Guatemala Struggles to Protect Mayan Rainforest from Invaders

by John Burnett

EL PETEN, Guatemala, Dec. 28, 1997 - Theodore Roosevelt, one of America's crusading conservationists, wrote this in 1905, about national parks: "They cannot, in the long run, be kept as forests and game reservations unless the settlers roundabout them believe in them and heartily support them."

Teddy Roosevelt's observation could be made today about national parks in the developing world. In many areas, exploding populations of poor farmers see wilderness refuges as unused land, ripe for settling and sowing.

Today, Guatemala and an army of international conservation organizations are fighting to preserve a vast area of tropical forest, wetlands, and Mayan ruins in its northern province, the Peten. It's an area larger than the state of Connecticut, called the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Our weatherbeaten long-boat labors upstream, deep into the heart of the Guatemalan rainforest. We're traveling up the San Pedro River, a sluggish, tea-colored stream that forms the southern boundary of the Laguna del Tigre National Park, one of two sprawling parks inside the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

As the boat approaches, alligators splash into floating water hyacinths, mangrove swallows flit millimeters above the water, and far beyond the gallery forest, cougars and jaguars stalk their supper. As we round a bend in the river, we see the first evidence of the park invasions that have bedeviled preservationists. Black smoke drifts up from a patch of forest that an immigrant farmer is burning in order to make room for his crops. In two to three years, when the corn and beans have exhausted the land's fertility, the farmer will likely slash and burn again - just as the Mayans did here 2,000 years ago.

The village of El Buen Samaritano, located just inside the park, is populated mainly by Maya Kekchi Indians who migrated from the Guatemalan highlands south of here.

"We know this is an area for the animals and for the reserve, but there isn't anywhere else to move," says Marcelino Tista, a community leader. Conservationists have learned that anyone who takes a vigorous stand against these illegal colonizers does so at their own peril. The U.S. environmental organization Conservation International has had a particularly rough go of it in the Maya Biosphere. Last March, a group of squatters - angry at CI's opposition to their illegal settlements - kidnapped the station's 13 employees, looted the compound, then burned it to the ground. The hostages were later released unharmed.

And a few months later, a local conservationist named Carlos Catalan who worked with CI was gunned down for his outspoken opposition to illegal activities in the Biosphere.

Hours later, our boat noses up to the dock at CI's torched biological station. A half dozen employees who stayed on to rebuild the research compound sit around a table, in candlelight, slapping mosquitos and recounting that day.

"They tied us up in the boat and began to take out everything," says one man, "Laboratory equipment, our electric generator, chainsaws, radios, cooking equipment, a 40-horsepower outboard moter. They took everything, then they burned it all to the ground."

The CI abductions - which made little news outside Guatemala - were actually the second kidnapping by increasingly brazen squatters inside the Biosphere. Earlier in March, a large group of colonizers blocked an attempt to evict them and took 40 government officials hostage. After tense negotiations, the squatters extracted a pledge by the government that the estimated 700 peasant families already living illegally inside the parks could stay. Though the Guatemalan government now promises to remove any newly arriving squatters, environmentalists are outraged by what they see as the government's capitulation to illegal colonizers.

"They should have made it clear from the beginning," says Guatemalan environmentalist Magali Rey Rosa, "this is a protected area, it belongs to all Guatemalans and you can't go in there. But there was no intention of doing that ever."

The government is in an admittedly delicate position. A year ago, it signed a peace accord ending a bloody, three-decade-long guerrilla war. Many peasants believe, mistakenly, that the treaty includes promises of free land for the landless, and they're coming to the Peten to claim it.

"There are two ways to resolve the problem," says Rodolfo Cardona, director of the National Council of Protected Areas, the government agency responsible for the Biosphere. "One is to come one day with the military, well armed, and tell everyone to get their things together, here are the buses, it's time to leave. The other is the road of negotiation, which is more feasible given the peace accords. Put yourself in our place. You want us to go against a group of peasants who are victims of 400 years or repression? That's not possible."

So now, the Guatemalans are not only trying to take care of the largest protected area in Central America, but they've got to find a way to let scores of poor farmers live there without tearing up the rainforest. That's where the conservation organizations come in. A slew of big U.S. environmental groups - such as Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy - are working in a U.S.-funded project to try and protect the Maya Biosphere.

They're setting up forestry concessions so towns outside of parks can sustainably log nearby woodlands. They're helping small farmers outside the parks to secure titles to their property, so they won't get restless and invade the protected areas. And they're even working with the squatters who've been allowed to stay, teaching them how to farm the thin, limestone-bottom soil more effectively.

Manuel Banos works for Conservation International, the biggest of some 30 nonprofit groups in the Peten. He steers a Toyota truck down a washboard road, between cattle pastures that were dense forest ten years ago. Banos views the work of CI not only through the eyes of a late-blooming environmentalist, but also as un Petenero legitimo, a native son of the Peten.

"People think they can just take any piece of land, but they're irresponsible," he says. "Our mission is to teach them that a cornfield is not the only way. There are many ways to live off the forest without destroying it."

As part of that mission, Conservation International is promoting traditional forest harvesters who collect floral palms and chicle sap for export, it has opened a Spanish language school for tourists, it has created a factory that makes potpourri from forest detritus, and it has formed eco-tourism cooperatives.

Reginaldo Gomez takes adventure tourists through the jungle for 85 dollars a head. During the two-day trek, they climb hidden Mayan temples, drink water from vines, and watch the evening emergence of a cliffside colony of bats. But he gives the alternative income projects mixed reviews.

"Eco-tourism has been growing very slowly," he says, "Sometimes the tourists come, sometimes they don't come. We need more publicity. We can't live off of it yet. It's the same with the potpourri. It has brought some benefits, but not many."

After the U.S. Agency for International Development has spent some $17 million on conservation work in the Peten since 1990, some observers wonder - with the region's myriad and persistent problems - what's to show for it?

"The Spanish language school and the potpourri factory generate income for local people and don't destroy the Biosphere," says Rodolfo Cardona. "But that's not the main problem. The big problem in the Biosphere is uncontrolled invasions."

Conservationists who've spent years trying to save the Mayan forest bristle at Cardona's criticism, because they say the social problems forcing people into parks are so far beyond the scope of U.S. environmental organizations.

"You have a population growth rate in the Peten right now of 9-10% per year. That's a lot of people moving into the Peten every week, every month, every year. We can't create jobs fast enough to give all of those families alternatives to farming," says Jim Nations, vice president of Conservation International for Mexico and Central America.

But when it's time to take stock, Jim Nations thinks conservation efforts - limited as they are - are working. "The fact that reserve is still there," he says, "to me is the first sign of success."


Copyright 1998 John Burnett

This article or any portion of the article that appears on UT-LANIC may be downloaded, quoted or referenced with the stipulation that it be credited to John Burnett, correspondent for National Public Radio.

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