POPTUN, Guatemala – It’s been a long day, and Rosa Maria Chan is still not finished. She’s traveled for hours on twisty, rocky country roads, held community meetings in three villages, toured a cacao farm, met with the liaison for funding from the World Bank and a tilapia farmer, answered questions all day long from a visiting journalist, checked in with the Guatemalan Vice-Minister of the Environment and a score of others via cell phone, and ate a hasty dinner while checking her e-mail.
It’s 9 p.m., and by most people’s standards, it would be a good time to turn in. She has a two-day workshop on watershed protection beginning tomorrow, and she needs to prepare.
But now the mayor of Poptun is here, visiting with a Guatemalan legislator who is head of the committee on environment, and she has some networking to do.
There’s no such thing as down time for Rosa Maria Chan, director of ProPeten, archaeologist turned administrator of one of the country’s most respected environmental organizations. The tireless drive she once applied in six-day jungle expeditions, like the one where she discovered an ancient Mayan village she named Zapote Corozal, she now channels into marathon searches for funding.
This time, however, she’s motivated not by the call of an ancient people but the spirit of their descendents, migrants who have been pushed off their land by poverty and war. These are the people she sees as key to a stable, sustainable future for a seriously troubled region.
The Peten, home of Tikal and a host of other magnificent Mayan cities, takes up a third of Guatemala; it is the largest of the country’s states, or departments. Until relatively recently, it was an untamed jungle wilderness. In the 1960s, that began to change, with the construction of a new highway, followed by wealthy landowners coming in and clearing the jungle to make way for enormous cattle ranches. These landowners, called latifundistas, were seeking a calmer place to live, away from the conflicts in the highlands resulting from an attempt at agrarian reform, and Kek’chi and Mopan Mayas moved there to work the plantations.
The ‘70s and ‘80s brought a different sort of migrant, those fleeing violence in their homelands in the highlands. In three decades, the population of the area increased 10 percent each year; in 1990, the former wilderness was home to 300,000. But the bulk of the newcomers didn’t find the good farmland they were hoping for, as most of that had already been snatched up by the latifundistas. Instead they settled on parcels on the hillsides and planted their milpas as they had for centuries. The forest was decimated.
In 1990 the government responded to international pressure to preserve what was left of the forest – mainly a huge swath of jungle and wetlands in the north, where the Maya Biosphere Reserve was created, forming the largest natural preserve in Central America. In 1995 it followed suit with four smaller preserves in the south of Peten.
In theory, it sounded good. The problem was that the people living there had nowhere to go. A long-range plan to resettle them was not carried out, and continued population growth led more and more people to invade the preserves, causing escalating conflicts, especially in the region of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, where ProPeten – at that time a project of Conservation International – had a field station to do research and work with local communities to protect the preserve.
Unfortunately, people in the local communities saw the environmental community as a threat to their survival. The tensions culminated in the burning of the field station and a highly publicized incident in which members of the ProPeten staff were held hostage.
This was all before Rosa Maria’s time, but she relates the history as if it were her own – as it was soon to be, as Carlos Sosa, her longtime friend and mentor and the founder and director of ProPeten, asked her to become the head of its board of directors. “I know you, and I know you will never sell out ProPeten,” he told her.
The hostage crisis, Rosa Maria says, just brought to a head the differences in philosophy between the staff of Conservation International and the local staff of ProPeten. As she sees it, Conservation International, like most of the mainline conservation organizations at the time, took a strictly conservation-oriented approach, whereas the local staff recognized the need to integrate social policies into the organization, a need that CI failed to respond to.
“That’s why I refer to myself – and to ProPeten – as an environmentalist, not a conservationist,” Rosa Maria told me on the day we met. “I see people as part of the environment, and if you don’t include them in your plan, it will fail.”
Sosa gave up trying to convince the Conservation International leadership to change their strategy and decided it was time to separate. What ensued was a painful power struggle that Rosa Maria euphemistically calls “a divorce.” As chair of the board of directors, she was drawn into the struggle. It was a nightmarish time that she doesn’t like to recall, especially the most painful part. During that year, Sosa was diagnosed with late-stage cancer, and soon after, he died.
The board of directors called an emergency meeting and immediately asked Rosa Maria to take over as director. It was a difficult decision, as she was currently involved in a high-profile archaeological project at Piedras Negras, listed as one of the world’s most endangered historical sites by UNESCO. The organization was left nearly bankrupt and without even an office or supplies after the rift with CI. Most people would have run in the opposite direction.
But Rosa Maria felt called to the task. She finished her two-month commitment at Piedras Negras and set to work rebuilding the organization. Seven years later, by all accounts, her work has paid off; ProPeten is seen locally, nationally and internationally as one of Guatemala’s most successful environmental organizations.
One key to Rosa Maria’s success has been her longtime experience working with government and nonprofit agencies. She started by working her way through college in a job with the Guatemalan Secretary of Planning. Here she learned how to do budgets and negotiate the system, and she began to build allies at the national level. She later held jobs with several other nonprofits, including the German nonprofit GTZ, and learned how to write fundraising proposals.
On a normal day, she juggles telephones and e-mail accounts and meetings with the agility of an acrobat. But today, she’s left all that behind to enjoy the fresh air of the countryside and meet with some of the communities she’ll be raising funds for. I’ve been invited to ride along, because this is really the only time she has to meet with me. So she and two ProPeten staffers, Elder Hernandez and Hector Choc, explain to me some of the many programs ProPeten is sponsoring in the countryside as we bump along a country road past scorched hillsides and grazing cattle.
On this particular day, she’s meeting with some of the five communities that have expressed an interest in starting cacao farms. Rosa Maria is approaching international foundations to find the funding for this project, and she wants to be sure the communities are prepared to invest the time necessary for a successful project.
“Cacao is a good thing to promote here because it’s native to the area, and it’s part of their indigenous tradition,” she explained. “It requires shade, so it’s a form of agroforestry, which protects the soils and the watersheds.”
Ultimately, however, perhaps the most important result is to give these families a way to earn a living on their own land without slashing, burning and using it up, as so many families have done. It will also give them the incentive to resist the land speculators coming through to buy up tracts for the oil palm companies, which ProPeten and other environmental groups see as an increasing threat to the region.
Other programs that ProPeten is sponsoring now throughout the countryside include tilapia ponds, ecotourism projects, a educational program with a soap opera and xate cultivation – xate is a native plant used by the floral industry which has been severely depleted in Guatemalan forests by foraging campesinos who sell it to make a living.
In fact, the illegal harvesting of xate has grown to the point that, as Guatemalan forests have been depleted, people have been crossing over the border to Belize to harvest their xate. The plant is now in danger of extinction and the government has passed a law requiring xate dealers to verify that their harvests come from legitimate sources. Guatemalan incursions into Belize for xate harvesting is on the decline in the past year, Rosa Maria’s Belizian contacts have told her, in part due to the new law and in part because of the xate cultivation promoted by ProPeten.
After two days in the communities come two days of meetings of an entirely different sort: local and regional leaders gather to map out a strategy for watershed protection. Then, on Saturday, a meeting with a local women’s cooperative.
While Rosa Maria’s work may be tiring, it is not without its rewards. Southern Peten has embraced her with open arms, and everyone from the mayor to the local agriculture administrator and the head of the regional planning department shows up to spend two days mapping out a watershed management plan under her direction.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with Rosa Maria since the beginning of my administration and I’ve seen the success she’s had administering this organization and working with the local groups and the municipality,” said Poptun Mayor Angel Kilkán Ochoa. “She’s a woman of enormous vision, and I wish we had 10 or more people like her, and that all the municipalities would work with her and her team to lift up our communities together.”
Donald Perez, coordinator of the regional organization of community leaders, agreed. “I would say that today, ProPeten is the NGO with the weight and experience to represent the initiatives of conservation and human development in Peten – and given that Peten represents a third of Guatemala, we could say that we’re really good ambassadors for conservation at an international level for our country, thanks to the live experiences of ProPeten that are excellent examples.”
Here are some images from the four days I spent with Rosa Maria, Hector and Elder. The videotaped interview with Rosa Maria (above) is available only in Spanish at this time – sorry!). For more information about ProPeten, visit their website, www.ProPeten.org.