By
Fabiola Benavente
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29 September, 2011

Fabiola Benavente
Fabiola Benavente
After spending five years in the hustle and bustle of Mexico City, I now yearn for the simple things: nature, traditions, green spaces, fresh air, space for reflection, and experiences where I can feel connected with nature and the world.

I recently found all of this during a visit to the Lacandon people, the remaining 800 or so descendants of the ancient Mayans. They call themselves Hach Winik which means in Maya ‘the real people’.

K'in, one of the Lacandona hosts
K'in, one of the Lacandona hosts
My visit took place in the Selva Lacandona in the Mexican state of Chiapas, part of a large region once dominated by the Mayans. Since the 16th century, the Lacandon have survived by living deep in the rainforest. Many had no contact with the rest of the world until the 20th century. Today the Lacandon Maya remain an ancient and quite intact dream culture, primarily found in three villages called Naja, Lacanja Chansayab and Metzobok.

A soul-stirring, life-changing and healing journey where I was never closer to my roots...
Before I share some of my learnings, let me tell you a bit more about the Lacandon.

Lacandon children
Lacandon children
They live in the middle of the Lacandon Jungle, an area of rainforest stretching from Chiapas in Mexico into Guatemala and the southern part of the Yucatán Peninsula. One of of the most biodiverse rainforests in the world, with as much as 25% of Mexico's total species, including jaguars, it also has a number of important Mayan archeological sites such as Palenque, Bonampak and others that remain partially or fully unexcavated. The Jungle is thick and getting lost is not uncommon – but still fun as long as you know what a howler monkey is!

Staying with a family in Lacanja Chansayab village was a great chance to live into their way of life. I didn't anticipate how touched I would be by this encounter. Kin, Kayom, Justita Don Enrique, to name a few, are now part of my family of friends.

Development vs depletion of nature...
Driving to the village through rural Chiapas I felt sad and powerless to see the massive deforestation around the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. Much of the destruction has occurred through slash and burn farming, which creates soil erosion, as well as through logging and strip-mining. By the first decade of the 21st Century, about two thirds of the Lacandon jungle outside the main Biosphere Reserve had been converted into pasture or crops. Of what remains, about five per cent is lost each year despite conservation efforts, and damage continues inside the Reserve. The Lacandon consider themselves guardians of the jungle. I kept wondering what makes us think we are nature’s master.

A peaceful community, a sustainable dream...
As soon as the Lacandon welcomed us, I found an almost instant sense of calm and healing. I was astonished. This area has been a source of political tension between different indigenous groups trying to farm the land. The Lacandon Maya are the original indigenous of the area and have legal title to most of the land. They do everything possible to avoid tensions and build peace, because all they want is for the jungle to remain intact. This is why they don't farm the land. They do not eat meat and only eat fish that comes from their fish farms. Their dream is that their children and future generations can enjoy and take care of the jungle as much as they have.

A life without gadgets...
In an age where most of us find it hard to disconnect from any sort of electronic communications, the Lacandon taught me a huge lesson. One is present living a real, simple life with real, simple people. Although there was an internet cafe in Lacanja, mainly used by visitors, there are no books or gadgets in the Lacandon homes. Instead, there are rivers to swim in, trees to climb, insects to observe in the thick forest around, fresh air and water, food for everyone.

Lacandon, jaguars and trust...
When it comes to survival, being in the middle of the thick jungle and faced with the prospect of encountering a jaguar, you have find a way to trust your guide! At first I asked everyone I could find – even the kids – what they would do if they found a jaguar in the middle of the jungle. ‘You stay quiet, do not move, stay in a single position even if the jaguar is there for hours.’ How on earth was I going to be able to do that? I went to bed quite nervous that night.

But less than 12 hours after our arrival we were hiking in the lush forest and I was struck how immediately I trusted our Lacandon guide. Their sincere gestures and the real sense of being fully present with no hidden agenda is like a fast track into a trusting experience. I learned to appreciate the way they speak, the way they care for their community, the jungle and others. Genuine care was the reason why I trusted our Lacandon guide. And I wasn't lucky enough to encounter the legendary jaguar!

Reflection and greater appreciation for what is at stake...

Golondrina waterfall
Golondrina waterfall
With the Lacandon guiding us and sharing their experience of sustainable living, this was a perfect escape for reconnecting to what’s truly important. We spent time swimming in the Golondrina waterfall, learning about water and what it means. To the Lacandon, it is life. I was fascinated to see how they care for it and keep it clean. These people have lived interdependently with the jungle for thousands of years, and their wisdom is an invaluable resource for any organizations and people concerned with the environment and particularly with the loss of this irreplaceable treasure.

My time with the Lacandon people left me with a new understanding of what is at stake but also what is possible for the human family. It gave me a greater appreciation of the power of joining ancient and modern wisdom, and a belief that all people on this planet have a critical stake in the wellbeing of the rainforest, whether we live according to ancestral traditions or those of the modern world.

The Lacandon are working hard to take care of what remains. They remain hopeful and committed to the survival of the piece of rainforest that has been entrusted to them. After leaving, they wrote sharing the following:

‘We have a big problem. We are self-destructing. We are increasingly more people in the world and we demand more things, many of them superficial, which unfortunately are destructive to nature: a profane life of luxury, people who have nothing to eat, cleared forests, extinct species ... But there is hope, and as part of it I am sending the list of people and the number of hectares that we will reforest in Lacanjá. In total we are 10 people with desire to reforest to a total of 21 hectares'.

Click here for a short video interview (in Spanish) with one of the Lacandon people.

Fabiola Benavente comes from Chiapas, Mexico. She is a member of the International Council of Initiatives of Change with a focus on fund raising and is also active with the local IofC team in Mexico. In her spare time Fabiola is helping start up a social enterprise that engages people, organizations and companies in large scale reforestation, particularly working with the Lacandon community.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.

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