Guatemala’s environmental issues, particularly in regard to tropical deforestation, can seem daunting at times. The country and its people seem to be caught in a vicious cycle that will end only when the environmental degradation reaches its peak and the consequences are fully reaped. It seems greed, apathy, poverty, corruption, ignorance, and neglect have all conspired against Guatemala’s precious natural resources.
I do not mean to sound pessimistic in my introduction to this subject. I just think I’ve had the opportunity to see what’s at stake, having explored much of Guatemala during my teenage years and seeing firsthand the gradual encroachment of the agricultural frontier into what was once virgin forest.
It is hoped that visitors to Guatemala, much like those to Belize and Costa Rica, will play a pivotal role in getting Guatemalans to fully appreciate the abundant natural heritage with which their country has been blessed, enabling the conservation of these resources to become a source of economic and moral value.
There is a long way to go to make environmental awareness a matter of national consciousness. The problem of raising this consciousness is exacerbated when one takes into account the overwhelming lack of education of the general populace, with its alarming levels of illiteracy, and the fact that environmental protection always takes a back seat when it comes down to a question of preserving the forest or cutting it down to plant subsistence crops.
At the same time, there is much to be hopeful about, particularly in the past 20 years since Guatemala’s democratic opening, when the country finally had a civilian president interested in environmental matters. In addition to establishing The Maya Biosphere Reserve, Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo pushed through congress much of the legislation serving as a basis for the protection of Guatemala’s natural heritage.
Many valiant Guatemalans have likewise done their part to establish a genuine environmental movement in their country. Their courage is underscored by the fact that, in Guatemala, environmental activism necessarily entails standing firm in the face of death threats and intimidations. Environmental protection often conflicts with the interests of the still-powerful agricultural elites, among these lumber barons, drug cartels using remote parks for illicit activities, cattle ranchers, some of whom have military ties, and land-hungry peasants. Environmental martyrs are many in Guatemala, much the same as the legacy of those campaigning for greater respect for human rights and better socioeconomic conditions. In these ways, environmental issues in Guatemala are largely circumscribed within the larger social issues of endemic poverty, power politics, and the rule of law.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com