by Blake Lavia and Tzintzun Aguilar-Izzo / Talking Wings Collective
Five thousand acres of cloud forest are currently being threatened in Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico. This land is, at present, being held by squatters, who, with the backing of local politicians, have claimed to be the forest’s rightful owners. They displaced dozens of families and are threatening one of Mexico’s most vital ecosystems. These 5,000 acres of land contain three municipal parks and one archeological site. While the land’s original stewards and forest protectors are engaged in a legal battle with the “invaders,” the deforestation of this fragile ecosystem has already commenced. This act of environmental devastation has wide political/economic ramifications. If you control Coatepec’s mountains, you control the subsistence and livelihood of millions.
The Coatepec Cloud Forest
The cloud forest above Coatepec is known as “la fabrica de agua” (the water factory). It is one of the last “water factories” of its kind in Mexico, and it moderates the weather of the entire region. The clouds that roll in from the Gulf of Mexico are captured by the forest canopy, the moisture forming a thick mist that shrouds the mountainside. Trees, moss, and orchids collaborate in an infinitely diverse ecosystem to retain the water that feed the region’s rivers, bringing life to the valleys bellow. The cities of Coatepec, Xalapa, and Cardel rely on this water, not to mention most of the communities of central Veracruz.
Globally, cloud forests are bastions of biodiversity. They harbor animal, and plant that are threatened by the shifting tides of the climate crises and uncontrolled land use. Coatepec’s cloud forest now hosts 90 plant, animal, and fungal species on the verge of extinction. Coupled with the biodiversity loss, the destruction of this ecosystem holds serious repercussions for the entire watershed. Without the cloud forest, the rivers will run dry, and the entire region will see considerably less rainfall. In short, the destruction of the cloud forest will spell drought and devastation for all.
In January 2019, a faction of the “Central Independiente de Obreros Agrícolas y Campesinos” (The Independent Organization of Agricultural Laborers and Farmers) set up an encampment on the 2,000 acres of cloud forest known as the Jinicuil Manso estate. CIOAC verbally threatened more than 500 original stewards of the land and claimed to be the legal owner of the property. While the information is difficult to corroborate, local activist networks say that the organizers of the CIOAC encampment came from outside the region, and do not hold legal rights to the said property. The community members who own land in the Jinicuil Manso estate submitted complaints to the local authorities. While the government “invited” the squatters to move off the premises, they requested that the community members refrain from engaging directly with CIOAC, to prevent physical aggression.
The situation was further complicated in February 2020, when the local authorities issued a “measurement and demarcation notice,” requesting that all the landowners submit paperwork confirming their title to the land. Many of the land’s stewards were not aware of the government’s decree. Others did not have the paperwork to prove that they owned their properties, even though the land had been in their family for generations. The local government never specified the reasons for this “demarcation notice,” and never compared the documents submitted by the land’s stewards with those provided by CIOAC. Instead, they refused to consider the documents submitted, and appear to favor CIOAC’s land claim, a land claim that local activists argue has been falsified.
The Electoral Politics of Water and Land
The local community groups, such as “Por la Defensa de la Sierra de Coatepec,” and the individual landowners, are currently involved in court cases with CIOAC. Throughout the process, it has it became clear the larger political forces are involved in the illegal “settlement” of the cloud forest. The CIOAC members have direct connection with major political parties in the area, with whom they have garnered ample political support. In addition, they have publicly thanked the governor of the State of Veracruz, Cuitlahuac García Jiménez, for his backing (though it is unclear whether this was just political posturing on the part of CIOAC).
Land, environmental destruction, and electoral politics has been devastatingly intertwined in Mexico for decades. When CIOAC first “invaded” the cloud forest, they invited citizens from the surrounding regions to squat on the appropriated land. Community members who did not own land of their own, and/or were seeking greater financial stability, settled in the cloud forest. Forest protectors have observed between 100 to 300 community members in the encampments at a time. They cut down trees, hunt the local fauna, and set up their septic systems to run off into the precious streams. When forest protectors attempt to plant trees or talk with the squatters, the squatters respond violently. They have been known to brandish guns and machetes, defending the land that has been promised to them.
Political figures from various parties in the region have sought to partner with the CIOAC settlers, nurturing a solid voting block of support. Leading up to the future regional and national elections, the ruling political parties have reacted favorably to the CIOAC’s land claims. However, underneath the surface, the forest protectors and activists claim that there is an even darker story. The people that live in the encampments of Jinicuil Manso could also be serving as a human shield, emptying the land for a larger economic interest that seeks to control the most vital resource of all: water.
The Conquest of the Cloud Forest
While at first glance the squatters could appear to be land hungry farmers, they are in fact just a cog in the virulent political system. Local activists believe that the squatters could be a facade for a political and economic interest that seeks to take over the forest of the region. Nestle, Coca-Cola, and other international corporations have huge factories in Coatepec, and have been seeking to control the region’s water supply for decades. Over the last series of elections, the community members have seen this same political/environmental ploy play out, though not to this level of devastation.
Veracruz is one the deadliest regions for land and water protectors in the world. “Por la Defensa de la Sierra de Coatepec” continues to organize throughout the region, raising awareness about the plight of the cloud forest, and the people that have been displaced. However, the settlers began threatening the lives of the forest protectors. When the organizers tried to negotiate with them in person, they were attacked with machetes. In the end, the CIAOC managed to scare most of the forest protectors into silence by actively threatening their families, while local authorities have turned a blind eye.
While many forest protectors are too afraid to speak in public or to the press, the fight is not over. On the 29th of November 2020, “Por la Defensa de la Sierra de Coatepec” will return to the stolen land to begin reforesting the trees that have been cut down. They will also initiate a barter market with the local community members who have been directly affected by the theft of land. While many forest protectors have been forced to move to surrounding cities to protect their families, they are willing to risk their lives to defend and bring life back to the cloud forest.
How You Can help!
– Follow the “Movimiento por la Defensa de la Sierra” on social media and share the story with everyone you know.
– Show your support by commenting on their page, and/or sharing a video of support.