The Lacandon as biologist

Photo by R JohnstonThe Lacandones have an extensive knowledge of the flora and fauna that surrounds them. This knowledge, however, is mainly present with the older generations in the communities. They do not only have knowledge about the different plants and animals, but also about the relationship between them. For instance, the older generations claim that the chak ak’ (a climbing vine) helps the parrot (ah kacho’) because this bird is the only one who eats his small fruit. On his turn, a parrot helps the climbing vine by spreading its seeds.

Birds are placed into the ch’ich’ (“flying animals”) category. The perdiz (partridge) and the parrot are exceptions. The parrot is placed into a different category because of its special relationship with the chak ak’. The bat  (sek) is also placed into a different category.

There are also plants and animals that do not have relationships with each other. Among the animals these are the jaguar, armadillo, the mule deer, the chachalaca (curassow species) and the toucan. Of the plants these are the mahogany, the cedar, ceiba, amate, the xate and the chapay palms and waterplants.

Eating of large seeds is harmful for a plant, because these seeds need to be chewed. Eating small seeds can be good for a plant because they will be spread over a larger area.

The older generations are convinced that the activities of animals do not have a harmful effect on the natural environment; they are only doing the things the creation god created them for.

The older generations also believe in a balanced relation between human and nature (as long as the Lacandones conduct proper behaviour), the younger generations, however, do not see such a relationship. They consider humans and nature as two different entities. As two independent entities animals as well as humans can cause each other harm but they can help each other as well. Young Lacandones are also concerned about the influence of the humans on the rainforest.

Although the Tzeltal neighbours call the younger Lacandon generation the people of the forest (k’axil winik) as well, it is clear that their knowledge of the rainforest is much more limited than that of the older generations. For instance, the younger Lacandones recognize fewer relationships between plants and animals then the older Lacandones do.

The main cause must be sought in the disappearing of the rainforest. More surface of the rainforest is disappearing, which causes a decrease in biodiversity. It is unnecessary for the younger generations to obtain knowledge about plants and animals that do not live in the direct environment anymore.

For instance, in contrast to the older generations, no young Lacandon has ever seen a jaguar in its natural habitat. Because of the increasing population of the Lacandon forest, it is even becoming rare to come across a spider monkey, peccary or white tailed deer. Another reason why younger Lacandones have less interest in knowledge about the rainforest and agriculture is because they support themselves through the production of souvenirs.

The older Lacandones were raised in a household that was separated from other households. Because the Mexican government stimulated the Lacandones in the 1970’s to live in one of the three communities, the younger generations have stronger social bonds with each other. But while the bond between humans became stronger, the bond with nature weakened.