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FERNANDO OCHOA: It is one of the best, most beautiful, unique places in the world. Still, after these days. Things can change. The day that they put the road to Miramar??, then that will be the end of the jungle. It’s very fragile. It cannot hold that much people.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, saving the Mexican rain forest. And later, Russia’s new leader.
BLAIR RUBLE: There’s nothing in his career to suggest that he’s motivated by high ideals, to suggest that he’s given a lot of thought to what it means to run a country.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. The Lacondon Jungle, straddling the border of southern Mexico and Guatemala is one of the last regions of intact rain forest in the Americas. The Selva Lacondona, as it’s known in Mexico, has long been a refuge for poor farmers seeking land or fleeing political and religious conflict in other parts of the country. Now the jungle is known as the base of operations for Mexico’s Zapatista rebels. Less well known are the efforts of a small group of indigenous farmers there to find a way to conserve the lush forest while at the same time improve the local economy and preserve indigenous cultures. Reporter Tatiana Schreiber visited the fledgling eco-tourism and organic agriculture project to see how it’s working.
TATIANA SCHREIBER: It’s not easy to get to Laguna Miramar, the biggest freshwater lake in southern Mexico. First you have to get over your queasiness about the local fauna.
The most poison snake in Mexico lives in Chiapas and Miramar is like the homeland. You have to be careful. There is the scorpions that are not that bad.
SCHREIBER: Then you have to get to Ocosinco Chiapas. From there you can travel overland for a day through Zapatista territory and numerous army checkpoints, or take a tiny no-seater plane.
[sound of small aircraft in the background]
SCHREIBER: The Selva Lacondona was once so mysterious an unpopulated it was known as the “desert of solitude.” But its never been empty of life. From the air the jungle canopy is a rainbow of vegetation. Among the myriad plants and animals I’m told there are fifty-seven different orchids alone. But flying in you also see the devastation—ragged, empty patches, newly cleared for farming or cattle ranching. Raising cattle is the fastest way to make money here, but it’s also a fast way to
destroy the jungle ecosystem forever.
[sound of people crossing a wooden bridge]
SCHREIBER: As we cross a wooden suspension bridge, a group of kids swim below in emerald green water. It’s a sharp contrast to many Mexican rivers, which
are often a sludgy dark gray and smell of sewage. Here though it’s still the dry season, the rain forest is lush. The air carries the scent of flowering fruit trees. About 6:00 a.m. the first morning I follow Manuel Lopez Gomez out to his coffee and cacao fields, along with dozens of other men and boys, each swinging his machete.
[sound of a man speaking in Spanish and a machete hacking vegetation]
SCHREIBER: We walk into the cafétal, or coffee field, Manuel lopping off small branches with his machete as we go by.
[sound of a machete hacking vegetation]
SCHREIBER: The field looks like the jungle itself. The ground is littered with leaves from cacao and several kinds of fruit trees. Farmers here have been growing coffee as a cash crop, but coffee from these jungle lowlands isn’t a high enough quality to command a good price. So the community is experimenting with cacao.
MANUEL LOPEZ GOMEZ: [via a translator] This is a cacao tree, and this is the fruit of cacao, which is grown here (it) comes out of its trunk. And it’s very
beautiful, but I can’t get a good price for it.
[sound of hammering]
SCHREIBER: Manuel’s heard the price for cacao is going up because of high world demand for chocolate. He says cacao has been grown here for centuries by Mayan Indians, who used it for chocolate and trade. Like coffee, it does well in the shade of other trees. And these multicropped fields make good habitat for birds. Manuel knows them all.
[sound of birds chirping and singing in the jungle]
LOPEZ GOMEZ: [speaks in Spanish]
SCHREIBER: Manuel lops open a fresh cacao fruit for my translator and eats a taste. It doesn’t smell like chocolate, just slightly sweet, like an unripe peach.
SCHREIBER: Ok, I’m sucking on it. Hmm, that’s good.
LOPEZ GOMEZ: [via a translator] Hmm hmm. It has a tart taste to it. Very delicious.
SCHREIBER: Oh it’s purple inside.
[sound of birds singing and chirping, followed by Mexican music]
SCHREIBER: Back in the village, Don Manuel’s yard full of fruit trees is alive with activity. Chicks, puppies, and children are underfoot. A horse grazes under a mango tree; a woman uses a big wooden rake to spread just-washed cacao beans—pink and the size of big fava beans—out in the sun to dry. Don Manuel and his spouse, Dona Manuela, came to the jungle thirty years ago from farther north looking for land. Over the years the Selba, a strong people from different indigenous groups, who now live and work together.
LOPEZ GOMEZ: [via a translator] My mother tongue is Chol, but here I’ve learned to speak Tzotzil. I also speak Tzeltal, a little bit of Tojolabl, and Spanish. But
I do not want to speak too much Spanish because I don’t want to lose my culture.
SCHREIBER: Thirty years ago it was a five-day walk to get here. There were no nearby stores, and when people fell ill they often died because they couldn’t get out for medical care. Now things are easier. The village has electricity and piped in water.
[sound of running water]
SCHREIBER: But life is still hard. Dona Manuela says she works from 4:00 a.m. until 10:00 at night, cleaning corn, grinding it, making tortillas, cooking beans, and toasting coffee over the fire she tends all day. I asked Dona Manuela what she thinks about the chances of success for the cacao project.
DONA MANUELA: [speaks in Spanish]
SCHREIBER: She says she doesn’t think the cacao will do much better than the coffee. They’ll sell it for only ten or twelve pesos a kilo. But although prices are low, even a few extra pesos could mean the difference between enough food to live on, or not enough. Don Manuel thinks it’s worth it.
LOPEZ GOMEZ: [speaks in Spanish]
SCHREIBER: He says the only other option is raising cattle, but that means cutting down more and more forest. With coffee and cacao, you can grow the same crop in one place year after year. Manuel’s optimism has support from Fernando Ochoa, a former lime farmer from northern Mexico and a main mover behind the cacao and tourism project. Ochoa first came here to see the jungle and the exquisite waters of Laguna Miramar. But the Zapatista uprising in 1994 forced his attention to the problems of the jungle’s indigenous people.
FERNANDO OCHOA: And they had a meeting with the community because always they say, “Oh, how beautiful is the water, the lake, the birds, the animals, the plants, bromelaids, orchids. And I always put the people at the end. So I told them, “Like I want to apologize in front of everybody, that the most beautiful thing there were the people.”
SCHREIBER: Ochoa’s idea was to develop a project controlled by the community, supporting their cultural and economic survival, while also protecting the forest. Ochoa does most of the marketing and brings in tours. The problem now is getting visitors. The project has been written up in places like the National
Geographic Traveler, but Ochoa takes in only about twenty groups a year. That’s probably because of the difficulty getting here. The political conflict and the lack of any tourist facilities more elaborate than a lean-to where you can hang your hammock.
On the second day we head out early, trying to beat the heat, for a five-mile hike to the lake. Don Manuel comes along as camp cook, and a guide leads a horse carrying our gear. As we finally enter the jungle shade the sounds shift and soften.
[sounds of soft chirping and humming]
SCHREIBER: The four different indigenous groups that live around the lake have joined forces to create a buffer zone around its shore, and they don’t allow cultivation or cutting there. The lake is gorgeous.
[sound of gently moving water]
SCHREIBER: Miramar is surrounded by mountains and forests. Through the almost florescent turquoise water you can see strange volcanic rock formations. The water is bath-water warm, and once in you want to stay for hours. Motor boats are prohibited, so the only sounds are the wind, the birds, and the voices of the people who live here. Adolfo Jimenez Mendoza has lived in the Selva for thirty years and serves as a guide for the eco-tourism project.
ADOLFO JIMENEZ MENDOZA: [via a translator] Well the truth is, life here in the jungle, it’s spirit. It’s very calm for all our families because here in the jungle there is no contaminated air. It is a good life, a healthy life. The way we live here in the jungle is the way all human beings and families should live, don’t you think?
SCHREIBER: In the afternoon the wind picks up and waves beat the shore. At night the frog concert begins.
[sounds of many frogs and insects]
SCHREIBER: In the middle of the night I wake up to a strange, distant growling sound.
[distant growling sound]
SCHREIBER: It’s the saraquoatos, howler monkeys, calling to one another across the lake. There’s a Mayan legend that when the Creator got angry with humankind he turned them into howler monkeys. From the eerie sound I wonder if the humans trapped inside monkey bodies are howling from loneliness. Early the next day we paddle to Lacamtun Island, known as the site where the original Lacondon Indians held off the Spanish conquistadors for over 100 years after the conquest of Mexico.
[sound of people talking and paddling a canoe]
SCHREIBER: Crossing the lake in a wooden canoe, listening to Adolfo, Dona Manuela, and her children, I realized that the human cultures and languages of the Selva are perhaps as threatened as the plant and animal life here. Nearing the island the trees are draped in Spanish moss and their roots stretch out beneath the clear water. Since the eco-tourism project started, all visitors to the island and its ruins are accompanied by a guide. In the past Adolfo says vandals had damaged and stolen some of the hidden treasures.
JIMENEZ MENDOZA: [via a translator] The community feels this is the work of their ancestors and our children will like to know more about it. And we’d like to have more visitors so they can come and see how our ancestors used to live and work a long time ago.
SCHREIBER: As we explore the ruins, someone spots a saraquoatos. It looks like a small black gorilla hanging by its tail and nibbling leaves.
[sound of people talking and imitating the monkey]
SCHREIBER: At first I’m thrilled. But then something unsettling begins to happen.
[sound of the monkey growling and barking]
SCHREIBER: The monkey retreats, hiding its head in its hands. Don Adolfo is hitting and shaking to get the animal upset so I can record some sound. Everyone
laughs when I protest that we should leave the creature in peace.
[sound of the monkey growling and barking]
SCHREIBER: It seems the idea that eco-tourists might prefer wild animals remain unmolested will take a while to catch on here. As we head back to the camp site, I wonder whether all this beauty and wildness can survive. In its efforts to monitor the movements of the Zapatistas, the Army has plans to build a road to the lake. For now the communities have said no, but without a road it’s difficult to bring tourists or bring agricultural products out. Half of any profits from the project are to go to a health fund for women and children. So far profits have been elusive. There is a health promoter, but he’s still unpaid and there’s rarely money to buy medicines. But Fernando Ochoa believes just a little more development would be too much.
FERNANDO OCHOA: It is one of the best, most beautiful, unique places in the world. Still after these days. Things can change. The day that they put the road to Miramar, then that will be the end of the jungle. It’s very fragile. It cannot hold that much people.
SCHREIBER: My visit raised more questions than it answered. For now you can still go to Miramar, walk down to a crystal clear lake surrounded by rain forest, listen to the saraquoatos sing, and imagine it will last forever.
[distant growling sound of the howler monkeys at night]
SCHREIBER: Since my visit the Army has stepped up its plan to build roads into the area and rebel activity has escalated as well. But the jewel of Laguna Miramar is still open to visitors.
SCHREIBER: For Common Ground, I’m Tatiana Schreiber.
PORTER: Coming up, a conversation with Blair Ruble about Russia’s new leader.
BLAIR RUBLE: What motivates Vladimir Putin seems to me to be the key question that nobody really has been able to answer.
PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Or visit our Web site at
commongroundradio.org. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
MCHUGH: When President Clinton travels to Moscow early next month for a scheduled two-day summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he will come face to face with the man many Russians hope will return their nation to global prominence. But Putin’s strong communist background and quick rise to power have many in the West questioning his motives. Who is Vladimir Putin and what motivates him? Blair Ruble is the Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. He says a closer examination of Vladimir Putin’s life may hold the clues to how he will rule Russia.
RUBLE: Vladimir Putin was a kind of rough-and-tumble street kid in Leningrad. He grew up in a communal apartment, which is an apartment shared by several families. His father was a worker. His grandfather was Stalin’s cook, evidently. And he grew up, he got involved in the martial arts. And while he was in high school he became entranced with the notion of becoming a secret service agent and he volunteered. And the KGB wrote back and said “go to college first.” So he went to the juridical faculty, the law school, at Leningrad State University. And upon graduation in 1975 joined the KGB. There are lots of different versions about what he did in the KGB, but what he has said is that he worked at keeping track of Western spies in Leningrad, until the mid-1980s, ’84-’85 or so, when he was switched to East Germany, and he seemed to have been a kind of medium-level KGB operative there. When the Wall came down he blew up the oven in his kitchen burning documents. He’d packed so many documents in, that the whole thing blew up. He made his way back to Leningrad and went to work as the official in charge of foreign students at Leningrad University, which is a KGB post. He resigned—he may or may not have resigned, depending on the story you hear, from the KGB after the August ’91 coup. And about that time he worked for Anatoly Savchak, who was mayor of what was by then St. Petersburg. And he stayed with Savchak, running his unsuccessful campaign to be reelected. And after Savchak was defeated he moved to Moscow and held a number of positions, including head of the FSB, the former KGB, and prime minister.
MCHUGH: What motivates him?
RUBLE: What motivates Vladimir Putin seems to me to be the key question that nobody really has been able to answer. There’s nothing in his career to suggest that he’s motivated by high ideals; to suggest that he’s given a lot of thought to what it means to run a country. When asked was he disturbed or did he think about the role of the KGB in Soviet history and under Stalin when he enlisted in the KGB, he said he never thought about it at all. Which is strange in a city which had been one of the focal points for repression. It’s unclear what he thinks of and what his goals are. He talks in terms of integrating into the West economically. And a strong, rebuilding a strong Russian state. To a Western mind those may be mutually exclusive goals. And we’ll just have to see what he really has in mind.
MCHUGH: Putin was relatively unknown in the West a year ago. What do you contribute his fast rise?
RUBLE: His fast rise seems to be directly tied to support he was able to get from a group of oligarchs, especially Barazovsky, who controls a lot of press, and his linking of his political ambitions to the military and the secret police. And through manipulation of the press, the endorsement by Yeltsin, all of these things contributed to his fast rise. I think it’s important to remember that if you go back two years now, three years now, the Russians were beginning to say, “Well, there really isn’t anybody who has emerged, who’s a worthy successor to Yeltsin. They’re all bad, including Yeltsin.” And I think a number of observers at that point said that the stage is set for someone to gallop in on a white horse. And Putin turns out to be who that person was.
MCHUGH: How do the Russian people feel about him? Is his popularity due to Yeltsin’s support?
RUBLE: Putin seems to have the majority of Russians believing he will do absolutely everything that the majority of Russians think should happen. The expectations are extraordinarily high. Part of it has to do with the war in Chechnya, which is viewed in popular Russian thought much, in much more positive terms than we think of it in the West. Part of it has to do with the fact that here’s a president who shows up to work every day and can work the entire day. Part of it has to do with statements about a strong hand. Different segments of the Russian population view Putin as being different things. And clearly at some point he’s going to have to become one thing or another. But at this moment he’s very popular.
MCHUGH: He’s not very well known in the West. He’s not very popular in the West. A lot of folks have a very negative view of him. What is the fear?
RUBLE: Well I think the fear has to do with, first off, the KGB background. Secondly, the fact that we don’t know who he is and in that sense he’s uncertain. Third, the ruthlessness with which the war in Chechnya has been carried forward and the willingness to totally ignore Western concerns, gives people here pause. The hope is he’s somebody you can do business with and the quick ratification on the arms control agreements suggests that maybe he is somebody we can do business with in a very narrow way. But he’s not, he’s not particularly pro-Western. He’s a little bit more pro-European, and he’s become big buddies with Prime Minister Blair in England. But we don’t know enough. And when people don’t know enough they get nervous.
MCHUGH: You mentioned the START II treaty. I’m curious, do you think that Putin really pushed very hard for that, for ratification?
RUBLE: I think he had to, yeah. It had been stalled and really wasn’t going anywhere and it seems to be something, it’s his way of sending a signal that we can do business, despite whatever disagreements we have on some issues.
MCHUGH: Does he stand to gain from START III talks?
RUBLE: Potentially, depending on how they went. I think what the START III talks would do would be to set up a mechanism, a process of relations between US
and Russia. And Russians always like process and structure. So in that sense he probably views it as a gain.
MCHUGH: But the discussion about the ABM treaty is certainly a lot stickier.
RUBLE: Oh yes. There are major, significant differences on both sides. Although again, I think Americans are result-oriented, Russians tend to be more process-oriented, and I think the Russians would be comfortable even recognizing the disagreements if there was a process in which those disagreements could be discussed. I think the Russians are probably much less interested in a final, verifiable document than the Americans, and much more interested in, and made less nervous simply by having a process of discussion.
MCHUGH: What is your outlook for the Russian economy in the next five to ten years?
RUBLE: I think there’s an opportunity for a short-term boom, certainly in the next two or three years. Oil prices are up and there is a direct correlation between the price of oil and the state of the Russian economy. And I think we could see a little bit of a turnaround and hopefully that turnaround will begin to change Russian psychology and begin to put the pieces into place to see changes in the political system as well. I think there are danger signals. There are danger signals that Putin has expressed in state domination of the economy only means that reforms will be limited.
MCHUGH: Finally, are you optimistic about US-Russian relations?
RUBLE: I think that the Russians have a psychological need to distance themselves in meaningful ways from American positions at this point. And that will lead to some rocky moments in Russian-American relations. I think at the end of the day, it could well be on issues that matter the most, there will (be) agreement. And part of the signal of the arms control treaty passing so quickly, I think, is to say yes, at the end of the day we can still work on basics. But Russians are feeling as if they have been disrespected by the United States. They’re angry at the United States. There’s a broad sense that the United States brought on a lot of the suffering that’s taken place in Russia. And that anger just doesn’t disappear because you have a new president. And I think it creates a lot of potential unpleasantness. Although the unpleasantness may be more on the surface than deeper in the relationship. But I think we have some tough times ahead.
MCHUGH: That is Blair Ruble. He’s director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. For
Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
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