Deep in the untouched forests of northern Petén  in what archaeologists call the Mirador Basin, far from the throngs of tourists at other Mayan sites, lie the overgrown remains of the most fascinating cities ever built in Preclassic times.
Some of its sites, including El Mirador  and Nakbé, are being excavated and have yielded many clues concerning the advanced nature of early Mayan civilization. As the excavations continue to bring fascinating new discoveries, archaeologists, conservationists, and local residents remain at odds about how best to preserve the remaining Petén forests and the important monuments they harbor.
At the heart of the controversy is the proposal for a Mirador Basin National Park, spearheaded by UCLA’s Dr. Richard Hansen, who heads the excavation project at El Mirador. The park would stretch clear to the Mexican border at its northernmost points, encompassing parts of Mirador–Río Azul National Park . At its southern tip, it would stretch all the way down to Biotopo El Zotz–San Miguel la Palotada . The area is home to Petén’s last remaining expanses of well-preserved forests.
Hansen envisions a large national park guarded by armed rangers similar to those of the U.S. National Park Service. There would be several luxurious ecolodges, visitors centers, an airstrip, a narrow-gauge railroad, and hiking trails linking the various restored Mayan sites within the basin. The proposed park would be roughly four times the size of Tikal National Park  and would be largely based upon the same management model. Hansen sees the potential to accommodate up to 80,000 visitors per year.
Against the odds, Hansen has made some incredible headway toward achieving his ambitious goals. In 2002, President Alfonso Portillo agreed to create the Regional System for the Special Protection of Cultural Heritage as a means of protecting archaeological sites and declared 2,400 square kilometers of the Maya Biosphere Reserve  as a “special archaeological zone.” Its official name became the Mirador Basin. The agreement nullified community forestry concessions permitting sustainable logging and forest-product extraction in multiple-use zones near the Mirador Basin archaeological sites, much to the dismay of the local communities benefited by the concessions.
Hansen also found the support of former President Oscar Berger and important government officials in the departments of archaeology, forestry, and tourism. He also has representatives lobbying the Inter-American Development Bank for funding and has rallied wealthy investors inside and outside of Guatemala to his cause. All of this is being coordinated through The Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies (FARES), established by Hansen in 1996.
In 2003, the California-based Global Heritage Fund and several other organizations donated $880,000 toward the restoration of four temples at Nakbé. FARES currently provides the funding for year-round protection of the Mirador Basin sites from looters. In the long run, Hansen believes increased tourism could fund the preservation and protection of the sites, making the project self-sufficient while providing new economic opportunities for residents.
In 2009, Hansen secured $1.3 million in funding to develop a holistic management plan for low impact tourism in the region. The Colom administration has officially announced the park’s protection as part of a plan known as “4 Balam” and several international organizations have stepped in to provide funding and logistical support for the park’s creation and management. Among these are the Global Heritage Fund, the Foundation for Cultural and Natural Maya Patrimony (PACUNAM), and FARES. PACUNAM’s members include eight of Guatemala’s largest industrial groups: Cementos Progreso, Wal-Mart-Centroamérica, Fundación Pantaleón, Cervecería Centroamericana, Banco Industrial, Telgua/Claro, Disagro, and Citi Latin America.
The tourism development plan will take three years to implement. The Interamerican Development Bank donated $907,700 towards the project and the Global Heritage Fund and PACUNAM each donated an additional $215,000. The plan’s first phase will map the region and propose a route that encompasses the main archaeological sites found in the area. The second phase of the project will involve educating the local populace about the benefits of low-impact tourism and will actively recruite their participation. The final phase will involve active promotion of the new tourism circuit with the goal of increasing park visitation from the current 2,000 annual visitors to 6,000.
Hansen’s plans, though well-intentioned, have met substantial opposition from local communities and Petén’s powerful environmental groups, who have spent many years and millions of dollars developing relationships with local communities to encourage the sustainable extraction of forest products. The sustainable forestry programs have received support from The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Agency for International Development, among others.
Some believe the communities could receive greater economic benefit from sustainable forestry than from working as staff in tourist hotels and restaurants. The community of Uaxactún , for example, was awarded a sustainable forestry concession in 2000 by CONAP and villagers there have made a living from collecting forest products for decades.
Although the park itself will supposedly be without roads, new infrastructure would have to be built to make the region more accessible to visitors, raising the specter of a much-talked-about road connecting Tikal  to Mexico’s Calakmul .
Representatives from various NGOs working in Petén cite a study predicting the loss of 60 percent of the forest in Mirador-Río Azul National Park  within 15 years if the road is constructed. For more information on the Mirador Basin project, check out the FARES website at www.miradorbasin.com .