Logging threatens Mayan ruins, forest in Guatemala
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
November 13, 2005

In the tropical forests of Guatemala, poor rural farmers and loggers are battling environmentalists, archaeologists, and Mel Gibson over the establishment of a 525,000-acre Mayan national park, according to an article in this weekend's edition of The Wall Street Journal.

The disputed forest is home to what could be the most extensive Mayan ruins found to date. El Mirador, or "The Lookout," is 15 square-miles of buried temples and pyramids that were first uncovered by archaeologist Richard Hansen. Since his discovery, Hansen has worked to ensure their protection by creating a giant national park. His efforts are strongly opposed by some of the country's poorest residents, subsistence farmers who rely on logging and slah-and-burn agriculture for their primary source of income.

After initial winning the go-ahead on the park project in 2002 from then-president Alfonso Portillo, Hansen's efforts have been undermined by local villages who have garnered support from current president, Oscar Berger, in opposing the deal. According to the Journal, government officials have told Hansen to stay out of local affairs.

In response, Hansen has now enlisted Hollywood A-lister, Mel Gibson, in the Mayan park project. Earlier this year, the star actor visited el Mirador to evaluate the site his new action movie -- "Apocalypto" -- shot entirely in an ancient Mayan tongue. Further, Gibson has donated $500,000 towards Mr. Hansen's work at Mirador and agreed to serve on the board of Mr. Hansen's foundation and be a spokesman for the project. Despite the actor's popularity in Latin America with last year's "The Passion of the Christ," his efforts will be facing strong opposition from locals who see can see little value from the establishment of the park.

Forest clearing. Photo by R. Butler
While Hansen argues that villagers will directly benefit from the park with work opportunities as tour guides and service workers, locals are skeptical. General distrust of outsiders will make this opposition difficult to overcome, especially in light of the immediate economic needs of villagers and loggers.

Guatemala's rural population is among the poorest in Central America. As such, people's day to day survival is dependent upon natural resource use. Most rural Guatemalans have few employment options; they must live off the land that surrounds them making use of whatever resources they can find. Their poverty and relative lack of opportunity means the country's forests are falling at one of the highest rates in Latin America. Official figures show that around 80,000 hectares are deforested annually, though some organizations say the figure may be closer to 95,000 hectares -- or 3% of the country's forests -- per year. Not even national parks are safe. Recent surveys have found extensive illegal logging in The Mayan Biosphere Reserve and the Laguna del Tigre national park.

The continuing loss of Guatemala's forests could prove costly for the country. New research suggests that the great Mayan civilization of the past was done in by a familiar problem: deforestation.

This article used information from "In Guatemala, A Battle Over Logs And a Lost Kingdom" a November 12th, 2005 article by BOB DAVIS, Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.

Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com (November 13, 2005).

Logging threatens Mayan ruin, forest in Guatemala.