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‘We will extinguish the magic of Bacalar’
Mayan journalist urges international effort to conserve Lagoon of Seven Colors
By Tracy L. Barnett Posted in Indigenous Peoples, Mexico, Water on April 6, 2018
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Pedro Canché with his son, Pedro Jacob, on a rare vacation (Tracy L. Barnett)

Now that the Bacalar Lagoon weighs a development model some liken to “the New Cancun,” a plan that would condemn it to the loss of its famous seven colors, its stromatolites and everything that makes it a truly magical place, it seemed to us it would be important to consult with an expert from the region who has a different perspective: a descendant of the native peoples of the area.

Pedro Canché, Mayan investigative journalist and founder of the online newspaper Pedro Canché Noticias, says that the imminent destruction of the lagoon is closely linked to the expulsion of the original inhabitants from the place and the importation of workers from other regions, who lacked a connection with the lagoon and an appreciation for its intrinsic value.

Canché also talks about corruption as a problematic force that is accelerating the process of inadequate development in the area. Canché, imprisoned for nine months for his reports criticizing then-governor Roberto Borge, knows what he is talking about. Borge was arrested on June 5, 2017, in Panama on corruption charges, and on Jan. 4, 2018, he was extradited to Mexico, where he remains in jail awaiting trial. Canché became a cause celebre, supported by international organizations.

We met in February while he enjoyed a brief vacation with his wife Perla and their new son Pedro Jacob (named after a collaborating Australian journalist, but that’s another story). He shared a historical perspective and some important context to help us understand the current situation in Bacalar.

This interview is the second in a series: Voices of Bacalar.

Tracy: Can you tell us a little about the history of the region?

Pedro: The Mayans have the vision of taking care of the jungle, of taking care of nature. I can hunt a deer, I can clear a field to plant corn. But afterwards, I let the earth rest, I thank God. If I cut the tree I ask for forgiveness. And then the Mayan people, what they do is let the land rest and they go to another place.

Now, the cattle ranch enters Quintana Roo and we ended up with ranchland everywhere. But what they are doing now is planting crops for biodiesel, then they come to buy a lot of land, also soybean, African palm. They have proposed a project, they have not gotten approval yet, but there are projects where they want to put 7,000 hectares of African palm, devastating 7,000 hectares of forest that has been preserved in Bacalar municipality.

But Bacalar has its fragility in the lagoon, this lagoon where the Mayans were protected against the pirates, in the accesses, I don’t know if you have seen the posts that are planted there to divide the lagoons. The Mayans put them there to prevent the pirates from passing through. Later it was taken over by the mestizos and the Spaniards.

Tourists cluster around the entrance to the Pirates’ Canal, where a businessman once started to build a bar in the middle of the water that was later declared illegal. (Tracy L. Barnett)

The problem with Bacalar is that it was given to peasants who were not originally from there. The peasants of Bacalar are not Mayans; they come from Veracruz, from Chiapas, from the north of the country. When (Mexican President) Lázaro Cárdenas made the redistribution (agrarian reform), and then other presidents followed through, they said to certain people, “You didn’t get land here, but there is land in Quintana Roo. Go live in there; we need to inhabit Quintana Roo.”

They were afraid that Belizeans and Mayans could grow and that the Yucatan would become independent from Mexico. They were afraid that the Maya would create their own republic; because there was the proposal of the British crown to expand Belize to the Mayan zone, towards Bacalar. In 1890, (Mexican president) Porfirio Diaz sees that vision and says, “We are going to create the border with Belize,” and then they put the Hondo River as the border.

The Hondo River is one of the water currents that flows into Bacalar; it is one of those that connects through the lagoons. It passes through Xul-Ha (a town on the lagoon south of Bacalar), and there are water currents that arrive there and nourish the lagoon. The issue is that these ejidatarios[1], when they brought them in 1930-1940, they shared the land.

Until now, what has the ejido shown us? In Cancun, for example, the ejidatarios sold their lands and are millionaires. The most millionaire ejidatarios are in Tulum, Cancun, Alfredo Bonfil, Playa del Carmen and now in Holbox, where the developers are trying to enter. There is a lawsuit there, the ejidos were divided into four, and some sold, others had their land taken from them illegally … the owner of Coca Cola created his own ejido. He took titles from many people and has his own ejido, he owns Coca Cola, he is a millionaire, but he is an ejidatario. He has never touched the land; he listed his workers as ejidatarios.

In Bacalar the same thing will happen because it is a zone of ambition, it is an area where Man covets the lagoon. Holbox is already being spent, there is no Playa del Carmen, there is no Cozumel, there is no Isla Mujeres, everything has been sold. Before there was enough for everyone, there were extensive beaches. Right now it is very expensive, and the problem is that they are looking at Bacalar: Bacalar is near Chetumal, Chetumal has an airport, it is close to Belize, it is strategic and it is on the road. So there is no more infrastructure needed to develop other than to build hotels, then the rich, the very rich, the super millionaires of the country or abroad, come to buy land from the ejidatarios. They offer 5 million, or 20 million, so they become millionaires and sell their land.

So how does this affect the lagoon? Just as there is corruption in this country, this is condemning the fragile lagoon with corruption, with hotel development … there are people who now want to build over-the-water cabins in the lagoon, who want to create a network of hotels, but Bacalar cannot support it; the impact would be too much.

Bacalar is a wetland, it is a giant mangrove, and the problem is that these men come to buy. Now in Bacalar there is a lawsuit by the ejidatarios for lands, some are selling, others are fighting; some are just being taken away — the biggest fish is coming to take it away. But the lagoon is not like Petén, Guatemala, which has a huge lake, with a lot of water. Bacalar is not like that; the lagoon is smaller, narrow, shallow.

Tourism can be developed; tourism is not at odds with nature. The land is part of our house; just as the Mayan lives with the jungle, lives with the animals, so Bacalar can coexist with tourism. But the ambition comes, and they have a plot of land, and instead of doing ten, twenty cabins, they want to put buildings with 400 rooms, and what will happen is that all that sewage will end up in the lagoon — then it will not be seven colors, it will be black, and it will end.

There are interesting things in Bacalar; it has stayed far from Cancun, far from Playa del Carmen; that’s why it’s beautiful. But they’ve already been looking at it, and they’ve seen that there is money there.

Sailboat crosses the edge of the Cenote Negro, a sinkhole where the water is much deeper and hence a darker color. (Tracy L. Barnett)

Tracy: Do you think it will be possible to save it?

Pedro: What the government can do here is to expropriate it and declare it a reservation, but the local people will not want to and will fight. What can happen then is that perhaps the World Bank or other international organizations can buy it at a good price from the farmers and leave it for a reserve. Or that the government itself pays their land, or that people from other countries with ecological conscience come to buy the reserves, that they buy many hectares but do not touch them, leave them for a reserve.

Tracy: Can you talk a little more about the Mayan history of Bacalar?

Pedro: Bacalar came to be a bastion. It was occupied by the pirates; they took it as a resting place. They came to get fresh water, they came to rest, to repair their boats, and they entered through the canal. There a Spanish colony was founded in 1544 and developed until 1700-1800, but when the Mayans waged war against the Spaniards (the Caste War, 1847-1901), they started to burn the haciendas, because they were against the slavery. The Maya has always been free, and then suddenly they were forced to work; so they rebelled, and they burned many cities in the Yucatan, in Quintana Roo, cities like Bacalar, which was a fort; then the Mayans got there and killed the people, they made a massacre. They finished off the Spaniards and seized the city, and from there they began to resist, to make war against the Spaniards, against the Mexicans. And there was a road from Carrillo Puerto to Bacalar, where the carts passed by or the people walking, which goes all the way to Belize. Bacalar was the rest stop, and from there they went to Belize.

Tracy: Carrillo Puerto was the capital of the resistance during the war, and the arms came from Belize to there, right?

Pedro: They would buy the weapons and go to the Mayan zone. They were in Bacalar as a Mayan military camp and in Carrillo Puerto as the main camp, these Mayas were behind those in the Yucatan – because in Yucatan the Mayans were already going to win the war, they had arrived in Mérida — but the rainy season arrived and it was time to sow. Their subsistence was corn, and nothing else; so they had to leave the war and return to sow their fields. And that was when the Yucatecan government and the Mexican government reorganized and they began to defeat the Mayans, who had already conquered the cities, then they began to decimate the Mayans and that is when they started selling them to Cuba. They sold about 5,000 Mayas.

The rebellious Mayans either died in the war or they were sold, and since it was a good price, they sometimes grabbed the Mayas who were not rebellious. Others simply took refuge in the jungle at Chan Santa Cruz, now Carrillo Puerto.

When the government of Porfirio Diaz sent soldiers to fight the Yucatecans, the Mayas trapped the Spanish and mestizo soldiers. If they were caught and they were architects, they put them to work. That is why in Carrillo Puerto the church was made by Spanish slaves; for the first time there were white slaves in Carrillo Puerto. The house of culture and the museum of Carrillo Puerto have the façade of haciendas, because the Spanish built them, the first block of the city of Carrillo Puerto was like that.

When the Maya fought and resisted from Bacalar and Carrillo Puerto, resisted against these generals, the first thing that fell was Bacalar, because they began to close the arms route from Belize. And in the end Porfirio Díaz sent Othón Pompeyo Blanco to Chetumal, that municipality next to Belize, and they founded the city of Chetumal, named for the city of Chactemal that belonged to the Mayans. Many of these Mayans went to Belize. You go to Belize and see the Mayans speaking English; they are the same Yucatecan Mayas from Carrillo Puerto. The Mayans were the same from Honduras.

So the history of Bacalar constitutes a pirate fort that later the Mayans turned into an arms supply center, and from Carrillo Puerto they began to resist. From 1851 to 1901, for 50 years, the Mayans dominated the region, until Porfirio Díaz commanded the troops and the Mayans left Carrillo Puerto and took refuge in about eighty villages in the jungle. Bacalar was abandoned; some peaceful Mayans remained there, but most of the Mayans were scattered, and others went to Belize. The supply of weapons was cut off; Mexico agreed with Belize not to sell arms to the Mayans, and there they lost the war.

Pedro Canché, left, with the team of the Esperanza Project – Tracy Barnett, Angélica Almazán and Jake (Jacob) Ling – at a recent journalism seminar in Cancún. 

Tracy: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Pedro: I’d like to make a call for Bacalar to be cared for. Here the sad thing is that Bacalar is more cared for by people from the outside. The people who live there do not take care of it. They are used to the beauty and do not appreciate it. It still does not have a lot of development; we still have time to save Bacalar. But if not I think that we are going to extinguish that rainbow of Bacalar, we are going to put out that magic, and when the magic goes out, our children go out, the human being is extinguished. It is time to do our part, but we must fight for it to be declared a World Heritage Site.

The bad thing is that there are no Mayas fighting for this. The ejidatarios are people from Veracruz, from other parts, who do not have an ancestral connection with that place or with Mother Earth.

This interview is the second in a series: Voices of Bacalar.

Angelica Almazan and Jake (Jacob) Ling collaborated with this story.

[1]In the Mexican system of land ownership, an ejido is an area of communal land used for agriculture, established in the agrarian land reforms of the 1930s in an attempt to address the widespread landlessness and poverty that led to the Mexican Revolution. Community members or ejidatarios individually farm designated parcels and collectively maintain communal holdings.

Bacalar Caste War Lagoon of Seven Colors Maya Pedro Canché pirates sustainable development tourism Voices of Bacalar Yucatan

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