Great sweeps of Guatemalan rain forest, once the cradle of one of the world’s great civilsations, are being razed to clear land for cattle-ranching drug barons. Other parts of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Central America’s largest protected area, have been burned down by small cities of squatters.
Looters and poachers, kept at bay when guerrilla armies roamed the region during the country’s 36-year civil war, ply their trades freely. “There’s traffickers, cattle ranchers, loggers, poachers and looters,” said Richard D Hansen, an American archaeologist who is leading the excavation of the earliest and largest Mayan city-state, El Mirador, in the northern tip of the reserve.
The reserve, about the size of New Jersey, accounts for nearly two-thirds of the Peten region, a vast, jungly no man’s land that juts north into Mexico and borders Belize to the east. Spanning a fifth of Guatemala and including four national parks, the reserve houses diverse ecosystems with niches for jaguars, spider monkeys and scarlet macaws.
Pre-Colombian inhabitants mined limestone quarries here 2,600 years ago to build the earliest Mayan temples. The temples would tower above the jungle canopy before the cities were abandoned as Mayan civilisation mysteriously collapsed around the ninth century A.D. Some sites generate robust tourism. The spectacular Maya city Tikal, which draws up to 350,000 visitors a year, is a relatively well-protected oasis. Only about 3,000 visit El Mirador, which contains what may be the world’s largest ancient pyramid structure.
Many threats to the reserve
The threats to the reserve are many and interlocking, legal and illegal. Claudia Mariela Lopez, the Peten director for the national parks agency, said about 37,000 acres of the reserve was deforested annually by poachers, squatters and ranchers.
The squatters are mainly peasants who have come in search of farmland. But the population of Peten has grown to more than 500,000 from 25,000 in the 1970s, according to a UNESCO report. Not all of the residents are illegal, and many seek no more than subsistence.
Willingly or not, they often become pawns of the drug lords. The squatters are numerous, frequently armed and difficult to evict. Cattle ranching in the Peten has quadrupled since 1995, with herds totaling 2.5 million cattle, according to Rudel Alvarez, the region's governor.
Deforestation has led to soil erosion at Yaxchilan, a Mayan city across the border in Mexico, which in turn has swollen rivers that erode limestone temples, said Norma Barbacci, regional director for the World Monument Fund. Ash from the squatters’ burns to clear fields for planting cause acid rain that wears at temples.
Fires, tree poaching and ranchers are encroaching in parts of the Laguna del Tigre national park in the western part of the reserve, threatening a sanctuary for 250 endangered scarlet macaws, the country's last, said Roan McNab, country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Jaguars, crocodiles, river turtles and monkeys are also losing their habitat, he said.
The road to El Mirador, a five-day mule trek from the town of Carmelita that involves occasional bushwhacking with a machete, passes countless ditches where looters have ripped out Mayan graves. A wild toucan rockets down and then disappears off into the canopy. The remote dirt road that leads to the reserve is lined with newly razed cattle ranches, and the persistent buzz from a logging company drowns out the rain forest's more subtle cacophony.
This rapidly deforesting mini-narco-state is a far cry from Colom’s vision of a lush Mayan-themed vacationland. His ambitious Cuatro Balam plan, named for the four main figures in the Mayan creation myth, would divide the reserve into an archaeological park in the north and an agricultural zone in the south, was ostensibly intended to stem the northward migration of farmers and ranchers.
Guatemalan authorities have made some progress. Soldiers have blasted craters in secret landing strips and kicked squatters off protected lands. The government says it has retaken 269,000 acres of protected land in the Peten. But the government remains outgunned. To Hansen, an Idaho State professor of archaeology, the risks of not protecting the region are obvious in every stone he unearths. The Maya, he said, largely sealed their fate through deforestation and erosion.