Without question, the single most pressing environmental issue in Chiapas —and indeed Mexico as a whole—is deforestation. All of the state’s major forest areas show significant human intrusion. Many historically forested areas, including the long narrow Pacific plain, have been utterly denuded of trees to make room for cattle grazing and large-scale agricultural production, from mangos to sesame seeds.
The Lacandón jungle—the last large expanse of virgin tropical forest in North America—has been reduced by 50 percent since 1960. Cutting and trimming trees for heating and cooking also accounts for significant and sustained losses, especially in rural highland areas where the average family is estimated to use around 12 kilograms (26 lbs) of firewood every day.
Deforestation is of particular concern in Chiapas, which is one of the world’s richest biodiversity zones. Accounting for the rate of habitat loss as well as the amount of biodiversity contained there, Mexico is considered by many observers to be among the top 15 most environmentally threatened places in the world. Scientists also believe the devastating flooding in Tabasco in 2007—at the height of which an incredible 80 percent of the state’s surface area was under water—was significantly worsened by clear-cutting along the Río Usumacinta, which forms the Mexico-Guatemala border and drains into Tabasco basin and the Gulf of Mexico.
Traditional methods of controlling deforestation—say, declaring areas off-limits to most or all cutting—are complicated by Mexico’s unique history of land use, including a constitutional commitment to provide all farmers with land to cultivate. Under that system, much of Chiapas’s remaining forest is currently owned or controlled by ejidos, communal landowning entities that historically have exercised considerable autonomy and are often reluctant to accept restrictions on how their land is used. Some have created ecotourism projects as a way of earning money on lands without destroying them, but slash-and-burn methods are still widespread.
Pollution is another environmental issue facing Chiapas , particularly pollution of the state’s many waterways, both above- and belowground. Chiapas boasts extensive wetlands along the Pacific coast, much of it abutting the state’s most productive agricultural lands. Pesticides and fertilizers used by farmers occasionally leach into adjacent wetlands, damaging fragile ecosystems.
Capturing exotic or endangered animals for sale as pets or food is another concern. Toucans, macaws, quetzals, monkeys, and sea turtles are all protected by Mexican law, but remain favorite targets of poachers.