SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS -- A hundred yards from the Pan-American Highway, just a few miles south of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Lucia Pérez Díaz lives with her husband and six children in a small house made of rough wooden boards and lined with plastic to keep the mountain chill at bay.
In the neighborhood, officially part of the larger Maria Auxiliadora neighborhood, but called the Colonia del Artículo by those who live there, corn stalks rustle in the woodsmoke scented breeze, baby chicks peep and men work at a small cinder block operation nearby. The Colonia is small, there are only 15 homes in the neighborhood.
Recently, the appearance of the neighborhood has changed. Today a high, bright green fence runs along the back perimeter of Díaz’s lot, hiding her dirt patio, chicken coop and humble home from the families that picnic and splash in paddleboats at the new Wetlands Park, El Parque de los Humedales, next door. The park is part of a new government project which aims to conserve 86 acres of wetland while promoting tourism and environmental education.
The Wetlands Park centers around an elegant timber-framed conference center and café with expansive windows that look out across an artificial lake, home to an endangered native fish species called the Popoyote. Visitors may rent small boats to use on the pond and picnic at pavilions on the water’s edge. Former Chiapas Governor Pablo Salazar proudly cited the park as one of his administration’s greatest accomplishments upon leaving office in December 2006.
But, the new park has thrust Díaz and her neighbors into uncertainty and conflict. The city government maintained that the families living here have invaded city-owned land and must leave their homes, so that the parcel can be protected and further developed for public use. City officials said that Mario Jiménez, 64, the man who claims to own the land, lied to Díaz and her neighbors and sold them land that never belonged to him.
Though the families hold bills of sale for the land and pay taxes, officials maintain that their paperwork is invalid and that the land belongs to the government. “The families will have to vacate [the land] sooner or later,” says the city’s legal counsel, Javier Antonio Rodríguez. He added that the government has no obligation to help them find other homes or to ensure that Jiménez refunds their money.
But Jiménez claims that former Governor Manuel Velasco Suárez, who died in 2001, gave him the land in 1979 to thank him for his years of service as a ranch manager, and holds notarized documents signed by Suárez and his wife that name him as the owner of the property.
City officials question the legitimacy of Jiménez’s documents, and Alejandro Bermúdez, head of Public Works, says that Jiménez and the families he sold land to are “invaders.” Bermúdez says that his primary motive for creating the park was to protect the fragile wetland from people like Jiménez who squat on unused lots.