Rumble in the Jungle

Timber or Tourists? Environmentalists are Fighting Each Other Over How Best to Protect Forests in Guatemala.


For some of the farmers and ranchers, just getting to the meeting in the capital of the state of Petén, Guatemala, was an ordeal. Scores of them were irritable from having traveled days – first over muddy foot trails, then by pickup truck and minibus on rutted, unpaved roads – to attend a workshop with park rangers. The residents had journeyed in the hope of slowing the government’s plan to crack down on illegal land grabs, which for more than a decade had chipped away at the vast but vulnerable Maya Forest – and which were the basis of the farmers’ livelihood.

Raids on unauthorized settlements, in what a generation ago was largely roadless wilderness, waxed and waned with the political seasons. As the budget for enforcement grew and shrank, it left park rangers stranded, outnumbered, and afraid in a sea of gun-wielding landholders. Meanwhile, one-eighth of the forest disappeared in two decades. Something had to be done.

The humble schoolhouse just outside the state capital, Flores, was far more serene a meeting place than the Wild West zone near the Mexican border, where the residents eked out a living by following a destructive pattern: cutting valuable mahogany and cedar, then planting corn, then inviting ranchers to exploit the remaining topsoil, then moving on to fresh forestland.

The farmers and ranchers, men in crisp cowboy hats and boots, listened restlessly for an hour as rangers and a government scientist described the environmental harm from expanded settlements. But for the locals, the conversation was about their economic rights. Over the years the government had struck a complex array of deals with migrants to the region that either tolerated illegal settlements or, in the case of older communities to the east, gave them supervised long-term contracts that were supposed to promote low-level, sustainable harvesting of trees.

But the patchwork quilt of land-use rules had enraged the agriculturalists from the western Petén, many of whom had no legal land tenure. Some were openly talking about “revolution.” Where was the justice when some communities were granted logging concessions while others got eviction notices?

“For more than 15 years, in Laguna del Tigre Park, there’s been no legal recognition of the people who live there,” said Jorge Gutierrez Vásquez, a community organizer who was president of an association of 37 settler communities in what are officially a series of parks. “At root, without legal recognition, the community will lack everything we’ve been talking about – education, health, infrastructure projects that never in the history of the governments have come to our communities.” He said the aim of the settlers was to sign a permanent agreement allowing them to stay.

But Mariela López, the head park ranger, was firm. The government would, she said, “eventually” expel all settlers who hadn’t won legal title to their land.

That didn’t sit well with the audience. The Peteneros were peppering their questions with the suggestion that they would forcefully resist attempts to dislodge them from the land. It wasn’t an idle threat. Rangers had been shot at on patrol. In July, gunmen attacked the governor of Petén, spraying his car with AK-47 rounds. Visibly nervous, López called for backup – a muscle-bound, shaved-head army commander, who rolled up in a SUV and sat beside her for the rest of the tense meeting.

“Almost all the communities want to stay within the park, but according to the law, that’s not possible,” López said later. “Their participation in the deforestation of the park is evident. You have to remember, too, that inside the park, the invaders have various aims. Some come for necessity. Others are involved in narcotrafficking. People need land, so some people also make that a business, and get others to invade.”

All Forest Politics is Local

In a way, the conflict over land rights in northern Guatemala is as distinctive as the biology of tropical Central America and its unique inheritance of ancient Maya culture. But the clash of environmental philosophies arising there has echoes all over the world.

For more than a decade, wealthy international environmental groups have funded the idea that involving local people in conservation – and granting them an economic stake – can better preserve at-risk forests than stricter protective measures ever could. It was an epiphany incorporated into the mission statements of the world’s leading environmental groups. The Nature Conservancy aims to “respect the needs of local communities by developing ways to conserve biological diversity while at the same time enabling humans to live productively and sustainably on the landscape.” Other organizations, such as Rainforest Alliance, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Conservation International, acknowledge learning valuable lessons about collaboration after decades of conflicts with communities fighting for a cut of forest wealth.

In the early 1980s, protected areas around the world “were largely the domain of ecologists, forestry officials, and the occasional land-use planner,” Lisa Naughton-Treves and colleagues wrote in a 2005 paper, “The Role of Protected Areas in Conserving Biodiversity and Sustaining Local Livelihoods.

photo of a man using an adze on timber with a tropical forest in the backgroundGuatemala photos by David BarredaResidents in Petén eke out a living by following a destructive pattern:
cutting valuable mahogany and cedar, then planting corn, then
inviting ranchers to exploit the remaining topsoil, then moving on.

“Now,” she wrote, “they are included in the international arena as part of the Millennium Development Goals, and their mission has broadened substantially: Protected areas are expected to directly contribute to national development and poverty reduction.”

The notion that environmental and human rights activists could work together to reach win-win solutions arrived in Guatemala nearly a generation ago. In a breakthrough arrangement in 1990, shepherded by the World Conservation Union, forest communities in northern Guatemala were granted logging rights to key pieces of a region larger than Rhode Island called the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The community businesses were to be supervised by international forest-protection groups, which also helped to subsidize lumber mills and build an international market for sustainable wood.

Increasingly, however, these groups are clashing with equally passionate activists of a different stripe who favor old-style strict environmental conservation. They include two relatively new Guatemalan groups with unwieldy names – the Foundation for Cultural and Natural Maya Patrimony and the Balam Kan Association of Friends of Natural and Cultural Patrimony of Guatemala – as well as allies in the Guatemalan government.

They are distressed that timber poaching and subsistence farming have not abated as promised under the local stewardship paradigm. Critics of the current system prefer to wall off larger tracts of land and extend bans on intensive agriculture and logging. They hope to provide jobs and pay for park patrols with new economic engines such as archaeology and ecotourism that will entice foreign travelers carrying dollars and euros. There is plenty to draw tourists to this part of Guatemala. Elusive creatures like the jaguar, harpy eagle, scarlet macaw, and Baird’s tapir roam much of the jungle landscape amid monumental Mayan pyramids buried for more than 2,000 years. Wildlife such as howler monkeys and toucans make the jungle floor as cacophonous as Times Square.

This fragile habitat and the ancient ruins it enshrouds are increasingly threatened, not just by loggers and slash-and-burn agriculturalists, but also by smugglers of drugs and plundered ancient artifacts. The mixture of criminal business opportunities in this region has even inspired a new coinage for drug runners who launder money through herds of cattle: narco-ranchers.

Superimposing a new forest-protection regime on the old is not just politically controversial and hard to enforce. It also requires millions of dollars of investment, international partnerships with businesses and nonprofit organizations, and the rewriting of Guatelama’s land-use laws. The danger is that by stripping some communities of their businesses – and a measure of economic, political, and cultural independence – it might turn the local population against efforts to save the forest.

New Schemes for Preservation

Few in the region express as much outrage about the pace of forest destruction as Richard Hansen, an American archaeologist.

The Idaho State University professor didn’t start out as an environmental crusader. But over the decades, as he’s worked to uncover the pre-classic Maya city of El Mirador, he’s noticed a human tide encroaching on the edge of the site, which is still accessible only by a hard two-day trek on muddy trails from the nearest town.

Atop the partially excavated La Danta pyramid, which Hansen and his researchers assert is the most massive in the world (if not the tallest), Hansen surveyed the western horizon, pointing out where each dry season he can see smoke from fires set by farmers – even within the zone set aside for “sustainable” forestry.

Hansen said the region desperately needs an economic engine to replace exploitation of forest resources before they’re all gone and pastureland creeps up to the temples’ edges.

“The old idea of leaving the forest pretty and green because it’s got orchids and monkeys and parrots, and oh my gosh! – in the States, we get this romantic vision of this – it won’t work,” Hansen said. “Because here’s a guy with a little family, they’re starving to death, the kids are hungry, they’re crying, and what is he going to do? He’s going to go out, he’s going to do whatever it takes to feed his family.”

photo of a ruined pyramid in the junglephoto of a jungle clearcutDavid BarredaTwo views of development: American archaeologist Richard Hansen says ecotourism to the ruins of Mirador could spur job creation. Many residents remain committed to the idea of “sustainable” logging.

Convinced that the ruins and the forest share the same fate, Hansen has enlisted a US-based historical preservation group, the Global Heritage Fund, to propose a 1,266-square-mile ecological/archaeological park. The lowland area, which Hansen and his colleagues call the Mirador Basin, also includes the ancient cities of Nakbé, Wakná, Tintal, Xulnal, Paixban, and Naachtun.

Hansen’s economic reasoning is easy to understand. Just a few dozen miles to the southeast, the fully recovered Maya site of Tikal draws 200,000 visitors a year, generating $20 million annually for the country. Part of Tikal’s success is attributable to the 222-square-mile park that surrounds it. Hansen said El Mirador is an even better tourist destination – bigger, older, and in a more bucolic setting.

For the few history buffs who can make the journey, El Mirador is a real treat. The zone was first settled at least 1,000 years, before Tikal rose to power. Its cities, interlinked by broad raised causeways, were once home to perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. There are dozens of active digs at sites where stucco carvings peek up from the yet-to-be cleared foliage. This spring, Hansen and his colleagues announced the discovery of ancient waterworks richly decorated with stucco friezes that date to 300 BC. Researchers surmise that the artwork of two swimmers represents the hero twins Hun Hunahpu and Ixbalanque, figures from Maya mythology. These panels would be the earliest known reference to Popol Vuh, a Quiche Maya text of the creation story.

But it’s hard to see such finds. Mules are the closest thing to mass transit, and bathrooms are primitive. Sometimes you can get a cell phone signal from the top of a pyramid, but it’s better to have a satellite phone. The site would require massive infrastructure to thrive as a tourist destination.

The Global Heritage Fund has recruited a key ally to help develop the tourist facilities: the US Department of the Interior, which is helping the Guatemalan government with training and park design. The site has also attracted the attention of some rich and high-profile American donors, including Mel Gibson, whose 2006 film Apocalypto was based on research from El Mirador.

“Richard has created a new model for rainforest and archaeological site conservation,” Gibson said at a recent business conference in Miami, “through sustainable programs using the ancient jungle-shrouded cities as the economic catalysts for their own preservation.” Gibson is now chairman of the foundation that runs the dig at El Mirador.

Reaction to the El Mirador park idea has been mixed, in part due to Hansen’s foreign passport and his ability to lure big donors to his archaeological digs. Some Petén residents side with the handful of international development experts who cast the ecotourism idea as a misbegotten colonialist effort to strip Guatemalans of their jobs working the land, forcing them to drive buses and change bedsheets in tourist hotels.Attempts to get the sides talking with one another have resulted in perennial “multisector roundtables,” but progress is slow.

“Richard has generated employment for the community, and I tell you, there are lots of people who are happy because he gives them work for a certain season of the year,” said Juan Trujillo, one of Hansen’s biggest antagonists and mayor of Carmelita, the closest logging town to El Mirador. “But when it comes to the El Mirador project, creating employment doesn’t leave me satisfied. I want them to really give us involvement, and for them to help us build the people’s capacity.”

“If this project isn’t well designed,” Trujillo said, “I think the communities, instead of seeing it as an opportunity, or being the vendors or beneficiaries, will become a threat to the park.”

Deep Roots of Conflict

The northern Petén lowland is at the heart of the Mesoamerican biodiversity hotspot, one of the 25 places on Earth that conservationist Norman Myers identified as the highest priorities for preservation. It is home to more than 3,000 endemic species of plants and animals. That it remains so today is an artifact of natural and political history. Nestled against Mexico’s southern border and Belize’s west, the region is remote, hot, and alternately swampy and parched. Until recently, a few thousand residents lived in remote outposts, cutting wood and collecting forest products such as ramón nuts and xate, an ornamental leaf. A few chicle plantations sprung up in midcentury, but collapsed when alternative ingredients were discovered for chewing gum.

The region, rich in tropical hardwoods, remained unconquered by humans into the late 20th century, primarily because of the lack of economic development and road-building during Guatemala’s 36 years of civil war. The onset of peace meant the resettlement of refugees returning from Mexico and economic migrants from other parts of Guatemala looking for a fresh start on the frontier.

Like other ecological hotspots, the Petén is a moving target. Thousands of farmers and unskilled laborers arrive each year in search of economic opportunities. Forest fires and roads inevitably accompany these settlements. Despite some short-term economic rewards, most Guatemalans recognize that the pattern is unsustainable.

The Maya Biosphere Reserve set aside much of Petén as a protected area. But the 8,158-square-mile reserve was a crazy mix of national parks, community-based logging concessions, industrial concessions, and so-called “mixed-use zones” – a kind of buffer area where agricultural uses would be restricted but not prohibited.

At the center of the zone, 11 communities were granted the right to log 1,851 square miles under the watchful eye of monitors from the Forest Stewardship Council. A limited number of trees of certain sizes and species could be harvested so they would regrow on a decades-long rotation, typically 30 or 40 years. Community leaders established lumber mills and worked with environmental groups to export their wood through Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood program. In exchange, the communities promised to defend their territories against poachers and other invaders, something the government could not have done on its own.

International support for the sustainable logging plan came from foreign governments, including the US Agency for International Development, which invested tens of millions of dollars. Nonprofit organizations also got involved. The Wildlife Conservation Society’s goals are “to conserve wildlife species and their habitat in the Maya Biosphere Reserve while maintaining the economic productivity of renewable natural resources.”

Reports on organizations’ work in the Petén tend to stress progress made in slowing the pace of destruction in communities where their staff and local affiliates have been most active. A recent report from Rainforest Alliance claimed that had it not been for the community logging concessions, much more of the forest would have gone up in flames. The group calculated that community logging concessions experienced one-eighth of the deforestation of adjacent areas that were zoned officially for strict preservation.

“The decision to grant forest concessions” within the reserve, the report concluded, “was contentious in 1990 but has since proven to be strategically astute for the long-term protection of forest cover.”

A Tattered Fabric of Protection

With such a complex reality on the ground, there is no scientific consensus about why the clearing of the rainforest hasn’t been tamed. The Rainforest Alliance study was thoroughly researched using LANDSAT satellite data, but it would be just as easy to draw different conclusions about the causes of deforestation, since the best preserved areas started out with fewer roads and much less water, making them less hospitable for prospective poachers and settlers.

In the western portion of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, at Laguna del Tigre park, the damage has been most severe. In the last decade, thousands of settlers pushed deep into the park and squatted along dirt roads set up decades earlier to supply oil companies. More than 70 percent of the original forest in Laguna del Tigre has been logged or burned. The park rangers who work there are underpaid, underequipped, and under siege. In 2008, the pickup trucks they used were allotted seven liters of gasoline a day, not enough to get back to headquarters, about a six-hour drive away. Over the years, at least three monitoring stations have been burned down to protest the investigation of illegal land grabs.

The community concession system in the eastern part of Petén has also hit bumps. Three concessions were revoked after nonprofit monitors accused their leaders of having failed to tamp down timber poaching, farming, and fires.

Skepticism about the whole method of ecosystem protection has begun to emerge from an unlikely coalition of groups inside and out of Guatemala, including some former supporters. Both sides in the debate cite satellite imagery as evidence that forest clearing has basically continued unabated. At the current rate, Rainforest Alliance predicts, more than a quarter of the remaining forest will disappear by 2025.

A Different Kind of Park

In the last year, a new effort to resolve the conflict has emerged for at least one part of the forest. The government, under the current president, Álvaro Colom, has worked with Hansen to pursue a new strategy, a vision of a park much larger than the envisioned Mirador zone. It’s called Cuatro Balam – an amalgam of Spanish and Maya translated roughly as “Four Directions.”

Though it created a splash last year when Colom announced that Guatemala would build the biggest park in Central America, the project is amorphous. The president’s announcement imagined a University of Biodiversity that would study the potential for bio-prospecting for medicines and set aside large additional tracts for preservation. Colom promised that the plan would draw more than one million tourists yearly to the region by 2023.

The most concrete part of the plan is an idea floated for years by Hansen and Jeff Morgan, executive director of the Global Heritage Fund: a narrow-gauge tourist train that would snake between the trees through the Mirador Basin, making the 57-mile round trip in a day. The multimillion-dollar project, though, can’t get moving without investment from private industry.

A recent fundraising push has attracted powerful allies to the plan, including one of the Guatemalan foundations, PACUNAM, whose members include some of Guatemala’s wealthiest corporations, such as Cementos Progreso, Wal-Mart-Centroamérica, Banco Industrial, and Citi Latin America. In June, the foundation announced that it and the Global Heritage Fund, which each kicked in $215,000 for a three-year tourism development study, received matching funds of more than $900,000 from the Inter-American Development Bank. These funds will first be used to map the area and propose a new tourist route to some of the archaeological attractions. In 2010, the groups say, they will focus on “educating the local populace on the benefits of low impact tourism and actively recruiting their participation.” In the last phase, in 2011, they will start promoting the new tourist circuit. Their modest goal is to boost park visitors to 6,000 a year from the current 2,000.

More jobs would be welcome in the Petén, but there’s still deep-seated suspicion in the communities that a change in land use could strip local people of legal claims to their homes and farms.

The government’s Cuatro Balam initiative, meanwhile, hasn’t gone anywhere, despite a splashy kick-off that including an elaborately produced, invitation-only, Maya-inspired dance performance in the presidential palace and commemorative DVD in brightly colored collector gift bags. Some local officials in the Petén complained bitterly that they weren’t even invited to the capital for the event and were never consulted about how they would like to see their region developed.

As experts debate, the reality on the ground changes. Many communities are arguing that though they were founded outside the bounds of the law, they cannot legally be uprooted. There are estimated to be more than 58,000 people in the area, almost all immigrants in the last 20 years. There are homes, stores, and farms. The people living there maintain that they deserve what other Guatemalans expect from the authorities: electricity, clean running water, and public schools.

Rosa María Chan Guzman, director of the Flores-based nonprofit organization ProPetén, says the key to slowing the destruction of the forest is to address the needs of the poor people who are responsible for the deforestation. Until then, she says, the region will remain “ungovernable.”

“If they want to continue with conservation, they should associate themselves with organizations that are serving as a buffer,” Chan says. “They should be more open to listening to, and perhaps also involving, the local people. They should be represented. Plan with them. Don’t just bring in projects from outside.”

Michael Stoll‘s writing has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and Columbia Journalism Review. He and three colleagues traveled to Guatemala in 2008 with research assistance from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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