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Mexico Urges Squatters To Move

May 3, 2000

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Mexico appealed to squatters in a sensitive jungle reserve on Tuesday to move away from the area, where their slash-and-burn farming has contributed to a rash of brush fires that could create a major environmental disaster.

Human rights groups demanded that the government fight the fires without antagonizing the largely Indian squatters, especially given the reserve’s location in the rebellion-torn southern state of Chiapas.

The current dry season threatens to fan the isolated brush fires at the Montes Azules reserve into the kind of blaze that devastated another reserve, Chimapalas, in 1998.

The Montes Azules _ or ``Blue Mountains″ _ reserve is part of the last remaining patches of the Lacandon rainforest that once covered western Chiapas.

``These fires are intentionally set in most cases, and, added to the deforestation and squatters’ settlements in the Lacandon Jungle, are endangering one of Mexico’s unique ecosystems,″ the environmentalist Group of 100 wrote in a statement.

The Environment Secretariat has requested help from federal police to evict, or relocate, the 17 squatters camps that have sprung up in the reserve. The squatters are mainly Indians, and support runs high in the area for the leftist Zapatista rebels.

The Group of 100 agreed the fires must be fought, but stopped short of calling for the eviction of the squatters. The group warned against making the problem a political issue, and asked that human rights observers accompany firefighters.

``The historical ethnocide (of Indians) cannot justify an `eco-cide’ that would make history, because the first victims of such destruction would be the Indians themselves,″ the group said.

The Interior Ministry, which oversees domestic security, was quick to promise it would not attempt a military-style raid on the camps, or use the problem as a pretext to weaken the rebel movement.

The ministry said in a statement Tuesday it was trying to negotiate with the squatters.

``The negotiations have two goals: to offer better places (for the settlers), and to protect the nature reserve,″ it said.

The Lacandon reserve, which includes rain forest, is located in Chiapas state near the Guatemalan border, near where the Zapatistas staged a brief armed uprising in 1994 to demand greater democracy and Indian rights.

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