Maya Indians in Dean's path lost their real wealth: the trees

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By Mark Stevenson -- Associated Press

UH-MAY, Mexico (AP) - Thousands of Mayan Indians lost their thatch-roofed homes as Hurricane Dean blew through the Yucatan peninsula, but their real wealth was the trees, now scattered and broken in the hurricane's wake. Village after village is carpeted with fallen mangoes, oranges, guanabanas and mameys that will never be harvested.

Mexico's Mayan communities have survived centuries of oppression, expulsion from their valuable land along the Caribbean coast, and many damaging storms. But these people say no other hurricane - not Gilbert in 1988, not Roxanne in 1995, not Wilma in 2005 - has hit the Maya so hard.

Israel Cruz Chan, 40, demonstrated the resilience of the Mayan villages of the Yucatan Peninsula after Dean ripped most of the roof off his home in the village of Nohbec, not far from where storm's center tore through the jungle Aug. 21.

Cruz Chan surveyed the destruction - all of his furniture, his few appliances and bedding, all soaked and tumbled into the front yard of his cinderblock home. Then he got to work, borrowing a ladder and busily nailing up new sheets of roofing.

''If I just sit and wait until they help me, I'll die waiting,'' he said. ''If I wait, with my hand out, who's going to give me food, and where am I going to cook it? I'd rather start working, first.''

Like most locals here, Cruz Chan makes a spare living from fishing, construction work and growing fruit in a small orchard.

In fact, the Mayan residents - some of the hardest hit by Hurricane Dean - had stunningly simple requests for aid: a few sheets of roofing, drinking water and some food aid to help them get by, now that their harvest has been destroyed.

''There isn't even any corn to eat,'' said housewife Pilar Uitz Tzil, 58, waiting in line under the burning sun for anything the government might hand out. Finally, a few trucks arrived with bottled water and thick blankets, an odd gift in a steamy climate where many sleep in hammocks in the open air, just to get a breeze.

In the hours after the hurricane passed just south of the Mayan village of Uh-May, entire brigades of villagers could be seen literally marching through the unpaved streets with machetes and axes to clear a way through the debris.

''We still practice faena here,'' said Liborio Yeh, 56, referring to the ancient Maya tradition of lending a few hours of community work each week.

A huge tree had fallen on the front of Yeh's home; the electricity cables had been toppled. But generous and welcoming as the Maya usually are, he handed over a big bunch of mamoncillo fruit from the fallen tree to a visiting reporter.

The Maya's biggest threat now may not be the damage to their homes, though their traditional stick huts lay splintered, thatch roofs blown away. It's the natural environment they so heavily depend on - innumerable felled trees from which the Maya extract everything from chewing gum to fruit to hardwood.

All that dead wood could spark forest fires when the dry season comes.

''The greatest damage was done to the nature areas, that is what suffered the greatest impact,'' said Luis Alberto Rivera, the Quintana Roo state public safety director.

The Maya launched one of North America's last Indian revolts in the lower Yucatan Peninsula in 1850 - a bloody rebellion that the Mexican government could not wipe out until 1901. Even now, suspicions about outsiders run deep - and despite the catastrophic winds Dean packed as it menaced the area, some community leaders carrying machetes turned away soldiers trying to evacuate people.

''They didn't want to leave,'' said Gen. Alfonso Garcia, who ran the shelters in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, which could have held many more people from outlying communities.

Agriculture Secretary Alberto Cardenas Jimenez said Aug. 23 that Mexico was planning to begin distributing $10.3 million in cash grants to people who lost crops as early as Aug. 27.

''The poorest and smallest are those who we'll most help immediately,'' Cardenas promised, explaining that the contingency fund also will be tapped to help large commercial operations that lost chile, corn, grain, papaya, coconut, banana, sugar cane and honey.

Still, Mayans have learned to make the best of their situations, with or without the government.

''The government dispenses some resources here,'' Yeh said, studying the fallen tree. ''But the community still helps itself.''