I first came to Petén in the 1970s, reading a found paperback of The Exorcist to pass a long, dreary bus ride on pocked roads from Belize. Stepping off at Tikal, breathing the jungle air, I immediately felt the rainforest’s richness, its promise of discoveries to come. Later, the night called mysteriously with cries of birds and unseen animals. “There is no place like this on earth,” I thought. Archaeologists and workmen outnumbered tourists like me, who had come to see remains of ancient Maya civilization.
The Petén of those days is gone. Since the 1990s I have reported on the region, drawn by its persistent frontier character, the beauty of still-extant jungle, and most recently, the sensation of being a witness to history in a key corner of the continent. Petén is the center of the largest tropical lowland forest north of the Amazon, a continental lung stretching from Mexican Chiapas to western Belize. It is one of the earth’s remaining safeguards against radical temperature variation. What becomes of its verdant carpet, the concentration of trees that absorb heat-trapping carbon dioxide, links Petén directly to global concern about climate change.
When I arrived more than 30 years ago, tomb-robbing and animal poaching worried Petén. Today it faces challenges so much more fundamental, that failing to meet them means Petén is likely to disappear in the near future as the unique jungle outland of Guatemalan history.
Since 1998, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Petén’s geography and lack of law enforcement has made it a key transit corridor in the international drug trade. Always a pioneer destination, so many peasant farmers continue to arrive, pushed out by Guatemala’s dramatic imbalance in land ownership elsewhere, that forest goes up in smoke at an increasing rate and precious species, some unique to Petén, face extinction. Ranchers destroy forest for pasture. In addition, likely unintended consequences of proposed tourist megaprojects disenfranchise the community and threaten to further upset ecological balance. Official corruption and traditional impunity mean more of Petén each year is sold to highest bidders or crooks who trade in serious threats. Drug-trafficking families are rooted in patches of land they call their own. Petén is presenting a challenge to governability and rule of law.
The spirit of the 1996 Peace Accords that ended the 36-year civil war remains less than fully implemented nationwide. In Petén, the failure takes a special character. Entire communities claim violations of the right—guaranteed in the Accords—to consult on government-granted projects that affect their lives and livelihoods. One example is the recent extension of the Perenco Oil Company concessions in the Laguna del Tigre area. Another is President Álvaro Colom’s multi-million dollar mega-tourism project, Cuatro Balam, involving the region’s biggest private companies, but lacking local input, according toPeténeros.
For all its strategic importance and place in the Guatemalan imagination, the Petén region has been the most hidden in the country’s history. Petén covers a full third of national territory, 23,000 sq. miles, but for the first century and a half of independence, it was the Wild North, the ultimate unknown. Roadless tropical forest infested with deadly vipers, ruled by the kingly jaguar. Better to stay home.
Novels by Virgilio Macal Rodriguez, for instance, still taught in Guatemalan schools, portray the northern jungles as lands of mystery and raging beauty, their inhabitants wise with forest knowledge and instinct, but not always trustworthy. As a young boy, Guatemalan-born writer Victor Perera recalled seeing Lacandón Maya, who once lived from Petén to Chiapas, exhibited in a cage at a fair in the capital. Later, Perera wrote of their hardy culture and developed cosmovision.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Petén’s military governors regarded the Petén’s largely unpopulated tracts as an ideal social safety valve. Landless peasants nationwide had been left with little hope after the 1954 U.S.-orchestrated coup against democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz; the end of the “Ten Years of Spring” had also reversed land reform. Encouraged by the military, peasant farmers in cooperatives, or individually, moved to the North, where they were given titles to parcels but little or no support. Nevertheless, along the Pasión and Usumacinta Rivers, and inland at places like Dos Erres, some cooperatives and communities grew and thrived, despite the jungle soil’s shortcomings for agriculture.
Not incidentally, the existence of population along rivers marking the border was intended to act as a weight against Mexico’s hydropower plans, including a dam that could flood Guatemalan land. In the 1960s, Guatemala City also distributed concessions for oil production to foreign companies under a post-coup petroleum law. The recognition of Petén as a land rich in natural resources, besides hardwoods, had begun.
Tropical rainforests cover only five percent of the earth, but nurture half of all animal and plant species. Petén is home to endangered species, some found nowhere else. When Vinicio Cerezo took office in 1987, heading the first civilian government in a generation, he wanted to be seen as the “green President.” National and international NGOs arrived to help save the rainforest. In 1989, the Law of Protected Areas aimed to prevent timber companies, cattle ranchers and farmers from destroying trees. The following year‘s creation of the four million acre Maya Biosphere Reserve aimed to protect jungle, stop new settlements and provide development assistance to already-resident communities, giving them a stake in conservation. A new entity, the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), was created to keep watch over Guatemala’s reserve of global genetic patrimony.
Those were heady days. International journalists, including myself, reported on a new kind of no-go territory, at least for migrants. The northernmost third of the Petén became devoted to parks, biotopes and multiple-use zones. We watched an influx of environmentalists, scholars and scientists. I visited communities where artisan families, supported in business methods by outsiders, learned to live for a year from products of a single tree, instead of slashing and burning dozens to plant corn. I met women trained to use solar ovens and easily made, low-smoke stoves that replaced open cook-fires, saving not only the forest, but the women’s eyesight as well. In multiple-use zones, communities received concessions for sustainable forestry projects.
In the wake of all the investment and hopes, Petén’s 21st century began with the unexpected—the bolder presence of a global drug trade feeding the U.S. market. Petén has also become clearly marked by the inevitable consequence of Guatemala’s own irrepressible history of violence, and historic imbalance in land ownership: struggles for land are taking place, mostly on the part of poor farm families.
Recently, talking informally with a CONAP official, I mentioned a 1990s visit I had made to the Biosphere’s Laguna del Tigre National Park. The park is among the most important sweet wetlands in Central America, a paradise for bird watching and home to puma, jaguar, and a scarlet macaw sanctuary. I recalled that I had a peaceful run-in at the time with a coyotesecretly crossing an Asian client into Mexico, and also that someone had just burned down a CONAP guard station. The official laughed bitterly.
“I wish those were the problems we had today,” he said.
A visit to Laguna del Tigre revealed what he meant. Entering the park area by car, I saw no forest in two hours of driving, only tree stumps sticking up from the ground like amputated thumbs. Stunningly healthy-looking Brahman cattle roamed, eating spiky pasture grass. A new CONAP building, a handsome one-story cabin-like structure, stood whole, but empty.
In Laguna del Tigre, ranchers abound, and drug families use the cattle spreads as a screen for runways to transport drugs. The small planes may be damaged on landing or simply abandoned once a drop is made, leading Drug Enforcement Agency Operations Chief Michael Brun to characterize northern Guatemala as “an aircraft graveyard.” A vast majority of the cocaine destined for the United States now transits Central America, reports a 2010 U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute monograph. In a hearing of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere of the Committee on International Relations, Rep. Robert Menendez (D. NJ) asked, “ What will happen to the people of Guatemala if 75 percent of the cocaine arriving in the United States continues to pass through Guatemala?” Between 2006, when that hearing took place, and 2008, reports the Army institute monograph, cocaine transit through Guatemala jumped 47 percent.
The CONAP administrator said one drug lord offered him a deal: goons would police the rainforest against destruction, if CONAP would ignore drug drops. “I told him no,” said the official, shrugging his shoulders ruefully.
CONAP, unarmed, has little effective authority and often not even enough gas for its vehicles, although it does manage to capture ill-gotten timber, often from trucks. Police authority remains unrespected. To hunt down a farmer suspected of cutting trees, for instance, it is the army that goes in, accompanied by CONAP and police. The sense of 1980s-style militarization returns. Drug traffickers appear to remain unaffected.
When I arrived to live in Guatemala in 1989, many new acquaintances told me the political violence of the 1980s unfolded in the capital and the highlands, and in the Ixcán, not Petén, honestly seeming to believe it was so. This was prior to the appearance of comprehensive reports such as the Church’s Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI), and the UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission (CEH). Traveling in the north, however, I soon realized the war hit communities once invited to make a new life on the land. Hundreds had died, the majority at army hands. The region’s displaced, and many others uprooted when hundreds of villages disappeared elsewhere in the country, sought survival in Petén’s remote jungle, where they have lived as farmers, some for more than twenty years, without electricity or medical clinics. In 1990, eleven “illegal” communities existed in Laguna del Tigre. Today they number thirty-seven, with a total population of about 45,000.
Even Peténeros with legal land titles do not always rest easy. Parcel holders outside the protected areas, in a block of communities south of Las Pozas, battled the bureaucracy’s famous trámites (paperwork) for twelve years until receiving proper documentation for their land. Now many say they are under pressure to sell, including threats of violence. The sold land becomes part of the growing African palm oil industry, held by private companies.
Petén is not only Guatemala’s largest department, but also the fastest growing in terms of population, from just 25,000 in the 1960s to an estimated 614,000 residents today. The Cuatro Balam initiative, announced with much fanfare in 2008, plans to meet job and development needs for Peténeros by expanding tourism, granting rights to private companies for business in the rainforest area, and aiming to bring up to a million tourists to Petén each year. (Tikal, the best-known ancient Petén Maya site, currently draws between 140,000 and 180,000 visitors yearly.) Cuatro Balam plans include a university specializing in environment studies, a belt of hotels and resorts, and an agricultural sector to keep farmers out of the core area.
Critics say such development by private companies will destroy much of what is left of the Petén rainforest. Local residents complain they are not consulted about plans that may change their lives considerably. It remains a question whetherPeténeros, traditionally farmers, cattlemen and others who work with the land and forest, will easily become a tourism workforce, or even be interested in the jobs.
Cuatro Balam is set to be anchored by the sprawling El Mirador archaeological site, with the Maya world’s largest pyramid, Danta, and many smaller sites. Deep in thick rainforest seven miles south of the Mexican border, El Mirador is reached by three-day trek from the nearest town, or by helicopter. By 2023, however, Cuatro Balam expects to run a train at ten miles per hour on jungle tracks, with noise “imperceptible,” to El Mirador, Piedras Negras, Tikal and Uaxactun. Critics suggest tracks may interrupt some animal trails, maintenance access roads will destroy more forest, and question to whom the train’s noise will be “imperceptible.”
Details are hard to pin down. “There is much yet to get concrete,” said Alexander Urizar, director of the Institute of Anthropology and History. “The vision of the Maya Biosphere was protection. Cuatro Balam is a way to conserve it, to make sure people know about it, and make sure it generates resources.”
The Global Heritage Fund has named the Mirador project area as one of the most important endangered world cultural heritage sites. It is indisputably the country’s highest profile archeological enterprise. An executive director of the foundation that sponsors the Project is actor and director Mel Gibson, who produced the 2006 film, Apocalypto, controversial among Maya scholars. Archaeologist Richard Hansen, the project director who has worked in Mirador for thirty years, emphasizes the need to preserve Mirador’s rainforest environment, not simply structures. He has said he envisions a five-star eco-lodge developed by Guatemalan entrepreneurs as an example of the kind of tourism that could draw in funds to help preserve the Biosphere.
“This is the last gasp,” Hansen told the Guatemala magazine, The Revue, in June. “If we fail, we lose the whole basin. I want to preserve it for the future.”
Cuatro Balam itself, however, can arguably be seen as a development project and investment opportunity rather than a conservation effort. The idea behind it is that poor countries cannot afford to rope off sensitive land, that it must produce some economic gain for a nation and its people. Colom has emphasized partnership with private enterprise; already supporting the El Mirador “centerpiece” are major partners such as Wal-Mart Central America, construction material giant Cementos Progreso and several banks, with the Inter-American Development Bank matching private funds.
Residents of Laguna del Tigre worry. “Cuatro Balam is the biggest monster,” said one long-time area farmer. He was attending a meeting with 25 men and women in La Libertad, to discuss challenges to their vulnerable situation. “What they want is to eliminate our communities, but we will defend life.”
A government video describing Cuatro Balam in the year 2023 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pt3EPvuk8Qk), calls its land “free of invaders,” operating under the “rule of law.”
On the feast of St. Amelia, patron of one Laguna del Tigre community, a Catholic priest baptized babies, asked a blessing for wild forest animals, and addressed the congregation’s concerns in a homily. “First before all is the human being,” he said, “and then companies. We can join with other groups in the monte to make our situation known.”
Petén will continue to be a promised land for Guatemalans looking for work and land. It will be a proving ground for commitment to the Peace Accords, a test of will and capacity to fight drug traffic and corruption. Guatemalan and international visitors, meanwhile, will come as I once did, for the love of sites of ancient Maya civilization, the adventure found on Petén’s rivers and in its wildlands, and the chance to know Central America’s own enchanting rainforest, vast stretches of jungle that exist much as they did at the time of creation.
Fall 2010 | Winter 2011, Volume X, Number 1
Mary Jo McConahay is co-producer of the documentary Discovering Dominga. Her book, Maya Roads, a thirty-year narrative of a journalist’s travel in Chiapas and Petén, appears August, 2011, from Chicago Review Press.
I traveled to Guatemala for the first time in late 1980, believing, with the breezy confidence of a 20-something, that my photographs of Guatemala’s war—army, guerrillas and terrified civilians—would bring me photographic stardom…
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