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Mexico: Environmentalist Speaks About Saving Forests in His Homeland

by Colleen VallesSan Francisco Chronicle
March 11th, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Environmentalism in Mexico has a dim future unless young people are taught to be more aware of their world, according to Rodolfo Montiel, an environmentalist from the country who was released from prison late last year.

"I actually see (the future) rather poorly. From what I know, there's not a large scale of activism," he told The Associated Press on Monday. "We need to change our culture and way of life and look for ways to raise our young people in a culture that has a greater awareness of the environment."

Montiel spoke in San Francisco on Monday while on his way to Washington, D.C., where he plans to talk with environmentalists and human rights groups about alleged human rights abuses in Mexico.

Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera were convicted on weapons and drug charges in 1999. They and their supporters say they were framed because of their efforts to stem what they see as excessive logging in the old-growth fir forests of Guerrero state. Montiel and Cabrera say they were tortured by the soldiers who arrested them.

Montiel's visit is to raise awareness and gain support from environmental and human rights groups in the United States, and he plans to encourage them to write letters to the Mexican government "so we have a guarantee of freedom of expression, and in this way, we can defend our forests and our human rights," he said.

Now is an especially important time for citizens to be concerned about their environment because President Vicente Fox has said he plans to launch a national crusade to stop exploitation of the forests of Mexico, Montiel said.

"I would ask him to carry that out," he said. "We who have been persecuted, detained, tortured and imprisoned because we were defending our forests, haven't seen the promises he's made inside and outside of Mexico completed. We want people to see what he's said and hasn't done."

Montiel's and Cabrera's imprisonment made them a cause celebre among environmentalists, and Montiel was awarded the Goldman Prize from the San Francisco-based Goldman Environmental Foundation while in jail. Amnesty International considered them prisoners of conscience.

Fox ordered the two freed in November on medical grounds after consulting with legal experts and receiving many petitions from national and international human rights groups. Cabrera had cataracts and Montiel had intestinal tumors.

Their release came less than a month after an attorney who had worked on their case, Digna Ochoa, was shot dead in her Mexico City law office after receiving death threats.

Montiel said he lives in fear for his life, and could not return to his previous home because of threats. Although he and Cabrera were released, their convictions were not overturned.

Montiel is a peasant farmer from Guerrero, where most residents live on what they produce on their small farms.

But when the rivers and streams that fed Montiel's and his neighbors' land began to dry up, he saw his way of life go with it.

Montiel believed it was the loggers, who were taking truckload after truckload of the old-growth fir trees out of the forest, who were responsible for the damage. So he organized -- getting fellow farmers and their families to form human chains to block logging roads.

The protesters had threatened to burn trucks and their shipments of flawless old pine and fir destined to be turned into moldings and kitchen cabinets for U.S. houses.

Mexico's forests have shrunk to a quarter of the size they were before the Spanish came. The country has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, losing about 1.5 percent of its forests and jungles -- about 1.7 million acres every year.

But local governments say the revenue logging brings in is tough to turn down, and add that logging helps expose crops that drug traffickers grow on public land.

Communal farm groups, often Indians, control 80 percent of Mexico's wooded areas and they frequently suffer tree poaching from neighboring communities or local political bosses.





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