Despite war, Salvadorean salvages endangered forest, ancient city

Francisco Serrano is a man with a vision - but one quite different from the dreams of guerrilla or army triumph held by many Salvadoreans. Mr. Serrano's vision is to create a national park system in El Salvador. And despite a national preoccupation with war, he has managed to convince the government to take steps toward his goal.

In this sparsely populated backwater on the Guatemalan border, Serrano, who is director of the government's Department of National Resources, has started the process of saving two of the nation's most important ecological and historical sites.

''When the agrarian reform was implemented in 1980,'' Serrano says, ''we realized that one of the last reserves of mature forest and the pre-Columbian city buried in Cara Sucia would be included in the expropriated land.''

Carra Sucia, which is composed of 15 temples and an acropolis, was a thriving Indian commercial center 500 years before Christ. The forest, called El Imposible, is part of the ''2 percent of the original forest (that) is left in El Salvador,'' Serrano says.

He and other ecologists and archaeologists petitioned the government to save the mountainous forest and the ancient city in Cara Sucia. Then they requisitioned 27 other sites affected by the agrarian reform.

Several months were spent in negotiations - months that proved disastrous for some of Serrano's plan.

Those who owned the land, realizing that expropriation was only weeks away, pillaged the property.

Towering mahogany and cedar trees were cut and sold. More than 600 people were hired to dig trenches into the temples, ball courts, and structures at Cara Sucia. More than 50 percent of the Indian city was destroyed.

A year after the land was expropriated, Serrano managed to begin caring for the forest and ancient site. Yet even now his small band of forest rangers are threatened by poachers who come to hunt the deer and vicious dark lizards known as garrobos. Looters still manage to get into the archaeological sites to smuggle artifacts to swank galleries in the United States and Europe. And the sites have yet to be officially turned into national parks.

Serrano also must contend with the war, which drains an increasing amount of state revenue.

''The workers now excavating and repairing the damage to the city and the other natural and archaeological areas affected by the agrarian reform,'' Serrano says, ''are being supported thanks to the employment generation funds from AID (The US Agency for International Development). This is a most significant part of our budget.''

Serrano says no other Latin American country has suffered as much damage to its forestland as has El Salvador.

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