EL MIRADOR, Guatemala — 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 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. “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 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.
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…
[continues in the New York Times]