Ranchers, drug barons threaten rain forests

Great sweeps of Guatemalan rain forest, once the cradle of
one of the world’s great civilizations, 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

Looters and poachers, kept at bay when guerrilla armies
roamed the region during the country’s 36-year civil war, ply their trades

“There’s traffickers, cattle ranchers, loggers, poachers
and looters,” said Richard 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. “All the bad guys are lined up to destroy the
reserve. You can’t imagine the devastation that is happening.”

President Álvaro Colom has grand plans to turn the region
into a major eco-tourism destination, but if he hopes to bring tourists,
officials say, he will have to bring the law here first.

The reserve, about the size of the US state of New Jersey,
accounts for nearly two-thirds of the Petén 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.

2,600 years old

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 civilization
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.

The threats to the reserve are many and interlocking, legal
and illegal. Claudia Mariela López, the Petén 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 Petén 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. In
some cases, they function as an advance guard for the drug dealers, preventing
the authorities from entering, warning of intrusions and clearing land that the
drug gangs ultimately take over.

A recent US State Department report said that “entire
regions of Guatemala are now essentially under the control” of drug trafficking
organizations, mainly the Mexico-based Zetas.

A trafficking hub

The drug organizations have bought vast cattle ranches in
the Petén to launder drug profits, as well as to conceal a trafficking hub,
including remote, jungle-shrouded landing strips. Cattle ranching in the Petén
has quadrupled since 1995, with herds totaling 2.5 million cattle, according to
Rudel Álvarez, the region’s governor.

“Organized crime and drug traffickers have usurped large
swaths of protected land amid a vacuum left by the state, and are creating de
facto ranching areas,” Mr. Álvarez said. “We must get rid of them to really
have conservation.”

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. The remote dirt
road that leads to the reserve is lined with newly razed cattle ranches.

This rapidly deforesting mini-narco-state is a far cry from
President 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. It was
ostensibly intended to stem the northward migration of farmers and ranchers.
Through a combination of public and private financing, he hopes to build an $8
million electric minitrain to shuttle tourists through the reserve and a Maya
studies center for scholars.

The goal is to attract one million tourists a year to the
reserve by 2023.

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 Petén.

the government remains hopelessly outgunned. The entire Petén, nearly 14,000
square miles, is patrolled by 600 soldiers, police officers and park guards, Mr.
Álvarez said. Isolated and underpaid, the security officials are also
susceptible to corruption.

Álvarez himself is under investigation for money-laundering, charges he says
are false.