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Market Focus : Chiapas Turbulence Challenges Plucky Jungle Pilots : They brave booby-trapped runways and bad weather to service remote settlements.

March 07, 1995|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LACANDON RAIN FOREST, Mexico — Jose Praxedes Sanchez frantically pulled, then pushed, three control panel knobs and spun the stabilizer wheel, guiding the old Cessna 187 over treetops toward a narrow clearing in the Mexican jungle.

"Let's hope the Zapatistas haven't driven stakes into this airstrip," he shouted over the whining propeller as the plane touched down in grass nearly as high as the wings and bumped toward a stand of trees. Just when a collision seemed inevitable, he expertly turned the plane and pulled to a stop halfway back down the runway.

"Be sure you are back here by 3:30," he warned his passengers. "After 4, the wind shifts and it's dangerous."

Until the late afternoon wind change, the maneuvering required to set down a plane in Ibarra, a village of 30 families, was a routine landing in the Lacandon rain forest for Sanchez, one of a handful of pilots who provide the only rapid means of transportation in this vast wilderness.

The nearest rutted dirt road is often a full day's hike from a hamlet. In their Cessna 187s, the jeeps of the air, the pilots bring in medicine, salt and soap and carry out coffee and hospital-bound patients.

Their role has become even more crucial over the last 14 months as the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army and the Mexican army have alternately blocked the land routes into this jungle in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas. At the same time, the highest coffee prices in more than a decade have added to the urgency of getting the crop out and have made air cargo economically feasible.

As a result, at least half a dozen communities have reopened airstrips that were closed when a road was cut through part of the jungle five years ago. One village, Soledad, even blocked off part of the road for an unpaved runway after pilots refused to land on the old cliff-top airstrip because they considered it too dangerous.

"It's been a bonanza," Sanchez said of the smoldering conflict. "There is no other way in."

But the conflict may well be the last hurrah of a dying business, said Marco Antonio Navarro, who runs an air-taxi company in the town of Ocosingo. His office is in a concrete-block building next to one of only two paved runways among the 50 on which his half a dozen pilots regularly land.

"In two or three years, if the government keeps its promises, they are going to put in highways and that will be the end of aviation (here)," he predicted.

Meanwhile, small planes are key to the survival of jungle communities. In Santa Helena, a settlement on the edge of the Montes Azules Nature Reserve, the airstrip is the main drag. Log cabins are clustered on either side of the strip, and when a plane lands, everyone runs out to see who has arrived.

"For ranchers, this service is vital," said Alejandro Morales, treasurer of the Ocosingo Cattle Ranchers Assn. "Many ranches are far from land routes."

Besides convenience and breaking up the monotony of life in remote villages, a plane's arrival can mean the difference between life and death.

Recently, a pilot sent to pick up a scientific expedition at the Yaxchilan ruins on the Guatemalan border made a stopover at the town of Guayaquil to drop off a case of soft drinks. When he landed, he found a panicked father holding a boy who had just been bitten by a poisonous snake.

The village's herbal healer had concocted a potion to slow the progress of the venom, but the child urgently needed to see a doctor. The pilot flew him back to the county seat of Ocosingo and the community hospital, where he recovered.

Such emergency trips are made at great sacrifice to poor jungle communities, where wages are only $1 a day--when there is work on nearby cattle ranches or coffee plantations. Plane rides cost about $150, one way. Villagers take up a collection, but often their combined savings are not enough.

"They try to haggle, as if they were buying a kilo of tomatoes in the market," said Navarro. Reaching an understanding with Indian communities is one of the toughest parts of his job, he added.

The most intense contact between the pilots and the jungle communities comes now during the coffee harvest. A village sends a delegation by land to Ocosingo or Comitan, the two principal towns on the edge of the jungle, to check out the price that brokers are offering for the crop. Then the delegation ascertains the shipping cost from Navarro.

As part of the service, Navarro sends in supplies that the delegates buy in town--salt, flour, cookies, canned sardines and medicine--at no extra cost when his pilots go pick up the coffee.

Despite that incentive, in past years, when coffee was selling for two pesos--or less than $1--per kilo, the pilots lost a lot of business. Transportation cost $30 for a 60-kilo bag, nearly as much as the crop was worth. But this year, with coffee selling for nearly $3 a kilo, air services are doing a landmark business.

"We await coffee season eagerly," Navarro said. "It is a good time for us."

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