February 6, 2003 - Washington Post: Threats Force Dominican Republic RPCVs Len Wersch and Ellen Jones to Flee Ranch in Mexico

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Threats Force Dominican Republic RPCVs Len Wersch and Ellen Jones to Flee Ranch in Mexico

Read and comment on this story from The Washington Post on Dominican Republic RPCVs len Wersch and Ellen Jones who are being forced out of Rancho Esmeralda by Zapatistas in Mexico. The conflict is part of the rebels' battle against foreign investment and eco-tourism, the small-scale, environmentally friendly operations that were supposed to help save the jungles where the Zapatistas have their last redoubts. "We don't want any American tourists. ... We don't want any tourists at all," said Gabriel, a black-clad Zapatista guarding a roadblock near the ranch who gave only his first name. "We don't want strangers coming around." Over the last two weeks, Zapatista sympathizers have detained and threatened a group of French and Canadian kayakers on a jungle river, blocked access to Rancho Esmeralda, the U.S.-owned ranch and guesthouse, and allegedly kidnapped and beat a ranch employee. Those who suffer the most from this ideologically fueled battle may not be the tourists, but the Mexicans who depend on tourism for their livelihood. Read the story at:

Threats Force Americans To Flee Ranch in Mexico*

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Threats Force Americans To Flee Ranch in Mexico

Zapatistas Say Foreigners Are Exploiting Land

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 6, 2003; Page A32

NUEVO JERUSALEN, Mexico -- The handwritten letter delivered to an American landowner here made the position of the local residents perfectly clear: It's a good idea if you start leaving the ranch.

Glen Wersch, a former Peace Corps volunteer from Idaho who bought his ranch in 1993 and turned it into a macadamia nut and flower farm as well as a popular tourist lodge, now sadly agrees.

"I don't know when we're leaving, but we're leaving. It's deteriorated too far," Wersch said yesterday, acknowledging that his life's dream was evaporating because one of his employees had been beaten and more violence was threatened if he did not leave.

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City had advised Wersch, 49, and his wife, Ellen Jones, 55, to leave for their own safety. Last Friday the State Department issued a travel advisory for Chiapas, the enchantingly beautiful but tormented state in southern Mexico where Nuevo Jerusalen lies, 55 miles east of the colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas. Wersch calls his valley the Garden of Eden. He picked it, he said, "because of its perfect climate for growing. It's Hawaii without the ocean."

But that perfect climate turned tense in recent weeks. Protests by farmers wielding machetes broke out against President Vicente Fox's huge development plan for the region. Shootouts erupted that left seven dead. And now Wersch and Jones are being forced off their land by Chiapas's Zapatista Indians, who are upset at what they consider exploitation of their ancestral lands.

The Fox government has been reluctant to use force against disruptive or even violent protests, fearing a heavy hand could trigger more bloodshed. Fox is loath to appear like past presidents, who turned guns on anti-government activists. But his nonconfrontational approach has emboldened protesters, especially since last July, when farmers blocked the nation's biggest development project, a multibillion-dollar international airport outside Mexico City.

As a result, the might of the machete appears to be rising, along with a growing sense of lawlessness.

Wersch's 26-acre ranch, normally host to 300 tourists a month, is now empty because of the trouble. Sitting in a gazebo, Wersch said in an interview Sunday that soldiers did nothing when 20 men dragged one of his employees out of a taxi Friday, took him to the town school and beat him. He said he was outraged that Gov. Pablo Salazar's top aides told him they would provide safe passage for him to leave. They should be sending the police to protect him, he said, not to get rid of him.

"The use of force would not help Mr. Wersch or Chiapas," said Emilio Zebadua, the Chiapas interior secretary and the highest-ranking state official after the governor. He spoke in a telephone interview after flying by helicopter to meet with Wersch. He said he was hoping to find a negotiated solution, perhaps compensating them for their land. He said the ranch might be turned into a community center.

"We feel as a government we have to keep the peace in an area of Zapatistas," Zebadua said. He said he understood Wersch's frustration, but that the government would do more harm than good by sending in police and further inflaming the situation in this complex region.

Nuevo Jerusalen is an autonomous area inhabited by Indians. The federal government agreed to allow the creation of such regions after the Zapatistas' bloody uprising in 1994. In an effort to foster peace talks, the government has made efforts to keep police and soldiers out of the autonomous areas.

Zebadua said foreign investors, as well as tourists, should feel welcome in Chiapas. But economic analysts said this case is sending an ominous signal to foreign investors. Wersch and Jones are being forced to abandon a ranch that they said is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Following the beating of his employee, Ernesto Cruz Kanter, 20, Wersch closed the hotel last weekend. The British, Dutch, German and Canadian embassies had called their citizens who were staying there and advised them to leave.

Wersch said he had hoped to continue living at the ranch and selling his nuts, coffee and flowers. But yesterday he said that no longer seemed possible: "It's very sad; everyone is crying here."

At the edge of Wersch's neatly manicured property, called Rancho Esmeralda and listed in the Lonely Planet guide as one of the best places to stay in Mexico, the people of Nuevo Jerusalen struggle to get by.

Dirt paths link the wooden, one-room homes of 200 families. Hammocks are about the only furniture. Most of the children, and there are many, wear no shoes. Some chew on sugar cane and uncooked ears of corn from the fields. The ability to read and write is rare and there is no electricity.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army came out of the jungle just west of here on Jan. 1, 1994, firing squarely at the government in the name of indigenous rights. Since then, Zapatista supporters have taken over hundreds of properties, including the land here. They say they are righting historical injustices done to Mexico's indigenous people, its poorest.

"He is on our territory," said one man in Nuevo Jerusalen, who identified himself as Rey Manuel. "His ranch brings people from other countries. People are apprehensive that foreigners are going to buy up this land and ruin it."

According to conversations with the Mayan people here, who speak Tzeltal, Wersch is "selling their patrimony," harming their property and treating them with disrespect. For one thing, the ranch serves alcohol, in violation of their community laws.

Fernando Gomez, a father of 10, said he views Wersch's operation -- like the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and Fox's regional development plan, Plan Puebla-Panama -- as a slap against the poor.

Plan Puebla-Panama envisions new highways and railways linking southern Mexico to Central America all the way to Panama. It aims to open up export markets for the goods produced here, draw investment and create badly needed jobs.

But many in Chiapas say it will destroy their culture and their land.

Gomez recently joined 20,000 others, many wielding machetes, to protest Plan Puebla-Panama in San Cristobal. Tens of thousands of farmers, some from Chiapas, blocked major boulevards in the capital last week protesting a trade pact derided by some as a way to boost rich American farmers and bury poor Mexican ones.

"These foreign tourists don't benefit us," Gomez said. "They help the rich get richer. We are better off without them."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Dominican Republic; COS - Mexico; Special Interests - Tourism; Special Interests - Eco-tourism



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