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The state of Chiapas is located in the southern part of Mexico, where it has a long coastline on the Pacific Ocean. It borders Guatemala on the east, and the Mexican states of Tabasco to the north, Veracruz to the northwest, and Oaxaca to the west. It has a land area of 28,528 square miles (73,887 square kilometers), which is smaller than South Carolina but resembles in shape. Its population in 2005 was 4,200,000, making it the seventh most populous state in Mexico. Chiapas is located in a tropical area with periods of high rainfall. In the northern area, near Teapa on the border with Tabasco, rainfall has averaged 118 inches (3,000 millimeters) per year. The area was previously dominated by rainforests; however, wide areas have been cut to make way for farming and ranching. The geography of Chiapas in the southwestern area on the Pacific Coast is a lowland area with very fertile soil. The southeastern coastal region of Soconusco is tropical and extensively farmed, with plantation crops of bananas and coffee.
The Altos de Chiapas (Chiapas Highlands) is a high plateau in the central part of Chiapas. It contains seven parallel mountain ranges where the elevations provide a temperate climate, with frequent fogs watering cloud forests. The cloud forest Reserva de la Biosfera el Teiunfo has many horned ugans and quetzals. The rainfall decreases in Chiapas from east to west and south. However, even on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, the rainfall is abundant.
The highlands have steep mountainsides, with a rocky soil that is too thin and poor to support agriculture. The Lacandon rainforest is a jungle area with a soil that, even with modern fertilizers, would be unproductive. The several Mayan tribes have long practiced farming using slash and burn agriculture (swidden). They rotate the areas that are cleared from pristine forests or from older fields, creating a sustainable agriculture. Illegal logging, hunting, and oil exploration are threatening the area’s rich biodiversity.
Notable ecological landmarks in Chiapas include the Lagunas de Montebello, located near Comitan. The Blue Waterfalls (Cascadas de Aqua Azul) are near Palenque, which is one of the most important ruins of the Mayan Indians of pre-Columbian times. Another important site in the Lacondon rain forest is Bonampak, which has the best-known Mayan murals. In 1994 an insurgency began between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas (Zapatista Army of National Liberation). The Zapatistas (EZLN) took their name from Emiliano Zapata (1879–1919), a populous partisan who led a violent land reform movement until he was killed. The Zapatistas have established some autonomous “Zapatista municipalities” in several areas, and claim that the Mexican government neglects its people, especially Mayan Indians. The Zapatistas also point to a history of environmental exploitation and neglect in the region and include a series of sustainable agricultural and conservation issues to the planks of their governance structure in the region.
- George Collier, Fields of the Tzotzil: The Ecological Bases of Tradition in Highland Chiapas (University of Texas Press, 1975);
- Nicholas P. Higgins, Understanding the Chiapas Rebellion: Modernist Visions and the Invisible Indian (University of Texas Press, 2004);
- Karen L. O’Brien, Sacrificing the Forest: Environmental and Social Struggles in Chiapas (Westview Press, 1998).