All that remained among the charred ruins of Conservation International's biological field station in Guatemala was a small, wooden plaque hand-painted with the words Laguna del Tigre. Thirteen employees were taken hostage by 60 heavily armed men, who burned the station to the ground during a raid inside Laguna del Tigre National Park.
By the third day of negotiations, the employees were released. But a larger, more threatening situation remains: Illegal land-grabs in parks and other protected areas could bring ecological disaster to one of the most biologically rich nations in the hemisphere.
Guatemala's historic peace accord, signed in late 1996, ended 36 years of civil-war bloodshed. President Alvaro Arz was justly heralded for putting into place a peace process centered on human rights, with promised fair treatment and economic opportunities for the rural poor. An unintended consequence is that refugees are flooding into Guatemala's forests to seek that opportunity. Park protection, once the job of the military, is virtually nonexistent because the Army's role has been drastically reduced owing to its record of human rights abuse.
Illegal settlement in protected areas is not new or limited to Guatemala. The tragic irony is that peace is increasing pressure on ecologically valuable areas. The urgent message to Guatemala's leadership and the international community is that environmental protection must be an official part of the peace process.
Ecologically, the Petn region, locale of Laguna del Tigre, has national and international importance. It claims some of the world's highest levels of biological diversity, with many plant and animal species found nowhere else. It includes an internationally recognized wetland and the UN-designated Maya Biosphere Reserve. In 1988 Guatemala's conservationists declared the region their No. 1 priority. Settlements in such areas destroy forests and put a nation's ecological future in the balance.
A trade-off between conservation and human rights is not necessary. To the contrary, Guatemalans will ultimately lead impoverished lives if natural resources are destroyed. (A mere glance at much of Africa, Eastern Europe, and Haiti provides painful reminders.)
Already, largely because of recent massive migration, the Petn's population has gone from 10,000 in 1960 to more than 400,000, and growth continues at 9 percent a year. Most are poor farming families who burn forest patches for milpas (small plots) that soon become wasteland because of inappropriate soils and bad agricultural practices. The answer lies in satisfying both needs - to (a) provide the disenfranchised poor with land, economic opportunities, and stability, and (b) protect natural resources necessary to sustain prosperity.
Soon after the peace accord, Mr. Arz stated plans to modernize the agricultural sector by improving technology, diversifying crops, and opening markets. These efforts should be stepped up in the Petn, combined with stronger protection of parks.
MONEY is not a problem. As a result of a UN effort to ensure success for the peace process, the international community has committed $3 billion to aid Guatemala. The US share includes $255 million in grants and $5 million in loans. Some of the money should be used to develop alternatives to traditional subsistence farming, including job creation in ecologically friendly industries such as ecotourism. Tourism shows tremendous economic potential, particularly with the famous Mayan archaeological site at Tikal within the protected forests of the Petn.
Peace process funding should also be directly allocated to equip Guatemala's National Park Service with a sufficient and well-trained staff. The service has only 50 officers and six trucks to patrol some 1,400 square miles, an area larger than Yosemite National Park.
President Arz will be remembered as a hero for peace and democracy. He can be remembered as well for protecting prosperity and security by revisiting Guatemala's commitment to the environment, as evidenced by its creation of national parks in the first place.
* Peter A. Seligmann is chairman and CEO and James D. Nations is vice president of Conservation International, a Washington-based environmental group.