I walk, camera in hand, on the streets of Palizada, State of Campeche. People in this quiet river town are engaged in their usual activities and, beyond sending an ocasional smile in my direction, pay little attention to me. Travellers are a frequent sight in this locality, designated “Magical Town” of Mexico in 2011 for its beauty and traditions. Palizada lies in the ancestral territories of the nahuatl and chontal, people who lived in this land for centuries before the arrival in Mexico of the expedition led by Juan de Grijalva, the first Spanish seaman to penetrate deep into the Laguna de Terminos and the Usumacinta and Grijalva rivers.
In 1668 groups of European immigrants set foot here with intent to colonize the area, and by 1674 they were making a new life in a town they called San Joaquin de la Palotada, possibly alluding to the great quantity of fallen trees that floated downstream. One hundred and eighteen years would pass until, as part of a geopolitical strategy to fend off English pirates operating from Isla del Carmen, King Charles II of Spain made official by Royal Decree the foundation of San Ignacio de la Empalizada.
The peaceful palizada of today hides layers upon layers of history, going back to the maya-chontal chiefdom of Acalán Tixchel. The original inhabitants grew corn, beans, pumpkin, chile, peanuts, tobacco and achiote, they fished, hunted deer and wild turkey, and exploited woods such as mahogany, guayacan, ciricote, cedar, henequen and palo de tinte (dyewood). Chronicles by Spanish navigators and English privateers attest to their encounters with these native societies, which employed thousands of canoes in intense commercial activities. Cortes himself described in his relaciones how the area “…was surrounded by wetlands, and all the merchants in it would come out on canoes to the Laguna de Términos for their dealings with Xicalango and Tabasco”.
More than a century later, in 1675, the pirate William Dampier wrote about the settlement in Laguna de Terminos of close to 250 English, Irish and Scottish buccaneers. These fierce men did not only stalk Spanish ships to prey on them, but also worked in teams of ten men to fell and limb trees for trade with Europe. Of all the valuable woods in the area, even above precious mahogany, it would be the fate of palo de tinte to become the main target of exploitation for profit by these pirates and by the conquistadors and their descendants, to the point of making irrelevant many other economic opportunities.
The natives used the natural dyes from this timber-yielding leguminous plant to color fabrics and to paint their bodies with ritualistic purposes, boiling it in large pots until they obtained a paste that dyed black or dark blue. Europeans were quick to identify the potential profits available by trading this product with textile factories in Europe and later in the United States. The pirate John Hawkins is credited with bringing to port in England the first ship with a hold full of palo de tinte, cargo which he sold at great profits to British businessmen hungry for dyes. The buccaneers took the lead in the exploitation of this resource to the extent that, as was reported to the Spanish viceroy to New Spain in 1676, pirates operating in Laguna de Términos were selling more hundredweights of wood than all which was exported through the port of Campeche under control of the Spanish Crown.
In a letter addressed to the king of Spain in 1565, Diego Quijada reported the existence of palo de tinte in such quantities that “each year all the carracks in the world may be loaded”. Traffic on the Palizada river seems restricted today to small boats, but back then it was navigated by ships large enough to carry 50 tons of the product obtained from the heart of Haematoxylum campechianum. Thus subjected to extractive exploitation with no vision of the future, the species would be practically eradicated in spite of its apparently infinite abundance, modifying forever the ecosystems that had allowed it to prosper for millennia and affecting the entire ecological chain.
As early as 1853 Don José M. Regil documented the disappearance of “the magnificent tintales on the riverbanks of Champoton, (…) Palizada and Laguna de Términos”. He also forecast the disappearance of the tree’s commercial exploitation, as it became necessary to extract it from ever more remote areas, thus rendering the costs of operation unviable. With a conservationist’s conscience ahead of his time, he wrote: “Nature had wished that the tintales, which were found by civilization in these beaches would be, like them, eternal, and they would have been if only the logger’s axe, smart and economical, would have chosen to wait for the tree to fulfill its destiny, growing strong, spreading its seeds and then dying to pay man tribute, after leaving numerous descendants, which in the time of thirteen or fourteen years would have provided equal gain. But thus it has not been, and speculation with destructive voracity have cut without discretion or sense, almost accomplishing the extinction of such secure and spontaneous riches.”
The history of Palizada is rich in dramatic events interlaced through centuries of human activity. Amongst the more recent episodes are many of great significance to the republic that would be begotten by complex processes of independence wars and geopolitical configuration. It’s not our intent here to offer an historical compendium, but it’s not by mere happenstance either that we’ve dedicated this segment to the history of palo de tinte and its devastating exploitation. As we’ve said in the first part of this trip report, we’ve come to this part of Campeche on a mission to assess its potential for bird-related tourism. The history of palo de tinte is a perfect vehicle to reflect upon the loss of riches, natural and economic, that come about when human beings allow greed to rule over conscience.
It is known that the Great Egret (Ardea alba), emblematic bird of Palizada, was hunted intensively here during the XIX century and into the beginning of the XX century. Hunters that engaged in this activity throughout America had no qualms about shooting birds right in their nests, spurred by the price of feathers, which was then higher per ounce than the price of gold. Among the most hunted species where also the Snowy Egret (Egretta thula), the Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) and the American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber). The fate of their coveted feathers was to be placed, with no trace of blood, on top of oversize hats worn by “elegant” Victorian ladies.
Saving egrets from their foreseeable extinction demanded decisive action by two truly distinguished British ladies, Emily Williamson and Eliza Phillips, who opposed the frivolous use of feathers and in 1891 founded “The plumage league”, embryonic organisation that would become the “Royal Society for the Protection of Birds”. The public awareness work advanced by these admirable women demonstrated that there was nothing elegant about the senseless and painful death of millions of birds. Just as decisive to bring an end to such noxious fashion was the work of pioneers of the conservation movement in the United States, people like journalist and social reformer Adeline Knapp, hunter turned park-ranger Guy Bradley (who was murdered for his defence of birds) and Theodore Roosevelt, whose actions from the heights of power qualify him beyond doubt as that nation’s first environmentalist president. These personal and collective histories prove how, where we are capable of destruction, we’re also capable of preservation. It all depends on the level of consciousness guiding our relationship with the natural environment that harbours us.
That egret standing today on the bank of the Palizada river, at ease because it doesn’t feel threatened, is for better or worse subject to our actions. Its loss is also ours. The town’s chronicler tells us how every afternoon at 5, with punctuality worthy of an English tea ceremony, monkeys can still be heard howling here. Developing a non-extractive economy, in which tourism based on nature appreciation plays an important role, can provide a platform for the ongoing preservation of these rich ecosystems while providing human society with abundant and perennial economic resources. Only thus will the monkeys continue to amaze us with their howling, and the birds with their multitude of shapes, songs and colours in flight.
In the final part of this story we’ll continue to share the sense of amazement bestowed on us by the numerous birds we’ve seen on this trip. The question we must ask ourselves is this: Are we aware of these riches, and will we know how to preserve them for future generations?
- CONANP – Información sobre la Laguna de Términos
- Enciclopedia de los Municipios y Delegaciones de México
- Ayuntamiento de Palizada
With special thanks to the Campeche Secretary of Tourism (SECTUR Campeche) for making this trip possible. For more information on this and other wonderful destinations in Campeche, México, visit www.campeche.travel.