This past weekend I had a different, eye-opening sort of adventure here in Guatemala. Two friends of mine, Paul (he was assistant principal when I taught at Mitchell) and Max (met him through Paul) are working to start an organization called RIOS Guatemala. The organization "fosters the enjoyment, preservation and restoration of Guatemala’s wild river ecosystems primarily through sponsoring responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well being of the local people." (Read more here: www.riosguatemala.com) They are also hoping to build a base camp that will provide a location for education as well as adventures. There is a man (Horacio) who owns a piece of land and is looking for someone who wants to buy it, but also preserve it. So, Paul and Max invited me to explore this piece of land and see if it is the right land to start working on their dream.
On Saturday we all got together to explore the land. It is pretty amazing how much area he owns. We started the trip in the upper part of his land on horseback. On a rather unimportant side note, this trip made me realize that I am not really comfortable on a horse. I thought I was, but going up and down steep rocky trails and deepish (would have been chest deep for me) rivers taught me otherwise. Also, if you have a boney butt, and have not been on a horse in over ten years, it is probably best to not be on one for four hours! The things is, despite my nervousness and butt pain (and the bugs), I loved it. It was an amazingly beautiful area. There were places with views where we would be able to see the lake (if it weren't so smoky) as well as areas completely enclosed with trees of different types and sizes. I could just imagine running and hiking the trails or camping out under the structures Horacio had built. I don't think my photos or description does the area justice. But I left there in love with the area, wishing I had the money to buy and preserve it.
|Deep river crossing (Max was not dry by the end!)|
|Simpler river crossing|
|Ceiba tree - my favorite!|
When we finally got back to the car, we were all starving and decided to drive to the town of El Estor for lunch. On the way there, we saw the horror and destruction that could come if that area is not preserved. Areas that had been forest were now fields. Much of the land is being sold or leased out to grow sugar, African Palms (to make palm oil), rubber trees, and bananas. It was unbelievable the stark contrast from the lush forest I had been in less than an hour ago. This past December I did the same drive and don't recall seeing any of it. My mom e-mailed me today saying she remembered it as a "beautiful area." I don't think anyone can describe it that way any more.
|Fields that had been cleared and are now being burned|
|Trees that had been dug out|
To add more contrast to our day, we ate lunch at an ecohotel surrounded by lush forest, right on the lake. As we were eating, three monkeys and two iguanas (all wild) decided to make an appearance.
|Monkeys in the tree at lunch|
Driving through the area of destruction was even harder the second time because I really had a chance to look at it. It was no longer shock I felt, just sadness. I understand that the people who own the land want the money that comes from the products that are being grown, but I really don't get it. It is such a beautiful area, I just want to shake them and then take them to the forest and help them understand what they are doing. Not only are they destroying the trees, but are driving out the animals, not to mention that the smoke from burning the trees has created a constant haze over the country.
|Empty fields and dead trees|
|Fields cleared to plant sugar cane|
|Fields of African palms with forest in the back|
That night we slept on Horacio's land in a house by the lake and woke to a tree full of howler monkeys. I felt as if they showed up to tell us how important it is to preserve their land.
|Marshland with crocodiles (we didn't see them) on the property|
|Paul and Horacio looking at the monkeys in the tree|
I have no solution to this problem, nor any idea of really where to start. What Horacio is doing is amazing. He has a great relationship with the people who live near his land and they work together to preserve the forest they have. His love of trees was apparent every time he showed us a seedling that was healthy and made sure a stick was put next to it to prevent people from stepping on it. I also think that RIOS Guatemala is a fantastic idea. They can work from there to preserve rivers in the area and preserve the forest while they are at it. I wish it was all that easy, but as always, there are logistics to work out, money to be raised, etc.
I guess for me, for now, I will share what I saw. I will show my students, they will be the ones running the country someday. I will not forget what I saw. I will not eat sugar. And I will jump at any opportunity to help. Because what is happening is just not okay.