a Mexican herb) are a delight.
Contact for reservations or more information about Campamento Río Lacanjá:
www.ecochiapas.com ORe-mail: email@example.com site: sendasur.com.mxTelephone in San Cristobal de las Casas: (967) 678-3909. Various tour companies in Chiapas and Villahermosa offer trips to Bonampak and Yaxchilan. In the tourist hub of Palenque, check with your hotel or contact:www.kukulcantravel.com firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Telephone: (916) 345 15 06 or (916) 345 27 78