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Guatemala guards its rain forests.

When the Conservation International Foundation (C.I.F.) held its board meeting in Antigua, Guatemala, last February, vice president James Nations predicted that if tropical forest conservation failed in Guatemala, it did not stand a chance anywhere else in the hemisphere. A landmark 1990 law created a 4-million-acre Mayan Biosphere Reserve in the northern region of El Peten that is becoming the blueprint for rain-forest conservation in our part of the world.

In Antigua, Nations hailed the youthful staff of the National Council of Protected Areas (Conap), which manages the Biosphere Reserve, as "the finest group of conservationists in Latin America." Among other supporting factors Nations mentioned the "Ruta Maya," an ecotourism project, and the continuing negotiations to link the Peten with rain-forest reserves in southern Mexico and Belize to form a three-nation Maya Peace Park, the largest of its kind north of the Amazon. The U.S. Agency for International Development has put out bids for a $5 million package to create "extractive reserves" in the Peten for the sustainable exploitation of rain-forest products such as chicle gum and the ornamental Chamaedorea palm or xate.

Perhaps the most promising development is President Jorge Serrano Elias's aim to replace Vinicio Cerezo as Guatemala's "environmental president." Serrano, a Pentecostal preacher, aroused fears that he would steal a page from his mentor, born-again evangelical Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, and "seize the presidency to carry out God's designs." But whereas former president Rios Montt surrounded himself with cronies from his California-based Church of the Word, Serrano began on a pragmatic note when he named opposition leaders to head his Cabinet. (Critics point out he had little choice, as the narrow coalition Serrano rode to office is drastically short on talent and experience.) No appointment of Serrano's has proved more controversial than his selection of a hard-line conservationist engineer, Antonio Ferrate, to head the embattled National Commission of the Environment, which administers Conap.

In March, Ferrate kicked off his tenure by revoking all logging concessions inside the Mayan Biosphere Reserve. "If we give in to the loggers' demands and grant concessions," Ferrate reasoned, "thousands of hungry colonists will use the logging roads to slash and burn protected forest for their corn fields. And the cattle ranchers and oil drillers will be right behind them." Ferrate has a grim precedent to draw on: In the past decade Peten, which occupies the northern third of Guatemala, has lost more than half its forest cover to loggers, cattle ranchers and the still rising influx of new colonists [see Perera, "A Forest Dies in Guatemala," November 6, 1989].

In private, Ferrate acknowledged that his uncompromising stand would be taken as a declaration of war by the powerful loggers and their allies in the army and in the government's corrupt Forestry Department, Digebos.

Nations, who worked for ten years in Chiapas, Mexico, and Peten before he joined C.I.F. last year, warns that Guatemala's courageous conservation efforts could still be torpedoed by contraband loggers and their friends in high places. Months before the revocation of concessions was made public, loggers in Naranjo, on the Biosphere Reserve's wild northwest frontier, incited colonists to set fire to Conap guardposts. The four resource monitors assigned to Naranjo, who are not permitted to carry weapons, fled for their lives. Inevitably, this assault hurt the morale of guards in other stations throughout the reserve, as the contrabandists intended. Elsewhere, mayoral candidates ran for office on pledges to rid Peten of all meddlesome conservationists.

In February I met with biologist Hilda Rivera, the 29-year-old coordinator of Conap, who became the chief target of the loggers after she intercepted trailers loaded with 48,000 cubic feet of mahogany board lumber inside the reseve. The logging permit bore an authorization from Digebos, which has offices inside Peten's Chief military garrison, in Santa Elena.

After Rivera filed charges against the contrabandists, then-President Cerezo called her about a spate of death threats coming through his office. She adamantly refused the offer of a bodyguard. "What would I say to my 18-year-old unarmed guards, who stare down smugglers with guns pointed to their heads, if I were to show up with an armed bodyguard? It is out of the question!" Rivera's "iron lady" reputation owes much to her mentor Mario Dary, the father of Guatemala's environmental movement, who established the country's first ecological parks, or biotopes, starting in the late 1960s. Dary was murdered in 1981 after he tried to stem the flow of drugs in San Carlos University, where he was rector. But he could as easily have been killed by any one of a host of other enemies of his environmental initiatives. (Rivera resigned her Conap post in March but plans to continue her conservation work in Peten.)

Last fall I toured the reserve with Rivera's assistant, Roman Carrera, a 23-year-old Peten native and undergraduate student. The future of the reserve is in the hands of an ecological youth corps of university students, farmers and chicle gatherers, most in their early 20s. We toured Conap stations in Dos Aguadas, Uaxactun and Tikal, and we had encounters with smugglers, a poisonous snake and the head of the "Sawmill of the North," Antonio del Cid, who bitterly denounced Conap's restrictions on his activities. But the gloating tone I remembered from our encounter two years earlier, when loggers had carte blanche to harvest hardwood timber, had been replaced by a sanctimonious self-justification. Del Cid claimed that leftist guerillas had seized all but 200 of the mahoganies he had felled in the Sierra del Lacandon, inside the reserve, and forced his chain saws and skidders out of the area.

Carrera, who like many of Conap's seventy-five resource monitors once worked for the sawmills, assured me that del Cid's crew had taken out all the 2,000 marked mahoganies before their work was disrupted by guerrilla collaborators and the logging ban. The roads they bulldozed through the forest would be used by colonists to down any surviving hardwoods. Carrera warned that in common with the fer-de-lance we encountered that morning, "a logger is most dangerous when his back is to the wall."

My admiration for Carrera and his colleagues rose a notch after I met with the interim commander of the Santa Elena garrison, Col. Gomez Portillo. (The base's previous commander, Col. Garcia Catalan, had been reassigned the week before, apparently to protect him from fallout from the investigation into the murder of the American Michael De Vine, who is thought to have stumbled on drug-trade activity involving the garrison. In Guatemala, human rights, drugs and forest conservation are increasingly interwined.) "Who is Conap allied with?" exclaimed Gomez Portillo, a strapping, blue-eyed six-footer who did his postgraduate training in Leavenworth and Fort Benning. "They ask us to collaborate with them, but where do their loyalties lie? Digebos has its offices here in our barracks, and we work in perfect harmony."

I reminded the colonel that in accordance with the Conap charter, to which the army is a signatory, it is responsible for protecting borders against illegal contraband and other depredation. "Yes, but where are those borders? They have never been clearly defined. How can I deploy my men along hundreds of kilometers of borders that don't exist?"

"I believe they show up quite clearly in Landsat satellite images," I said. "They show incursions by Mexicans into northern Peten to log, hunt and cut clearings for their cattle."

"I have patrolled those areas myself," Gomex Portillo parried. "I found no loggers and no herds of cattle. A few fields of marijuana, yes, and we are dealing with those in collaboration with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency." (Garcia Catalan had warned Rivera, "If you see marijuana fields, check with me first. Chances are they may belong to influential families, and are therefore out of bounds.")

Gomez Portillo insisted on taking me around the base, one of the largest in Guatemala, to show me each of the 200 saplings his soldiers had planted in keeping with the military's new conservation awareness. A poster on his office wall showed a cat in army fatigues planting trees with peasants under the legend, "The army and the people are one big family."

Most of the 200 saplings planted in remote corners of the base were already engulfed in weeds, and no attempt had been made to camouflage the giant felled trees in zones of new construction. In the artillery range we passed a billboard with a slogan aimed at new recruits: "The enemy is not defeated in battle. You vanquish him by destroying his mind, his intelligence and his will."

At dinner with Roman Carrera that evening, we went over the encounters with Antonio del Cid and Gomez Portillo. "It is true," Carrera said, "that for men like del Cid and the colonel, a three is either an enemy or a product to be cut up and sold for profit. But with international support, we are at last putting these men on the defensive. We of Conap and the other conservation agencies can help to educate a new generation of soldiers and young army officers who are sensitive to the importance of protecting our natural resources. The fact of hunger is an imperative here; those of us who have worked the soil would rather face an armed contrabandist than evict a poor maize farmer. When we look a soldier in the eye, we know that he may have worked his fingers to the bone in his father's milpa or picked coffee in a wealthy landowner's plantation. We have the patience to address that soldier because we know we are setting a precedent for those who come after us. The teaching of environmental science, whose natural laws supersede the military's and the loggers' codes, is at the heart of wat we are trying to accomplish."

Carrera's eloquent appraisal is being put to the test along the Mexican border. President Serrano's new Defense Minister, Gen. Luis Enrique Garcia Mendoza, appears to be taking seriously the military's responsibility under Conap's charter. Two hundred soldiers and elements of the Treasury Police accompanied Conap resource monitors on patrol along the Biosphere Reserve's northern border, not far from the Mayan ruins of El Mirador. In the past year, after the governor of Chiapas declared a compete logging ban in that Mexican state, idle sawmills in neighboring Campeche and Tabasco have turned to processing timber smuggled with falsified contracts from inside Guatemala. In late March the army confiscated 3,500 contraband mahoganies and Spanish cedars near the border, and seized a number of vans, bulldozers and chain saws. The army also arrested seventy-two-Mexican contrabandists. An arrest order was issued for Abraham Sion Lizama, a former Peten governor who collaborated with the contrabandists, but it has since been rescinded by a Peten judge.

The arrests sparked an outcry in southern Mexico and in the "loggers' mafia" in Guatemala where the conservative press has targeted Conap with a barrage of defamatory articles. But the Peten sawmill operators, who are only too glad to be rid of their Mexican competitors, have been placated thus far by the offer of the 3,500 decommissioned hardwoods.

If the contraband logging from Mexico can be halted, it will mark the first important victory for conservation forces in Guatemala, a victory that will resonate well beyond the borders of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve.

Victor Perera, author of Rites: A Guatemala Boyhood, is working on a contemporary portrait of Guatemala.
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Author:Perera, Victor
Publication:The Nation
Date:Jul 8, 1991
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