September 11, 2003 - Macon Telegraph: RPCVs lose ranch in Mexico to Zapatistas

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By Admin1 (admin) on Sunday, September 14, 2003 - 5:34 pm: Edit Post

RPCVs lose ranch in Mexico to Zapatistas





Read and comment on this story from the Macon Telegraph about former Peace Corps volunteers Ellen Jones and Glen Wersch who built an ecologically minded guest ranch called Rancho Esmeralda. They had learned to grow macadamia trees in the Dominican Republic during a two-year stint with the Peace Corps. They thought the nuts would thrive around Ocosingo, with its verdant fields, sapphire skies and morning clouds that shroud nearby peaks.

But macadamia trees take most of a decade to produce nuts. To earn a living on their 26 acres of land, Jones and Wersch built some rustic cabins, complete with outhouses, hoping to attract a few rugged tourists and Rancho Esmeralda - midway between the colonial gem of San Cristobal de las Casas and the Mayan ruins of Palenque - took off. Birdwatchers, backpackers and other tourists came from Mexico, the United States and Europe, paying about $30 a night.

The invasion of Rancho Esmeralda finally came on Feb. 28. About 150 men with machetes took it over, two employees handed over the keys, and no one was hurt.

Development experts say small-scale eco-tourism is a promising business for Chiapas, which boasts lakes, waterfalls, mountains, jungles and Mayan ruins. Last year, however, the Zapatistas criticized eco-tourism in a statement. Its proponents, they said, were "fools trying to change our lives so that we will cease being what we are: indigenous campesinos with our own ideas and culture."

As for Rancho Esmeralda, neighbors have reported that five families from Nuevo Jerusalen are living there. Recently, however, the property appeared deserted. Red, white and green signs proclaimed it Zapatista property. Read the story at:


After guest ranch seized, U.S. couple find no refuge in Mexican law*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.



After guest ranch seized, U.S. couple find no refuge in Mexican law
BY BRENDAN M. CASE
The Dallas Morning News

OCOSINGO, Mexico - (KRT) - Ten years ago, Ellen Jones and Glen Wersch moved to Mexico to seek their fortune. For nine years, they lived a dream come true.

The former Peace Corps volunteers built an ecologically minded guest ranch called Rancho Esmeralda. They drew visitors from all over the world to rustic cabins with no flush toilets.

They plowed their life savings into Chiapas, a captivating but tormented state in southern Mexico. And they lost it all earlier this year to a land invasion by the state's Zapatista rebels.

"We made the mistake of investing too heavily in our business," said Wersch wistfully as he lit a cigarette. "You're supposed to diversify your investments, right? We didn't. We spent everything on the ranch."

The saga of Rancho Esmeralda is a tale of two plucky entrepreneurs whose unlikely success brought them betrayal, despair and a bitter dose of government hypocrisy. It also shows how Mexico, despite an emerging democracy and international commitments such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, can still be a legal no man's land.

"The legal system remains a liability," said Rogelio Ramirez de la O, the director of Ecanal, a Mexico City consulting firm. "There has been some improvement at the top level, at the Supreme Court. But the system is still slow, cumbersome and worrying for investors."

Certainly there are signs that the rule of law is growing stronger. Mexico overhauled countless laws and regulations in the wake of NAFTA.

President Vicente Fox's victory three years ago cemented electoral democracy after 71 years in which a single political party dominated nearly all Mexican institutions, including the judiciary.

"There's a lot more certainty for investors now," said Eduardo Solis, an investment promotion official in the Economy Ministry. "Pretty much all laws have been upgraded."

But enforcing contracts and property rights has challenged everyone from small-time investors to a Texas-based waste disposal company.

And so far, the only certainty for Jones and Wersch is that they've lost everything.

Hailing from Boise, Idaho, the U.S. couple came to Ocosingo in 1993 as pioneers of macadamia nut farming.

They had learned to grow macadamia trees in the Dominican Republic during a two-year stint with the Peace Corps. They thought the nuts would thrive around Ocosingo, with its verdant fields, sapphire skies and morning clouds that shroud nearby peaks.

They also wanted to continue a lifelong love affair with Mexico, after visiting numerous times in a beat-up old school bus.

"You're always a tourist," said Wersch, a lanky, soft-spoken 50-year-old with a graying ponytail and dirt under his fingernails. "We wanted to be part of the community."

But macadamia trees take most of a decade to produce nuts. To earn a living on their 26 acres of land, Jones and Wersch built some rustic cabins, complete with outhouses, hoping to attract a few rugged tourists. Their first guest arrived July 9, 1996.

And Rancho Esmeralda - midway between the colonial gem of San Cristobal de las Casas and the Mayan ruins of Palenque - took off. Birdwatchers, backpackers and other tourists came from Mexico, the United States and Europe, paying about $30 a night.

In 2002, Lonely Planet, a travel guidebook company, ranked Rancho Esmeralda as one of the 10 best places to stay in all of Mexico.

We were doing what we wanted to do," said Jones, 55. "It was the perfect piece of land."

At the same time, however, a spasm of violence and instability was wracking Chiapas. The unrest had its roots in Mexico's long heritage of racism and economic exploitation.

On Jan. 1, 1994, the day NAFTA took effect, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rose up in arms. Wearing black ski masks, the poor, indigenous rebels called for Indian rights after centuries of misery, disease and discrimination.

Subcomandante Marcos, their charismatic, pipe-puffing spokesman, warned that Mexico was forgetting its most vulnerable citizens in its drive to sign NAFTA and join the global economy.

Some 150 people died in two weeks of fighting, including deadly gun battles in Ocosingo. By mid-January, though, the Mexican government called a cease-fire.

In the following years, red-faced government officials poured billions of dollars into roads, schools and health clinics in Chiapas. The Zapatistas, for their part, maintained control over a swath of jungle and several dozen "autonomous communities."

The uprising also sparked a wave of Zapatista land invasions, adding to Chiapas' countless land disputes. Due to high birthrates since the 1960s, the state's population has ballooned - from about 1.6 million in 1970 to about 4 million now - far outstripping the land supply for poor farmers. Corn yields remain low.

Zapatista supporters maintained that they were just taking what was rightfully theirs. For centuries, indigenous people were forced into remote mountain areas by encroaching white and mixed-race settlers who seized the best land.

In Ocosingo, the invasions affected everyone from large landowners to small-time ranchers. Hector Albores, the head of the local ranchers' association, lost a 1,200-acre spread shortly after the 1994 uprising.

A half-dozen land invasions have occurred around Ocosingo this year, he says, after several years of relative calm. The Zapatistas have also unveiled plans for increased self-rule.

"Nobody wants to invest any money here," he said, fretting about further damage to the local economy. "If I put a few hundred cattle on a ranch, who's to say I won't lose them a few months from now?"

It didn't take long for Rancho Esmeralda to come face to face with the Zapatistas. In the mid-1990s, land squatters founded a small settlement near the ranch called Nuevo Jerusalen, or New Jerusalem.

The settlement's relationship with the Zapatista Army is unclear. Numerous villagers recently declined to comment. So did Civil Liaison, a nonprofit group that supports the Zapatistas.

But a large mural of Zapatista fighters adorns Nuevo Jerusalen's tiny grocery store. The hamlet is part of the Zapatistas' January 1 Autonomous Community.

On one side of the village, a sprawling army base sits behind steel fences and coils of razor wire. On the other side lies Rancho Esmeralda.

For years, Jones, Wersch and the local townspeople had maintained cordial relations.

"I once got their power generator working when they were having a party," Wersch said. "I took several women into town to have their babies. They knocked on the door in the middle of the night."

But things changed just before Christmas last year.

Village leaders informed Wersch that the ranch was on their ancestral land, intimating they would take it over on Dec. 31. Wersch replied that Rancho Esmeralda predated Nuevo Jerusalen.

Seeking help, Wersch and Jones launched a flurry of calls and faxes to state and federal officials. The U.S. Embassy advised Americans and other foreigners to leave the ranch.

The invasion failed to materialize. On Jan. 30, however, Nuevo Jerusalen villagers snatched Ernesto Cruz, an indigenous Rancho Esmeralda employee, and allegedly beat him. They returned him with a handwritten letter to Jones and Wersch.

"We don't want you here in this municipality anymore because you took our patrimony," the letter said. "We stopped your employee so you'd see we're not playing around. Next time, it's going to be worse if you don't understand us."

That day, Chiapas Gov. Pablo Salazar was in Europe drumming up foreign investment. He went there with Fox, who spoke before the International Court of Justice in the Netherlands.

"The law is one of the highest manifestations of human civilization," Fox said then.

The invasion of Rancho Esmeralda finally came on Feb. 28. About 150 men with machetes took it over, two employees handed over the keys, and no one was hurt.

That day, Wersch frantically called Emilio Zebadua, the No. 2 state official after Salazar. Zebadua said he was busy hosting an important visitor: Fox, who was in Chiapas to promote legal security for small rural landowners.

"This matter of patrimony, of owning a property, is very important for people," Fox said in a speech that day. "It makes us feel safe to know we have something."

By the time he uttered those words, Jones and Wersch had lost Rancho Esmeralda.

"So much love and care went into everything on that ranch," Jones said. "A few times in March, when we stopped living there, I woke up in the middle of the night and I couldn't find Glen. So I went to look for him, and I found him sobbing on a lawn chair."

One of the employees who gave the Zapatistas the keys to the ranch, Vicente Sanchez, came from Nuevo Jerusalen. His parents kicked him out. He has since joined the army.

Development experts say small-scale eco-tourism is a promising business for Chiapas, which boasts lakes, waterfalls, mountains, jungles and Mayan ruins. Two development bank executives recently visited Wersch, seeking to emulate his success.

Last year, however, the Zapatistas criticized eco-tourism in a statement. Its proponents, they said, were "fools trying to change our lives so that we will cease being what we are: indigenous campesinos with our own ideas and culture."

Subcomandante Marcos said tourism would turn Chiapas into an "amusement park for foreigners."

As for Rancho Esmeralda, neighbors have reported that five families from Nuevo Jerusalen are living there. Recently, however, the property appeared deserted. Red, white and green signs proclaimed it Zapatista property.

Jones and Wersch reckon they invested $500,000 in the ranch. They have spent months negotiating with Chiapas officials to get it back or to receive compensation for it.

State officials have not returned their phone calls since June. Zebadua resigned to run for Congress, winning a seat for the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution in July. Ruben Velasquez, his successor, did not reply to numerous inquiries from The Dallas Morning News.

Jones and Wersch are now $8,000 in debt and trying to make ends meet by running a modest hotel, also called Esmeralda, in Ocosingo.

They're considering whether to seek compensation by suing the state government in court. They might even investigate whether they can sue under NAFTA.

"But doing that would require a war chest," said Wersch. "We're broke. I don't have a lawyer. I'm my lawyer."

---

© 2003, The Dallas Morning News.
February 6, 2003 - 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 February 6, 2003 about 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*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.



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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