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El Peten, Guatemala - Theodore Roosevelt, one of America's crusading conservationists, wrote this in 1905, about national parks: "They cannot, in the long run, be kept as forests and game reservations unless the settlers roundabout them believe in them and heartily support them.".
Teddy Roosevelt's observation could be made today about national parks in the developing world. In many areas, exploding populations of poor farmers see wilderness refuges as unused land, ripe for settling and sowing.
Today, Guatemala and an army of international conservation organizations are fighting to preserve a vast area of tropical forest, wetlands, and Mayan ruins in its northern province, the Peten. It is an area larger than the state of Connecticut, called the Maya Biosphere Reserve.
Our weatherbeaten longboat labors upstream, deep into the heart of the Guatemalan rain forest. We are traveling up the San Pedro River, a sluggish, tea-colored stream that forms the southern boundary of the Laguna del Tigre National Park, one of two sprawling parks inside the Maya Biosphere Reserve.
As the boat approaches, alligators splash into floating water hyacinths, mangrove swallows flit millimeters above the water, and far beyond, in the forest, cougars and jaguars stalk their supper.
As we round a bend in the river, we see the first evidence of the park invasions that have bedeviled preservationists. Black smoke drifts up from a patch of forest that an immigrant farmer is burning to make room for his crops. In two to three years, when the corn and beans have exhausted the land's fertility, the farmer will likely slash and burn again - just as the Mayans did here 2,000 years ago.
The village of El Buen Samaritano, located just inside the park, is populated mainly by Maya Kekchi Indians who migrated from the Guatemalan highlands south of here.
"We know this is an area for the animals and for the reserve, but there is nowhere else to move," says Marcelino Tista, a community leader.
Conservationists have learned that anyone who takes a vigorous stand against these illegal colonizers does so at their own peril. The US environmental organization Conservation International has had a particularly rough go of it in the Maya Biosphere. Last March, a group of squatters - angry at CI's opposition to their illegal settlements - kidnapped the station's 13 employees, looted the compound, then burned it to the ground. The hostages were later released unharmed.
A few months later, a local conservationist named Carlos Catalan, who worked with CI, was gunned down for his outspoken opposition to illegal activities in the Biosphere.
Hours later, our boat noses up to the dock at CI's torched biological station. A half dozen employees who have stayed on to rebuild the research station sit around a table in candlelight, slapping mosquitos and recounting that day.
"They tied us up in the boat and began to take out everything," said one man. "Laboratory equipment, our electric generator, chainsaws, radios, cooking equipment, a 40-horsepower outboard motor. They took everything. Then they burned it all to the ground."
The CI abductions - which made little news outside Guatemala - were actually the second kidnapping by increasingly brazen squatters inside the Biosphere. In March, a large group of armed colonizers blocked an attempt to evict them and took 40 government officials hostage. After tense negotiations, the squatters extracted a pledge by the government that the estimated 700 peasant families living illegally inside the parks could stay. Though the Guatemalan government now promises to remove any newly arriving squatters, environmentalists are outraged by what they see as the government's capitulation.
"They should have enforced that law from the very beginning and made it very clear: this is a protected area, it belongs to all Guatemalans, and you cannot go in there," said Guatemalan environmentalist Magali Rey Rosa. "But there was never any intention of doing that."
The government is in a delicate position. In December 1996 it signed a peace accord ending a bloody, three-decade- long guerrilla war. Many peasants mistakenly believe that the treaty includes promises of free land for the landless, and they are coming to the Peten to claim it.
"There are two ways to resolve the problem," said Rodolfo Cardona, director of the National Council of Protected Areas, the government agency responsible for the Biosphere. "One is to come one day with the military, well-armed, and tell everyone it is time to leave. The other is the road of negotiation, which is more feasible given the peace accords. Put yourself in our place. You want us to go against a group of peasants who are victims of 400 years of repression. That is not possible."
So now, the Guatemalans are not only trying to take care of the largest protected area in Central America, but they must find a way to let scores of poor farmers live there without destroying the adjacent rain forest. That is where conservation organizations come in. Some of the US environmental giants - such as Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy - are working in a US-funded project to save the Maya Biosphere.
They are setting up forestry concessions so towns outside parks can sustainably log nearby woodlands. They are helping small farmers outside the parks to secure titles to their property so they will not get restless and invade the protected areas. And they are even working with the squatters who have been allowed to stay, teaching them how to farm the thin, limestone-bottom soil more effectively.
Manuel Banos works for Conservation International, the biggest of some 30 nonprofits in the Peten. He steers a Toyota truck down a washboard road, between cattle pastures that were dense forest 10 years ago. Banos views the work of CI not only through the eyes of a late-blooming environmentalist, but also as a "Petenero legitimo," a native of the Peten.
"People think they can just take any piece of land, but they are irresponsible," he says. "Our mission is to teach them that a cornfield is not the only way. There are many ways to live off the forest without destroying it."
As part of that mission, Conservation International is promoting traditional forest harvesters who collect floral palms and chicle sap for export. It has opened a Spanish- language school for tourists, it has created a factory that makes potpourri from forest detritus, and it has formed ecotourism cooperatives.
Reginaldo Gomez takes adventure tourists through the jungle for US$85 a head. During the two-day trek, they climb hidden Mayan temples, drink water from vines, and watch the evening emergence of a bat colony.
Overall, he gives the alternative income projects mixed reviews. "Ecotourism has been growing very slowly," he said. "Sometimes the tourists come, sometimes they do not. We need more publicity. We cannot live off it yet. It is the same with the potpourri. It has brought some benefits, but not many."
After the US Agency for International Development has spent some US$17 million on conservation work in the Peten since 1990, some observers wonder - with the region's myriad and persistent problems - what is to show for it?
"The Spanish-language school and the potpourri factory generate income for local people and do not destroy the Biosphere," said Rodolfo Cardona. "But that is not the main problem. The big problem in the Biosphere is uncontrolled invasions."
Conservationists who have spent years trying to save the Mayan forest bristle at Cardona's criticism, because the social problems forcing people into parks are so far beyond the scope of US environmental organizations.
"You have a population growth rate in the Peten right now of between 9% and 10% per year," said Jim Nations, vice president of Conservation International for Mexico and Central America. "That is a lot of people moving into the Peten every week, every month, every year. We cannot create jobs fast enough to give all those families alternatives to farming."
But when it is time to take stock, Nations thinks conservation efforts - limited as they are - are working. "The fact that the reserve is still there to me is the first sign of success."
The author, based in Austin, Texas, is a correspondent for National Public Radio in the United States. He can be reached via email
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