A Tale of Two Wildernesses
I knew things were bad when Paulino dipped his empty plastic water bottle into a shallow, muddy swamp puddle. After attempting to sweeten the sludge with a bright orange vitamin C tablet, the middle-aged Guatemalan archaeologist smiled at his Boy Scout ingenuity.
Somewhat calmed by his presence of mind, I was nonetheless scared about the prospect of getting lost in the vast, uncharted, tropical forest, carrying nothing but a few granola bars and an audio recorder. We had started out with 10 other adventurers on a planned 50-mile jungle trek, but had gotten separated during the hike. I asked Paulino if he thought we’d really have to drink his concoction to stay hydrated if we failed to locate our fellow hikers, whom we hadn’t seen for two hours. “I don’t know how far we are exactly,” he huffed as we slogged through one of a thousand narrow trails through the bog. “But I try to be prepared, you see? That’s all you need.”
My introduction to the Mirador Rio-Azul Park made it vividly clear that in 2008 it was still possible to experience a true, vast, unpeopled wilderness, where tropical bird calls ring out instead of cell phones, and it’s handier to distinguish the ceiba tree from the ramon than it is to tell a Lexus from a Hyundai.
The purpose of my trip to Mirador last summer was to see the Guatemalan tropical forest firsthand, before it possibly suffers the fate of Laguna del Tigre, the neighboring “wilderness” at the other end of the northern state of Petén.
The contrast could not have been any starker. By all accounts Laguna del Tigre Park looked very similar to Mirador until about 15 years ago, when tens of thousands of people started settling along the few roads punched into the territory by oil and logging companies. Then a rapid and chaotic land grab ensued. Whether it was primarily due to wood poachers, or landless peasants looking for new places to plant their corn and beans, or ranchers who followed them to graze beef cattle on the depleted land, the effect was clear. Environmental groups estimate that as much as 70 percent of the 1,300-square-mile park has been burned and converted to agriculture – much of it, according to press reports, with the encouragement of corrupt officials and narcotics traffickers who use land and cattle to launder their drug money.
In Laguna del Tigre, travel could not have been more different from the jungle trek in Mirador. I rode shotgun in a pickup truck with a ranger transporting park police, and we covered about 400 miles in a 14-hour trip. There must have been more cows there than in all of Wisconsin, and the tropical sun was ever present. The few improbably regal-looking ceiba trees towered over the charred remains poking through the ranchlands. The forest was all but wiped out.
These parks, virtually side by side, are part of what was supposed to be an uninterrupted 8,300-square-mile biosphere reserve protecting a huge swath of land that saw the rise and fall of the ancient Maya civilization. What the different fates of these two protected zones illustrate is that the best-laid plans of environmentalists aren’t enough to save the forest.
In the previous weeks, our team interviewed dozens of experts about where the strategy had failed and who was to blame. Some were lobbying the government for a moratorium on logging. Others wanted to expand community-based “sustainable” logging businesses. Both sides acknowledged, though, that the key to saving the forest probably lay in the knowledge of local people. And yet there was little evidence that politicians were making decisions based on the reality on the ground any more than they ever had. When President Álvaro Colom announced his latest conservation initiative in July, no more than a handful of Petén community leaders were among the 250 guests invited to the presidential palace.
Obviously, Paulino and I made it out of our parched predicament to reach our destination – the mostly buried Maya ruins at Mirador – and then back to civilization. Paulino, who had made the trip three times, said it was local knowledge about proper hydration, forest food, geology, and orienteering that had saved his skin on the walk more than once.
“All these are recommendations of the older people,” he said just before we were rescued by a forest guide. “When I got to Petén, I didn’t know much. But having paid attention to these things, it solved many problems. These are the very little things that aren’t said by stupid people, but people who are rooted in this place.”
—Michael Stoll is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist who traveled to Guatemala on a 2008 grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. See his work at www.futureofpeten.com.