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


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."

With his 20% pilot's commission, Sanchez said, he sometimes takes home 2,000 pesos a day--about $320 at recent exchange rates.

Better prices have gone a long way toward improving relations between pilots and peasants, but there are still hassles over how much weight pilots will carry.

Flying over the town of Santa Lucia, Sanchez spotted a mirror flashing in the sun, the signal of waiting passengers. Touching down just past the logs at the end of the airstrip, he pulled up to the crowd on the runway and opened the plane door.

"I can take two people," he shouted.

"There are three of us and a bag of coffee."

"Then decide who is going. I can only take two."

After the passengers boarded and the plane headed down the airstrip toward one of the Mayan pyramids that dot the jungle, Sanchez explained: "They will not understand about weight. The government gave the Independent Peasants Assn. a couple of planes and look what they did," he said, signaling an area behind the pyramid.

The crumpled white metal on the ground looked from the air like a crushed toy.

"They tried to take off with five adults, three children and a bag of coffee," the pilot said. "It's a miracle no one was killed."

Accidents are surprisingly rare, considering the flying and landing conditions.

Pilots barely have time to move the coffee crop out before the skies fill with smoke from the spring slash-and-burn clearing of the underbrush for planting. And fog can roll in any time of year.

Then there are the airstrips.

"Every one of them is difficult in a different way," Navarro said.

The airstrip at the village of Luis Espinoza is short and runs into a hill. Ibarra is at a high altitude, like Guayaquil, and can be entered from only one end, which makes a shift in the wind dangerous.

This year, the Zapatistas added to the danger by digging trenches across some airstrips and driving stakes into others--to keep the army out, they said. But when troops invaded the jungle earlier this month, they arrived in helicopters.

"Pilots who fly here in Chiapas must have a lot of experience," Navarro said. "The guys who fly 747s could not cut it here."

Most of the jungle pilots have never been to flight school. Like Sanchez, they learned to fly the same way teen-agers used to learn to drive: A friend taught them.

For Sanchez, 44, that was more than 20 years ago.

"I quit for a while," he said. "I didn't want to go into the jungle because they told me it was dangerous, but I couldn't help it."

Flying over treetops as green and spongy as broccoli, with the late afternoon sun glinting off the ancient Tonina pyramid, as tall as a five-story building, he paused and tried to explain. "It's just so beautiful."

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