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Latin America Kavitha Dispatch

Deep in the Rainforest

Do you know where the largest rainforest remaining on the entire continent of North America is? No, it is not in Costa Rica. The largest rainforest is part of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve in the Peten region of Northern Guatemala. This 6 million acre rainforest is home to a great diversity of plants, trees, and animals. It acts like an important 'lung' for the earth - helping to eliminate carbon dioxide and to add oxygen to the atmosphere.

After hearing from the rest of the team about the beauty of the ancient Mayan ruins and forest of Tikal, I knew I had to make the long journey to Peten. Instead of going to Tikal, I decided to keep heading north on the bumpy dirt road, deeper into this rainforest that not only contains the ruins of the ancient Maya, but also houses the villages and homes of their direct descendants.

Within this vast tropical rainforest reside three different cultures: the Lacandones on the western border with Mexico, the Itzaes in central Peten, and the Mopanes on the eastern border with Belize. These three cultures are directly related to the Mayans who once ruled the area.

This morning, I made the long journey to the beautiful village of Uaxactun, a village built upon ruins that date back earlier than the ruins of Tikal, perhaps as long ago as 2000 BC. When I arrived in Uaxactun, I was immediately greeted by a group of children, all of whom were curious about the stranger in the minivan. The road to Uaxactun is a seldom-used dirt road that turns into a river when it rains. Cars passing through are a rarity.

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Manuel points out a maguey plant
My new friend, Manuel, an 8 year old who has never been outside of his village, was happy to show me around the forest he knows so well. He showed me the plants his family uses for medicines, like the beautiful Magei plant, that you put in the sole of your shoe to cure infections like athlete's foot. He climbed up trees and showed me the edible fruits and plants that he likes to eat. Families in the area have lived off the bounty of the forest for centuries, but unfortunately, their beautiful home is now under attack.

Deforestation is one of the most serious problems facing Guatemala today. In the past 30 years, the country has lost over 50% of its forest. Unfortunately, most of the deforestation is happening in the extremely fragile area of Peten. Even though the region has officially been established as the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, much of the forest is still being cleared for development and agriculture.

Kavitha and Hilda
Hilda Rivera works with the Frontier Agricultural Program, a group that has been working for years to stop the deforestation in the Mayan Biosphere. "Unfortunately, this area is very young, virgin land, and is terrible to grow food on. To our south, the rest of Guatemala and Central America is a chain of volcanic land, which is very old, so the soil is rich and good for farming. But, this rainforest area in Peten is very young and has very little humus (soil good for farming) yet. That's why it's so important to leave the forest in tact, so that its canopy and the deep roots of its trees can give the soil time to form," Hilda explains. When people clear the land to farm in the rainforest, the soil becomes completely infertile after a few years, so they must move on to clear a new patch of land.

Since the establishment of the Mayan Biosphere, several governmental and non-governmental groups (NGO's) like Hilda's and ACOFOP (the Association of Forest Communities of Peten) have been trying to stop new people from moving to the forest and clearing the land. Furthermore, they have been working with the groups indigenous to the land to train them in useful skills so that they can sustain themseles in the forest.

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Kavitha beside a chicle tree
Manuel's father left early this morning to cut bamboo in the forest to sell, so that his family could buy food to eat. Indigenous peoples of northern Peten have been making a living by extracting such renewable resources as bamboo for many years. The biggest export of the region is the gum-like substance collected from the chicle tree. They collect the sap by chipping into the bark and letting the sap drip out. Thus the tree continues to live. Other big exports are allspice and decorative ferns (like the ones that come with roses and floral arrangements!). These Mayans have lived with this forest for thousands of years, and realize the importance of preserving it, so they are more than happy to find ways to live off the forest without killing it.

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Kavitha and Manuel chilling lakeside
After walking around with Manuel, and seeing the beauty to be found in the forest and ruins, I was soon confronted with a very disturbing reality. The people and the forest in Uaxactun are in more immediate danger of destruction than I had ever imagined. Foreign companies wanting to drill for oil! Together we can stop this! Find out more about this critical problem and how you can help in my next dispatch. It involves an international letter writing campaign...


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