- Hopelchén is today one of the leading soybean producers in the country. Occupying that place has had a very high cost for biodiversity. In 20 years, this municipality in Campeche lost at least 153,809 hectares (380,070 acres) of tree cover, representing three times the area of Cozumel island.
- The expansion of soybeans in that region has gone hand in hand with processes of leasing and privatization of lands that were previously communal lands under collective ownership and government subsidies that benefit, above all, large producers.
- In the last seven years, the environmental authorities have not authorized any change in the use of forestland in Hopelchén. Clearing continues and has intensified in recent years, according to satellite images.
Looking from above, the Nuevo Progreso Mennonite camp is a patch of brown hues that spreads irregularly on a green carpet. You can only see uniform crops that seem to go on and on at ground level. It isn’t easy to imagine that in that homogeneous landscape, there was, 35 years ago, a jungle.
In the north, south and center of Hopelchén — a municipality 94 kilometers (58 miles) from the capital of Campeche, in the Yucatán Peninsula — the most recent satellite images available on the Google Earth platform show the same scenario: the loss of tropical forest, known as the Maya jungle, and how vast fields of cultivation take its place. According to the images, this pattern worsened in 2000 and accelerated after 2004.
In Hopelchén, the tropical forest is being lost at a dizzying rate to give way to a model of industrial agriculture, which has several protagonists: Mennonite colonies, ejidatarios (common land residents) who have sold or leased their land, agro-industrial companies installed in the city of Mérida, Yucatán and, especially, the policies and subsidies that have encouraged soybean planting.
Before 2004, Hopelchén did not grow soybeans or, at least, their presence was so sparse that it was not even noticeable. That year, the legume native to East Asia was introduced into the municipality’s agricultural fields that had been opened since the 1980s and where hybrid maize was already cultivated. The data from the statistical yearbook of agricultural production of the Agricultural and Fisheries Information Service (SIAP) show that the 220 hectares (544 acres) where soybeans were planted did not represent even 1% of the 37,090 ha (91,651 acres) of land that were worked that year in that region in Campeche.
What came next was unusual. In just 17 years, the soybean area planted in this Maya territory grew more than 22,000 times. Hopelchén was ranked, with 49,870 ha (123,231 acres), as the municipality with the highest soybean production nationwide in 2021.
This expansion occurred in places already used for other crops but also in lands with forest cover, where there used to be a jungle.
“What worries me the most is that if this continues like this, at the rate it is going, 20 years from now, there will be no forest here on the peninsula,” says one of the beekeepers who was born in one of the Maya communities of Hopelchén and has witnessed how the territory has been transformed.
An analysis carried out by Global Forest Watch (GFW) and the World Resources Institute (WRI)-Mexico, shared with Mongabay Latam for this journalistic work, shows that from 2001-21, the municipality of Hopelchén lost at least 153,809 ha (380,070 acres) of tree cover, an area that represents three times the size of Cozumel, one of the country’s largest islands.
Edward Allan Ellis, from the Center for Tropical Research at University of Veracruz, who has been monitoring the deforestation process in the Yucatan Peninsula for more than a decade, places 2005 as the moment when the loss of forests in Campeche skyrocketed; that was the second year that soybeans were planted in Hopelchén, covering 2,315 ha (5,720 acres) of land, more than 11 times the area it had occupied in 2004.
Government subsidies to promote soybean planting, the stability in the prices paid for the legumes, and the proximity of Hopelchén to the grain and oilseeds industrial zone, located in Mérida, Yucatán, have been elements that influenced the expansion of soy in this municipality. This has been documented in scientific publications by Flavia Echánove Huacuja, a researcher at the Institute of Geography of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
The Santa Fe Mennonite camp, north of Hopelchén, is another area gaining ground in the jungle. Mennonites began to settle on that site in the 1980s, says a farmer and beekeeper from the community of San Juan Bautista Sahcabchén, a neighbor of the settlement.
Where the Santa Fe Mennonite camp is located today, recalls the beekeeper, species such as the dzidzilché (Gymnopodium floribundum Rolfe) used to grow, a tree highly appreciated by beekeepers for the high quality of honey produced from the nectar of its flowers. There were also kitinchés (Caesalpinia gaumeri), jabines (Piscidia piscipula) and tzalames (Lysiloma latisiliquum). Today, only a row of kibixes survives — a shrub whose flowers are also pollinated by bees —behind which lie rice fields, another monoculture promoted in Hopelchén in recent years. The beekeeper explains that in other seasons soybeans were planted on these lands.
The clearing of this area also scared away the animals that lived there.
“There were wild turkeys, wild pigs, deer; in the aguada — accumulations of water that form in natural depressions during the rainy season — there were about four or five large crocodiles, but when those Menones [as some residents call the Mennonites] arrived to bury the aguadas and everything, well, the animals left, they were losing their habitat,” says the 67-year-old beekeeper. The diversity of trees also allowed apiaries to be installed there. That, too, was lost.
The beekeeper recalls that past sitting in the shade of a tree in the center of the community. A few meters away, a colorful mural with the image of a bee recalls the importance of this insect in Hopelchén, which is the second municipality to produce honey in Campeche, according to the “National Atlas of Bees and Beekeeping Derivatives” of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
In addition to financially supporting some 1,500 beekeeping families in Hopelchén, the bee is also part of the Maya identity and a symbol of the struggle to defend the territory: “We worked a few areas like this, but they [the Mennonites] began to arrive and began to destroy a large number of hectares,” recalls the beekeeper. “Imagine how much forest was destroyed, how much fauna was driven away, how many aguadas were lost.”
The Mennonites, a religious group of European origin that forges its existence around agriculture, arrived in Mexico in the 1920s with the support of President Álvaro Obregón. At that time, they settled in Chihuahua, in the north of the country.
Decades later, the lack of water and the search for new land for agriculture led them to migrate south. Starting in the 80s, they began to settle in Hopelchén. There they received all the facilities from the municipal and state governments to gain territory, even though this would further open the door to the loss of the Maya jungle that was already lived in the place due to cattle ranching and the promotion of mechanized agriculture.
The Mennonites live outside the Maya communities in spaces known as campos that usually adjoin traditional towns or communal land. The limit between one room and another is recognized when the deforested ground is followed by an area covered with trees. In recent years, conflicts have worsened between Mennonites, ejidatarios — including Maya — who rent or have sold their land for agro-industrial crops, and beekeepers or small producers who seek to conserve the forest. The tension in the area is even noticeable when people from the communities, such as the beekeeper from San Juan Bautista Sahcabchén, asks not to be identified in the interviews to avoid reprisals.
Clearing that continues unpunished
Removing vegetation from a forest area to give that land another use cannot be done at will. A permit from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) is required. The dependency can grant this authorization on an exceptional basis as long as it is demonstrated that the biodiversity of the affected ecosystems will be maintained and that impacts such as soil erosion, water reduction or deterioration of its quality will be mitigated. This is stated in the General Law of Sustainable Forestry Development.
The law also indicates that in lands where the loss of forest cover has been caused by clearing, felling or fire, SEMARNAT can only authorize land use changes after a 20-year lapse and the regeneration of forest vegetation has been accredited.
Article 418 of the Federal Penal Code specifies that anyone who clears, destroys natural vegetation, cuts down trees or changes the use of forest land without SEMARNAT’s authorization “will be sentenced to between six months and nine years in prison and for the equivalent of 100-3,000 days fine.” That represents 12,000-370,000 pesos ($696-21,466). In Hopelchén, these provisions have been ignored.
From 2015 to February 2022, the SEMARNAT authorities did not authorize changes in the use of forest land in the municipality of Hopelchén, according to responses to requests for information.
In the same period, a land use change was only requested on forest land to transform it into agricultural land in Hopelchén. The Xmabén ejido was the one that submitted the request in 2020. The authorization was denied. Even so, the loss of forest cover is progressing relentlessly on the lands of the ejido, according to satellite images.
In the same period, from 2015 to February 2022, the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), the agency in charge of monitoring compliance with the environmental law, opened 69 procedures (administrative actions) for the possible change in land use—forestry in Hopelchén. The municipality of Campeche was where most operations were carried out, according to responses to requests for information.
“There is illegal deforestation every day. There is this omission on the part of the competent authorities to punish those engaging in this illegal activity,” firmly says a beekeeper sitting on the porch of her house.
The woman, who talks about how the jungle is being lost, is a Chenes Maya Communities Collective member. This organization has been working to defend Maya territory for just over a decade. The trigger for her fight was an unusual and massive death of bees that occurred in 2010.
They investigated why hundreds of bees were found dead and discovered that large volumes of pesticides were used in the large Mennonite agricultural fields. The intensive use of agrochemicals was related, in turn, to the popularity gained by soybeans — the majority of which are transgenic and marketed by the transnational company Monsanto— as a more profitable crop than hybrid corn. This caused the clearing of the forest to expand the production area. And all this was encouraged by the government itself.
Discovering what was behind the massive death of bees was like pulling a loose thread that ends up fraying a garment, as it revealed a chain of problems occurring in the municipality. At the center of everything was once again the expansion of agribusiness.
Opening the way to the clearing
In Hopelchén, a factor that has favored deforestation is the change in land ownership since it has allowed both Mennonites and large agro-industrial producers — among them, some Maya— to acquire ejido land through purchase or lease. Common-use land with forest cover has even been divided up and sold, even though it is prohibited by agrarian law.
The only possible legal transaction on ejido land is for the ejidatarios to establish land leases or usufruct contracts. Thus, since the mid-1990s, agreements have been frequent between some ejidatarios and agro-industrial producers, especially Mennonites, but also some Maya and business people from other states.
The social scientist, Gabriela Torres-Mazuera, author of several investigations on this topic, has documented that land rent intensified from 2010. One reason was the boost in soybean cultivation, which in that year was already expanding to 7,469 ha (18,456 acres) of Hopelchén.
An exceptional case occurred with the common land of Xmabén, south of Hopelchén: one-sixth of its 36,808-hectare (90,955-acre) surface area ended up in the hands of Mennonites.
According to Torres-Mazuera’s research, at the end of 1990, a group of Mennonites negotiated with the ejidatarios of Xmabén to buy them 5,656 ha (13,976 acres), some 3,500 of which were jungle. In 1999 the negotiation was finalized: 21 Mennonites were recognized as residents of the ejido, when they were not, and almost immediately as ejidatarios. The ejidal assembly assigned them 5,100 hectares in usufruct for 30 years.
Some ejidatarios denounced the illegality of the agreement since the Mennonites did not comply with a legal requirement: to be residents of the place; that is, to have been living in the ejido for some time. Their claims were useless; the Agrarian Attorney’s Office authorities did not invalidate the process.
Satellite images show that starting in 2000 (the year after the ejido assembly endowed them with land), the place began to lose its forest cover. In 2008 the Xmabén ejido was legally divided. The Mennonites created the Nuevo Durango Ejido, which covers 5,669 hectares (14,000 acres), according to the Register and History of Agrarian Nucleos. That extension represents almost 17 times the size of Central Park in New York.
In just five years, the land between the Xmabén ejido and the Nuevo Durango Mennonite camp lost approximately 971 ha (2,400 acres) of forest cover, according to an analysis of satellite images carried out for this journalistic work.
Subsidies that ignore the jungle
According to the research, “The new agricultural policy in Mexico and small corn producers in the Yucatan Peninsula (2019-2021),” by the researcher Flavia Echánove Huacuja, a key government policy for promoting soybean planting was the productive reconversion in the Yucatán Peninsula.
In 2009, the government of then-President Felipe Calderón implemented a program to replace crops, such as corn, with oilseeds, including soybeans, since their production was not only considered more profitable but also necessary to reduce the high imports of soybeans.
This reconversion occurred through the Oleaginous Strategic Project. According to Echánove, this government program mainly supported medium and large producers, for whom the subsidies were an incentive to maintain or start soybean crops. In contrast, small corn producers were left unprotected.
Campeche was the main stage of the change from corn to soybeans, which allowed its expansion and further strengthened the industrial agriculture model in that region, according to Echánove. Although in the last two years of Calderon’s six-year term, soybean planting in Hopelchén decreased, it became more dynamic during the six years of Enrique Peña Nieto. Since then, it has only been increasing, despite the Pro-Oleaginosas program stopping operations in 2017.
Another program that favored soybean production was Contract Farming, which formalized advance sale agreements with buyers; that is, it guaranteed the market and gave incentives for each ton sold. According to Echánove’s research, this support was provided in soybean crops, the primary income for those who worked it, “an important reason why more and more people are interested in planting it.”
Starting in 2008, soybean producers and buyers in the Yucatán Peninsula began to receive subsidies from this program, the primary beneficiaries being Mennonite producers from Campeche and two large soybean producers, according to the research. These subsidies were granted regardless of whether the soybeans were produced on land where forestland had been changed without authorization.
The government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador canceled the Contract Farming program. That hasn’t stopped soybean production from continuing to receive government stimuli. At least, that’s how it was in 2019.
The list of beneficiaries of marketing support granted by the Agency for Services for the Marketing and Development of Agricultural Markets (ASERCA), and the most recent one available on its website, shows that during 2019 more than 168 million pesos ($9.75 million) were delivered in incentives to producers in Campeche. Of that amount, 120 million pesos (a little less than $7 million) went to soybean producers and Rural Production Societies (SPRs). This figure facilitates the acquisition of inputs and credits but has also been used to privatize communal land, as documented by the researcher Torres-Manzuera.
According to the list of beneficiaries, the SPRs received the most significant amount of government incentives in 2019.
61% of the beneficiaries that year were Mennonites, who received support individually and through the SPR. Among the companies supported by and belonging to Hopelchén Mennonites, according to information available in the Integral Registry Management System (SIGER) of the Ministry of Economy, are Agro Productos de Hopelchén, Agro Servicios La Trinidad, Comunidad Durango Hopelchén, El Valle del Temporal, Los Temporales Hopelchén and Patio Rosa Yalnón. Together, these SPRs received 26.23 million pesos (around $1.5 million) in 2019.
Other Rural Production Societies that received support are La Temporada (11 million pesos, about $638,000), Productores de los Chenes (10.3 million pesos, almost $598,000), Sol del Jardín (just over 9 million pesos, $522,000) and Las Flores de Kauenhofen (more than 8 million pesos, around $464,000).
Identifying a soybean plant is easy. Its pods are similar to peas but with tiny hairs; its seed is usually round and yellow. This seed makes this oilseed so coveted in the food industry worldwide since it is used to obtain oil, protein or flour to make livestock feed.
The authors of the study “The Long Shadow of Livestock,” from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Livestock, Environment and Development Initiative, published in 2006, highlight that the increase in meat production worldwide and the reduction in the price of grains since 1950, made cereals and oilseeds more attractive for the production of livestock feed. This combination of factors led to a boom in the cultivation of grains for animal feed production. In the case of soybeans, their production intensified in the early 2000s, mainly to supply the demand for feed.
An investigation on soy value chains, carried out by the Mexico Project for the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, indicates that 90% of the soy produced in the Yucatán Peninsula is acquired by the company Proteínas y Oleicos, which is also the leading importer of soybeans. The remaining 10% is purchased by the company Pollo Industrializado de México (Grupo Crío), which uses it to feed its birds.
The company Proteínas y Oleicos was created on April 17, 2002, and is dedicated to the sowing, export, import and industrialization of grains and seeds to obtain edible oil and vegetable fats, according to the documents available on the SIGER website. The company forms part of the Xacur Industrial Group, whose president is Jacobo Xacur Eljure. The Xacur family, of Lebanese origin, has notorious economic influence in the southeast of the country due to the diversity of their businesses: They are flour producers, they have fast food franchises, and they have dabbled in livestock, cargo transportation and food cardboard packaging.
In addition to having a company dedicated to soybean processing, Jacobo Xacur also produces it. Through the El Yibel Rural Production Society, Xacur grows soybeans in El Cenit or Rancho El Cenit, located on the borders of the municipalities of Hopelchén and Campeche. An environmental impact study submitted to Semarnat in 2009 noted that this ranch produced 2,000 tons of soybeans yearly.
Proteínas y Oleicos has also been a constant contractor for the federal government. Between 2005 and 2021, it received 860.4 million pesos (about $50 million) through 1,916 contracts with Diconsa, a majority-owned state-owned company that supplies essential products to rural populations in the country. In all those years, the company only competed for one of those contracts; the rest were granted by a direct award for purchasing vegetable oil, vegetable shortening and edible oils, including soybean.
For this journalistic work, interviews were requested with representatives of the Proteínas y Oleicos and El Yibel companies to learn about the traceability of their product and how they guarantee that the soy they use does not come from deforested land, but no response was received.
Maya territory without jungle
When going through the roads that lead to the Maya communities of Hopelchén, it is possible to see the extensive land for mechanized agriculture and the traditional plots that extend at the foot of the elevations of the land. In these places, the jungle is still preserved.
The concern of beekeepers, who are part of organizations such as the Collective of Maya Communities of Los Chenes, is that if deforestation continues, the forest will be lost entirely, and with it, beekeeping. A decade ago, transgenic soybeans were the first threat to beekeeping, and that is why since 2012 when they had the first evidence that this seed was in their territory, they launched a legal battle to have its use prohibited. They did that in 2015.
Beekeepers suspect that transgenic soybeans continue to be grown in the region. But to this threat has been added the use of glyphosate — the herbicide associated with this seed — and other agrochemicals, such as carbofuran and chlorpyrifos, considered highly dangerous by the World Health Organization.
The use of pesticides is not the only consequence of deforestation in Hopelchén. Scientific studies have indicated that the destruction of natural habitats due to deforestation also causes wildlife to be left without refuge, the periods of rain and drought are altered and climate change is accelerated. In addition, the way of life of the communities that depend on them is threatened.
An additional problem, explains Ellis, is that the forest’s fragmentation causes the forest cover’s degradation; that is, it gradually begins to have less biomass and, therefore, less water and biodiversity. “Where there is deforestation,” the researcher explains, “there is much degradation, almost twice as much. The degraded areas are not necessarily areas of small farmers or milpa, but these are more areas of commercial agriculture and cattle ranching.” Ultimately, those forests lose the ability to provide environmental services.
Globally, the deforestation caused by soybean cultivation in places like the Amazon has set off alarm bells for several years.
In November 2021, the European Commission proposed that companies that want to export their products to the 27 member countries of the European Union must ensure that their supply chain is not associated with deforestation. This initiative included various products, including soybeans.
While in other latitudes, they have begun to take action and hold the entire chain that participates in the industry accountable, deforestation is advancing only in the southeast of Mexico. What is happening today in Hopelchén is already being replicated in other municipalities of the Yucatán Peninsula.
In Tizimín, Yucatán, where soybeans were not cultivated, crops began to appear in 2013, reaching 6,000 ha (14,826 acres) in 2019. Also, in the municipality of Campeche, soybean planting grew between 2012 and 2020.
In the municipality of Bacalar, Quintana Roo, as of 2013, soybeans also began to be planted; since then, more than 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) have been planted yearly, according to SIAP data. There, Mennonite groups have also rented and bought the land.
An agreement and many expectations
On August 12, 2021, SEMARNAT installed what it called “a permanent dialogue table” whose objective is to stop deforestation in Hopelchén. Federal authorities and representatives of the Mennonite communities of Santa Fe, Santa Rosa, Chaví, Nuevo Progreso, Trinidad, Nuevo Durango, Yalnón, Temporal and Valle Nuevo participated in it.
The agreements that were established that day are that the Mennonite communities promised to stop all deforestation activities, that they would participate with the municipal, state and federal authorities in ecological planning, and that there would be a permanent service desk, he explains in an interview the head of SEMARNAT, María Luisa Albores.
One of the issues that this working group would attend to is “expedite procedures before SEMARNAT to regularize and legalize productive activities,” according to the official statement on the agreement. “To regularize the part of what is already deforested,” —remarks Albores, “is to conduct a technical review. Our objective is to work directly with the parceleros, the owners [of the land], and perhaps look for economically viable schemes for them.”
Albores rejects that a regularization promotes impunity for those who have made changes in the use of forest land without authorization or that it is an incentive for continue doing so. “On the contrary, the objective is completely different: order.”
The agreement also establishes that administrative and criminal complaints against Mennonites will be reviewed and actions to repair and mitigate environmental damage. As of April 2022, PROFEPA had not found any repair and mitigation agreement in Hopelchén, according to a response to a request for information.
For the Collective of Maya Communities of Los Chenes, the dialogue roundtables with the Mennonites are an insufficient response “because there is no follow-up mechanism. … So as long as the punishment does not hurt one, well, it will continue to do so,” considers one of its members.
Neither the collective nor the civil society of Hopelchén was included in the dialogue tables because it was an agreement directly with the Mennonite communities, which justifies Albores.
The official also points out that they have begun to follow up on complaints from beekeepers and that, in parallel to the elaboration of the ecological order, information days have been developed with the agricultural nuclei of Hopelchén.
Those who suffer the impacts of deforestation expect stronger and faster action. Deforestation already causes conflicts within communities, according to the Chenes Maya Communities Collective. For its members, a natural solution has to be well-planned strategically and propose alternatives to producers.
“I’m not really against the Mennonites; I’m against how they farm,” says the Maya beekeeper from Bolonchén de Rejón. Beyond the Mennonites, he says, it has been from the government that economic interests have been favored to the detriment of caring for the environment. And with this, not only the panorama of Hopelchén has been transformed, but also the lives of its inhabitants. “How far are we going to go with this? It angers me because, as I tell them, they trade a crop for a way of life.”
Banner image: Land prepared for soybean cultivation in the Mennonite field of Nuevo Durango, Hopelchén, Campeche. Image by Robin Canul.