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"Connecting the World" Series
The History of Mexico
A BRIEF HISTORY OF MEXICO
Mexico as a nation was born in the year 1821, when the Mexican people officially declared independence from Spain. However the geographic area that encompasses Mexico and Mesoamerica has been populated for thousands of years.
The evolution of hunter-gatherer societies to large organized agricultural societies gave rise to some of the great ancient civilizations of the Americas, including the Olmec, Toltec, Zapotec, Maya, and Aztec cultures. With the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas, this region was forever changed, as the New World clashed and melded with the Old World.
Geographers define Mesoamerica as a geographic area that extends from north-central Mexico south to northern Honduras. This region is home to a huge diversity of flora and fauna, and the early habitants of Mesoamerica made full use of this abundance of foods and raw materials to develop advanced societies. Remarkably, the greatest civilizations of Mesoamerica developed without the use of metal or the wheel.
The first evidence of early agricultural settlements in Mexico can be dated to around 1800 BC. This date begins what archaeologists call the pre-Classic or Formative Period, which ends in the year 200 AD. The Olmec culture, which was founded in the states of Tabasco and Veracruz, best represents this era.
This mysterious civilization left impressive archaeological remains including giant stone carvings of heads. These giant sculptures were thought to have been transported over 80 kilometers through the jungle from ancient stone quarries. Additionally, many of the tombs found at archaeological sites in this area contain objects including precious stones. Archaeologists feel that this fact seems to indicate that these early cultures believed in some form of afterlife.
By about 400 BC, the Olmec civilization began to dissolve as other cities and cultures were evolving. The dissolution of Olmec culture is still largely a mystery. However, it is clear that the influence of Olmec civilization had begun to spread to other parts of Mexico, as many other ancient cities, including Monte Albán in the state of Oaxaca, demonstrate architectural influences from Olmec cities.
The great city of Teotihuacán is the first architectural example of the civilizations of the Classic Period, which lasted from 200 AD to 800 AD. You can still see the impressive pyramids and other structures of Teotihuacán, which are located in central Mexico, just outside of Mexico City.
The archaeological evidence found in this site reveals a highly advanced society with multiple social classes, including soldiers and priests. The ruling classes were thought to be a religious elite that held power over the masses through their knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, and the cycles of the earth. While the city began to decline around 600 AD, Teotihuacán had already had a great influence on the other cultures of Mesoamerica, including the Maya.
The Maya culture of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, also reached its peak during the Classic period. The great Maya cities of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, such as Chichén Itzá and Tulum rose during this time. The Maya culture is known for a vast knowledge of astronomy, a detailed written language, the use of mathematics, and an elaborate Maya calendar. Maya artisans also created beautiful works of sculpture and jewelry, among other forms of art. The Maya eventually founded over 38 major cities throughout Mesoamerica.
By the 8th and 9th centuries the Maya began to abandon their great cities and returned to living in small groups. The reasons for the decline of Maya civilization are still in debate. However, it is thought that an over-exploitation of natural resources helped contribute to the Maya downfall.
In the 16th century, the Maya were largely able to resist the influence of the Spanish Conquest, and Maya culture remains strong today. Many dialects of Mayan are still spoken in the states of Chiapas, and throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, and many Maya still practice their traditional religion.
During the Classic Period the Zapotec culture, largely found in the state of Oaxaca, also flourished. The most famous Zapotec site is Monte Albán. The Post-Classic Period began around 800 AD and ended with the arrival of the Spanish in 1521. During this time, the Aztecs (also known as the Mexicas) founded the Aztec Empire, which was still present when the Spanish first began their conquest of the Americas. The Toltecs were also an important group at this time, and their invasion probably contributed to the decline of Teotihuacán.
It is thought that during this period the hunter-gatherer tribes of northern Mexico began a steady migration to central Mexico, taking advantage of the declining civilizations of the Classic Period to settle and found their own great cities. The Aztecs are considered one of these groups that settled in the valley of Mexico. It is thought that the Aztecs lived for many years as a roving band of warriors, founding small cities throughout the region before creating the great cities of central Mexico. Around the year 1340, the Aztecs settled this area to create the great city of Tenochtitlán. The city eventually grew to a population of over 500,000 people, making it one of the largest cities of the world at that time.
A popular legend about the Aztecs states that after years of wandering, a group of Aztecs saw an eagle atop a cactus eating a serpent in a large lake in the current Valley of Mexico. This image was said to prophesize the location of where they would found their great city. This representation of the eagle, cactus and snake is very important in modern Mexico, and can be seen on the Mexican National Flag.
THE SPANISH CONQUEST AND COLONIAL MEXICO
By the 16th century, many European nations were beginning to send out expeditions to explore the rest of the world. These explorations eventually turned into a great conquest and exploitation of indigenous peoples throughout the world.
The seeds of the Spanish Conquest were sown as Francisco Hernández de Córdoba first explored the Americas. By 1519, Conquistador Hernán Cortés had arrived. Two years later, the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlán had fallen to the Spanish and the Conquest was well under way.
Historians are still debating the reasons for the fall of Tenochtitlán and the defeat of the great civilizations of Mexico to the Spanish. However, many scholars believe that the indigenous populations fell victim to new diseases that Europeans brought to the continent. These diseases, including smallpox, decimated the Aztecs. Additionally, the Spanish had created alliances with many tribes that had been subjugated by the Aztecs. These tribes were eager to align themselves with the Spanish to gain power in the region.
The theory that the Aztec emperor Moctezuma dropped his defenses and welcomed Cortés as the reincarnation of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl is now largely thought to be a myth perpetuated by Spanish historians of that time. Some historians feel that the Spanish often misinterpreted much of the dialogue with the Aztecs before war broke out. Regardless, scholars believe that the Aztecs did initially welcome the Spanish into their city, which gave them a definite advantage.
Montezuma was eventually captured and killed by the Spanish. Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, took power and organized a final attempt to resist the Spanish. In 1521 as the Aztec empire fell, the Spanish captured Cuauhtémoc and ordered him to be tortured and killed. Today, Mexicans honor him as a hero of the indigenous resistance to Spanish conquest.
Other indigenous populations of Mexico resisted the Spanish for well over 200 years, but ultimately Spain dominated most of the region. The Spanish eventually settled a huge area including the northern limits of California, and south to what is now the Tierra del Fuego region of Argentina.
The colonial period in Mexico lasted from 1521 to 1810. During this time, native and Spanish cultures began to blend and meld, created a race of mestizos. Today, the majority of Mexicans are a mix of European and native peoples. The culture of Mexico is also largely mestizo, with the foods, traditions, and language of Mexico being unique in the Americas.
Dozens of native cultures were able to resist domination by the Spanish and still survive today. Despite over 500 years of the influence of Spanish culture, Mexico retains many of its traditional cultures. Over 60 native languages are still actively spoken, and many of the names of cities, rivers, etc. have names based on indigenous languages.
THE FIGHT FOR MEXICAN INDEPENDENCE
Almost 300 years after the fall of the Aztec Empire, an independence movement began to rise among the ranks of Mexicans seeking freedom and self-determination. They found a voice in Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest from the state of Guanajuato. Father Hidalgo’s companion was Ignacio Allende, an officer in the Mexican army.
When the French invaded Spain in 1808, many of the Latin American colonies resisted integration into Bonaparte’s rule, and created further discontent among Mexicans. Inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution, Hidalgo and Allende began to plot and scheme. They soon involved magistrate Miguel Domínguez and his wife Josefa Ortíz de Domínguez in various meetings to discuss their plans.
Unfortunately, before they had time to fully organize the independence movement, their conspiracy was discovered, and they were forced into action. From his church in the city of Dolores in the state of Guanajuato, Hidalgo gave his famous “Grito de Independecia” (Cry for Independence), and quickly organized a ragtag group of soldiers to march towards the capital.
The beginnings of the War for Independence were bloody, with heavy losses on both sides. Eventually, Hidalgo and many of the early leaders of the independence movement were captured and killed by the Spanish loyalists. José María Morelos, a priest, took up the fight, which turned into a kind of guerilla war.
Meanwhile, the Spanish were still attempting to expel the French who struggled to occupy the country. This helped to weaken Spain’s control on their territories. By 1813, Morelos was able to gain control of almost all of the Mexican territory. The battles continued, however, and Morelos was killed in 1815.
Vicente Guerrero and Agustin de Iturbide soon became the new representatives of the independence movement. As Spain began to initiate a series of liberal reforms, Iturbide and other members of the independence movement drafted the Iguala Plan, a formal declaration of independence, to present to the Spanish government. In 1821, the Spanish formerly granted Mexico independence.
FURTHER STRUGGLES AND THE REFORM MOVEMENT
With independence, Mexico entered a new but equally turbulent era in its history. In 1822 Agustin Iturbide, who was an instrumental force in the independence movement declared himself emperor of Mexico. His rule did no last long and in 1823 he was captured and executed. Meanwhile, the power of the Catholic Church was on the rise, and the church maintained control of a large amount of land and wealth within the country.
General Santa Ana followed Iturbide as president of Mexico. Shortly thereafter, Spain, attempting once again to gain control of the territory, invaded Mexico and quickly lost. To the north in what would become the United States, the Mexican territory of Texas declared independence in 1836. Santa Ana quickly sent troops to once again gain control of Texas but was captured in the Battle of San Jacinto. To save himself from execution, Santa Ana signed the Treaty of Velasco, which gave Texas independence.
By 1845, Texas was annexed by the United States government. This gave rise to disputes over the official border between the two countries and the United States actually began to build army forts near the Rio Grande. The Mexican army responded by attacking a U.S. fort.
The U.S. government used this attack to justify what some consider a blatant attempt at territorial expansion and declared war on Mexico on May 13th, 1846. This is the beginning of what’s often called the Mexican-American War. After several battles in northern Mexico, the U.S. army eventually reached Mexico City. After Mexico City fell to the United States, Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which officially ended the war.
For Mexico, the cost the war was high, as Mexico agreed to give up almost half of its territory in exchange for 15,000,000 $U.S. At this time, the United States gained the territories of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Parts of Colorado and Utah were also Mexican territories before the war. Mexico gave up even more territory when Santa Ana signed the Gadsen Purchase in 1854.
With Santa Ana in exile by 1855, many Mexicans felt a great sense of discontent with their new homeland. In its few years as a nation, Mexico had seen much chaos, and defeat by its northern neighbor. Moreover, while the oppression of Spain had been lifted, the Catholic Church maintained an economic stranglehold on much of the country.
In 1855, a fledgling Liberal Movement began to take shape, headed by a Zapotec indigenous leader and highly educated lawyer by the name of Benito Juárez. The Liberal Movement helped to begin what is known as La Reform, or the Reform Movement. The goals of this movement were to reduce the power of the Catholic Church and to create a more equal society. In 1857, Juárez was declared President.
Mexican Conservatives, resisting the new Reform Laws, quickly sought the assistance of the European nations that were owed money by the Mexico government. Using this debt as an excuse to mount an invasion, the French, along with the British and Spanish, sent troops to occupy the port city of Veracruz. When the British and Spanish troops left, French troops moved on to attack Mexico City. The French suffered a major defeat in the city of Puebla on the 5th of May, 1862. El Cinco de Mayo is now a major holiday in Mexico.
With the help of the Mexican Conservatives, the French succeeded in installing Maximillian of Hapsburg as “Emperor of Mexico.” Despite the desires of the French and the Conservatives, Maximillian retained many of the liberal laws begun by Juárez. Back in France, Napoleon the III began to worry about the effectiveness of his chosen leader. Moreover, Juárez once again was gaining power and threatened the French with an invasion. In 1867, Maximillian was captured and executed in the city of Queretaro. Benito Juárez once again took power of Mexico, and remained president until his death in 1872.
THE PORFIRIO DICTATORSHIP AND THE MEXICAN REVOLUTION
When Benito Juárez died in 1872, Vice President Lerdo de Tejada took over his office. In 1876 Tejada was overthrown by Porfirio Díaz, once a friend of Benito Juárez and appointed himself President in November of this same year. His rule did not end until 1911.
In 1910, Díaz imprisoned his main opponent for the presidency, Francisco Madero. This proved to be the last straw for many Mexicans, who had been planning a revolution throughout the years of the Porfirio dictatorship. Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Pascual Orozco lead revolutionary groups in various parts of the country. By October of 1911, the Mexican Revolution was well under way and Madero quickly took over the presidency for the exiled Díaz.
Madero was overthrown and executed in 1913. The leader of the Mexican army, General Victoriano Huerta took over and attempted to restore many of ways of the Porfirio regime. Revolutionaries Villa, Zapata, Venustiano Carranza, among others led the effort to remove Huerta from power.
Carranza came to power as president of Mexico in 1915, and helped to draft a new liberal constitution in 1917. Unfortunately, violence and unrest continued throughout the country. As the revolution eventually began to subside, the 1920s and 30s saw the rise of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI), which took control of the Mexican government. By the early 1930s much of the violence of the Revolution had subsided, and a new peace and stability began to take shape.
One of the great achievements of the Mexican Revolution was the dissolution of the Hacienda System. Under this system wealthy landowners of Spanish decent controlled a large plot of agriculture lands (haciendas) worked by poor peasants who received virtually nothing for their labor. Further land reform was instigated during Carranza’s presidency, including the ejido system, which created commonly managed agriculture lands for the rural poor.
POST-REVOLUTIONARY AND MODERN MEXICO
While Mexico after the Revolution enjoyed relative levels of stability, there were still many changes to take place. In 1934, President Lázaro Cárdenas from the PRI was elected. This was the beginning of a 71 year one-party rule in Mexico, characterized by peace, but wide scale political corruption.
While Mexico enjoyed peace and certain prosperity during the early post-Revolutionary years, government corruption was all too apparent. Widespread discontent during this time led to the social movements of the 1960s, including a large student movement in Mexico City. The government, concerned about these uprisings, tried to subdue a student demonstration, which resulted in the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968.
Mexico also experienced several economic crises later in the 20th century. The most severe crises were in 1976 and 1982, when the peso devaluated to extreme levels. Furthermore, a massive earthquake devastated large parts of Mexico City in 1985, causing further economic problems and civil unrest. In 1994, Mexico signed, along with Canada and the United States, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). There is still on-going debate on whether NAFTA has helped or hurt Mexico since it was enacted.
The PRI maintained power throughout the 1990s. However, dissatisfaction was growing within the poorest sectors of the country, especially in the southern states of Chiapas and Guerrero. In 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional or EZLN), lead by the mysterious Subcommandante Marcos, took control of several areas of the state of Chiapas and demanded social change.
The Mexican government responded with a heavy hand, killing many poor and unarmed peasants who were supporters of the Zapatistas’ cause. The Zapatistas eventually retreated into the jungle and began negotiations with the Mexican government. Thanks to the internet and other media sources, the Zapatistas gained immediate sympathy with a variety of international organizations, and the Mexican government was forced to hold off further suppression of the Zapatista movement.
Meanwhile, the right-wing Partido de Acción Nacional (National Action Party or PAN) began to win favor with many Mexicans tired of a one-party system, and in July 2 of the year 2000, Vicente Fox Quesada was elected president of Mexico, ending seven decades of rule by the PRI. President Fox made his career in the business world, and was once a powerful executive of Coca-cola in Mexico.
Now, much of the hope seen with Fox’s election has faded, as the Congress, still controlled by the PRI, has stifled many of his attempts at reform. With elections for a new president underway for 2006, Mexico faces new challenges. Increasing environmental degradation, new problems with gangs in urban areas, especially in Mexico City and in the border cities of Juárez and Tijuana plague modern Mexico. Meanwhile, the Zapatistas still strive for indigenous rights, and other political parties, such as the Party of Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolucion Democratica or PRD), fight for increased levels of democracy in this country still struggling for peace and prosperity.
1800 BC. The first evidence of early agricultural settlements in Mexico.
1800 BC to 200 AD. The pre-Classic or Formative Period.
400 BC. The Olmec civilization begins to dissolve.
200 AD to 800 AD. The Classic Period.
1340. The Aztecs settle the great city of Tenochtitlán.
1519. Conquistador Hernán Cortés arrives in Mexico.
800 AD to 1521 AD. The Post-Classic Period.
1521. Tenochtitlán falls to the Spanish.
1521 to 1810. The colonial period in Mexico.
1810. September 15th, the Grito de Independencia (Shout of Independence) is delivered by Father Hidalgo
1815. José María Morelos, one of the leaders of the Independence movement, is killed.
1821. The Spanish formerly grant Mexico independence.
1822. Agustin Iturbide declares himself emperor of Mexico.
May 13th, 1846. The beginning of the Mexican-American War.
1848. Mexico signs the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ends the Mexican-American War.
1857. Benito Juárez is declared President.
In 1867. Emperor Maximillian is captured and executed in the city of Queretaro. Benito Juárez once again takes power of Mexico.
1872. Benito Juarez dies.
1911. The Mexican Revolution begins.
1913. President Francisco Madero is overthrown and executed.
1917. Mexico adopts a new liberal constitution.
1934. President Lázaro Cárdenas from the PRI is elected.
1968. The Tlatelolco student massacre.
1985. A massive earthquake devastates large areas of Mexico City.
1994. Mexico signs, along with Canada and the United States, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
1994. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) takes control of San Cristobal de las Casas.
2000, July 2. Vicente Fox Quesada is elected president of Mexico.
2005. Mexico suffers from major hurricanes.
July 2006. Mexico elects a new president
Mexico can be a very volatile country, politically, economically and socially. The effects of Mexico’s long and often difficult history still ripple through Mexican society. For example, the EZLN, or New Zapatista movement, is a product of the on-going struggle between the Mestizo and Indigenous populations of Mexico that began with the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. Please see the chapter on Mexican history for more details on the EZLN rebellion.
The rebellion in Chiapas involved almost exclusively the poor, indigenous groups of the region. The EZLN began their movement on the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into being, January 1st, 1994. At this time, the EZLN army took over several small towns, including the popular tourist town of San Cristobal de Las Casas.
The timing of their attack sent a clear message to the world that the policies of NAFTA and the governments of Mexico and the United States were harming the poorest sectors of Mexico, especially indigenous communities. Unfortunately, the Mexican government’s reply to the Zapatista uprising was harsh, and many innocent people were killed.
After the initial attacks, international observers traveled by the thousands to Mexico to support the Zapatista movement, which helped secure the safety of the Zapatista rebels. The message of the Zapatistas was also spread largely through the internet.
After the rebellion began, the Zapatistas mostly returned to their villages in the jungles and mountains of Chiapas, where they were better protected. However, torture and civil rights abuses still occur in these areas again Zapatista communities, mostly under the pretext that the government is fighting the war of drugs.
In addition to protesting NAFTA, the Zapatistas have worked to secure a kind of Declaration of Indigenous Rights for the dozens of indigenous groups of Mexico. While there were some signs of hope that the administration of President Fox would work with the Zapatistas and help secure indigenous rights, the Zapatistas have been rewarded with only a rudimentary set of laws. Meanwhile, the struggle for indigenous rights continues, as in many countries in the world.
Although there were many more protests against NAFTA, Canada, Mexico and the United States have worked for over a decade with this economic policy. NAFTA has paved the way for increased privatization in Mexico. In the 1990’s more and more entrepreneurs have been gaining ground in Mexico, and many foreign companies have invaded Mexico to take advantage of the cheap labor. These companies often locate in the border and in some of the largest and poorest cities of Mexico. In addition to exploiting cheap labor, they also take advantage of the lack of strict environmental controls in Mexico. Many of these companies do not pay benefits.
In the late 1990’s the organization Human Rights Watch found that the Mexican government turned its head to violations of its own labor laws in many maquiladoras. Human Rights Watch especially criticized the practices of obligating woman to undergo pregnancy tests before being hired. Under the policies of many of these companies, women found to be pregnant were not hired.
Additionally, in the border city of Juarez, in the state of Chihuahua, over 400 women and girls have been murdered since 1993. Many of the murders remain a mystery, and 70 women remain missing. This is a city with high levels of poverty and maquiladoras. Thankfully, Amnesty International and other organizations are putting pressure on the Mexican government to investigate and put a stop these violent crimes that target exclusively women.
NAFTA has also had a negative effect on many of the children of Mexico, as thousands of families removed their children from schools and sent them to work. The Mexican government has made attempts to put an end to this practice and to encourage children to remain in school. The Oportunidades program has had somewhat of a positive effect in keeping children in school. However, many adolescents and young adults still have little opportunities of employment and little hope to make a living for themselves and for their families. This fact contributes to the high level of illegal migration to the United States.
Although President Fox had pledged to help reduce the number of Mexicans immigrating illegally to the United States through increased economic development, the level of illegal immigration continues to rise. This fact is undoubtedly due to poverty and the lack economic opportunities in the country, and because many North American businesspeople are willing to pay lower wages to immigrants, even if it is an illegal practice.
While the issue of illegal immigration is constantly debated by the U.S. and Mexican governments, it will continue to be a fact of life. Many Mexican families rely on the remittances sent home from relatives living in the United States, and the U.S. economy continues to exploit the cheap labor to keep costs low.
Many areas in Mexico have experienced increased crime in recent years, mostly due to the presence of narcotics traffickers who have extensive organizations of production and distribution throughout the country. Cities like Juarez, Mexico City and Tijuana are often the headquarters for large crime syndicates (known as cartels). Thomas Constantine, director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, recently expressed his concerns to a congressional committee: "These sophisticated drug syndicate groups from Mexico have eclipsed organized crime groups from Colombia as the premier law enforcement threat facing the United States today."
While the Mexican and U.S. governments fight to stop this problem, as long as there is high demand for illegal drugs such as cocaine in other countries of the world, organized crime related to drug trafficking will remain an issue.
In addition to the social and economic difficulties that the country faces, much of the Mexican territory lies within areas of high seismic and volcanic activity, making daily life a risky endeavor for many Mexicans. The highest levels of seismic activity can be found in central and southern Mexico, an area where three tectonic plates converge.
In 1985, over 4,000 people in Mexico City were killed by a devastating earthquake that was recorded as an 8.1 on the Richter scale. The national tragedy is still present on the minds of many Mexicans today. Thankfully, government officials in Mexico City have take steps to plan for future earthquakes and to make the city safer. While no large earthquakes have struck the city since 1985, it is always a possibility.
Much of the eastern coast of Mexico is situated in an area prone to hurricanes. 2005 was particularly devastating for Mexico, as well as much of the United States. In 2005 several hurricanes swept through the Gulf Coast of Mexico, causing extensive damage and flooding in some of the poorest regions of the country, including the Yucatan Peninsula, and the states of Oaxaca, Veracruz and Chiapas.
The Mexican government quickly began efforts to restore the battered city of Cancun, which receives high levels of tourism. However, many Mexicans and international organizations have criticized President Fox for not putting in the same amount of effort to help the poorest communities that were struck by the hurricanes.
The environment is a big topic of conversation throughout Mexico these days. As Mexico has such a large diversity of animal and plant life, the Mexican people feel a great responsibility in protecting their natural resources. Unfortunately, this is a challenging endeavor as environmental laws are typically not as strict in Mexico as they are in other countries, and many people rely on the exploitation of natural resources to survive economically. Additionally, international companies often take advantage of the cheap labor and looser environmental laws in Mexico and contribute to the problem. And even though environmental laws do exist, they are rarely enforced.
Additionally, Mexico faces other issues that affect the environment. For example, there is often a lack of infrastructure and hazardous waste disposal facilities to deal with contamination. This fact has caused serious issues with water contamination throughout the country. Additionally, there are limited water treatment plants to deal with this problem.
One of the other major environmental problems that Mexico suffers is high rates of deforestation. This fact is due both to small scale farming practices (slash and burn) and to the harvest of wood by national and international companies. Forests are the respiratory system of the planet, and are home to a large diversity of species on the planet. Mexico is rich in forests, and especially in pine species.
In 1998, Mexico’s forests suffered a devastating blow, when forest fires swept through large tracts of forest in southern Mexico and Guatemala. The forest fires occurred during a particularly dry period, probably caused by the effects of El Niño. El Niño is a natural phenomenon in which sea temperatures rise in the Pacific and change world climate patterns for short periods of time. The fires in this region burned over 6,000 square kilometers of forest in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca. The forest fires were most likely caused when fires set by farmers clearing their land went out of control.
When forests burn, not only do we lose important wildlife habitat, the land is further susceptible to problems such as landslides and erosion. In 1999 and 2000, this area suffered from extreme flooding and mudslides. The heavy rains and hurricanes of 2005 also caused major problems with flooding and landslides. Unfortunately, these forests will require years of healing before they return.
Many of Mexico’s environmental problems are strongly tied to the social and political situation in Mexico. While the government has put into place stricter environmental laws in recent years, there is still virtually no enforcement of these laws. Additionally, poverty and a growing population constantly put pressure on the environment. As few economic opportunities exist in many areas of Mexico, people have turned to the exploitation of natural resources to eek out a living.
While the Mexican government struggles with these issues without results, many Mexicans are resorting to grass roots efforts to protect the environment and to make a living. This is especially notable in the tourism sector, with small Ecotourism projects popping up throughout the country.
An example is theRed de Ecoturismo Comunitario de Los Tuxtlas (RECT) (The Community Ecotourism Network of Los Tuxtlas). This community-based ecotourism project is located near the Laguna de Catemaco in the state of Veracruz and is run by a group of “campesinos” (traditional peasant farmers). These farmers and fishermen have formed an innovative and successful ecotourism organization.
The Mexican state of Veracruz is known for delicious coffee, fragrant vanilla orchids, exotic archaeological sites, and outstanding beauty. Some areas of Veracruz are also exceptionally poor and struggling to stay alive. The Laguna de Catemaco falls within the boundaries of the Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve. This area is home to one of the northernmost patches of jungle in North America, which has a very high biodiversity.
With the encouragement of governmental and non-governmental organizations, the members of several communities began to recognize the value of their natural resources and the natural beauty of their region. They then decided to enter into the tourism business and to let Mexican and international tourists visit and experience the jungle from a unique perspective.
The four communities that currently form the organization take visitors on guided tours of archaeological sites, waterfalls, hidden beaches, and other natural attractions. They also include a strong cultural component in their tours, with explanations of the traditional uses of many of the plants found in the jungle. As this tourism project is run by rural communities who devote much of their time to farming and fishing, the visitors also experience what life is truly like for rural Mexicans.
These grass roots efforts show the true hope for Mexico and reflect the love the Mexican people have for their land and culture. Although the country struggles with many issues, the Mexican people continue to fight to make their country a better place.
Browse through our Mexican Information Pages for:
Resources to learn more about Mexico:
Recipes from an Aztec Garden
A Collection of Classic and Traditional Recipes from Mexico!
Festival of Mexico Folk Arts
Mexican folk art information, Mexican toys and games including loteria cards, Mexican culture and folk art buying tips, Folk art from
Chiapas, Oaxaca, Huichol folk art, and more!
Mexican Culture for Kids
A resource for teachers, students, and anyone interested in Mexico.
Flor y Canto
This website is an exploration of Mexican culture written by a Mexican woman and her American husband.
Ecotourism and responsible travel in Mexico and around the world.
Madam Mayo's Blog
M. Mayo is a writer, poet, and translator. Her blog has lots of great information about Mexican culture and travel.