By Greg Harman
MÉRIDA, Mexico, November 10, 2009 (ENS) – Archeologist Richard Hansen, an expert in early Mayan civilization, studies human culture down to the microscopic level. And he knows what the signs of collapse look like.
While his research has helped show how enormous, elaborate pyramids rose in the jungles of what is now Guatamala as long as 3,000 years ago, it has also chronicled how these early cities were abandoned after deforestation forced their collapse.
“In the Mirador area, the Maya lived very well for a thousand years, the pinnacle of complexity in the Western Hemisphere,” Hansen said. But at some point, power and the desire for grander displays of that power, took hold. A period of “conspicuous consumption” began, bringing on the end of the Early Maya period.
“They started laying floors, for example, 40 centimeters thick. Why do you need a floor 40 centimeters thick? Because you can,” Hansen said. He says their ambitious construction projects required massive amounts of wood to be burned to create lime for construction cement – spoiling the carefully developed agricultural richness of the region.
The similarities of those signs of collapse to today’s extractive culture are hard to escape. Examples of ecologically unsustainable practices are being discussed and dissected at most sessions here at the Ninth World Wilderness Congress in Mérida, Yucatán, an event that draws together top conservation officials and activists from across the globe to tackle trans-national wilderness issues.
A woman from India decries the exotic game poachers in her country. A UN official laments the rapid spoiling of our oceans. And Mexico’s lifeblood, her water resources, strains beneath the weight of overly intensive agricultural use, a panel of speakers told attendees gathered from 57 countries.
Even without the dire spectre of climate change, “mitigation and adaptation will become fundamental if we want to have water enough for this and coming generations,” said Omar Vidal, director of the World Wildlife Fund – Mexico.
Most of Mexico’s watersheds have extraction rates above 40 percent and 101 major aquifers are now considered “over-exploited,” he said. “Seventy percent of the Mexican population … are at great risk of water shortage.”
Fortunately, help appears to be on the way.
At the opening of the working congress, Mexican President Felipe Calderón announced the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the United States, Canada, and Mexico for wilderness conservation.
Calderon said the agreement, if ratified, “will make it easier to exchange successful experiences, facilitate monitoring and the training of human resources, as well as financing projects that will protect and recover wilderness areas.”
The agreement would create an intergovernmental committee to help guide conservation strategies across borders, improving wildlife habitat and helping to facilitate migration.
Similar governmental promises were echoed on Monday as the congress’ planning sessions got underway.
José Luis Luege Tamargo, director of Mexico’s National Water Commission, pledged to get a grip on agricultural and tourism-related destruction of shoreline mangroves along the coasts.
“In our constitution, as you probably know, water belongs to the nation,” he said. “It is the government’s right to protect all bodies of water, including mangroves.”
The strong talk brought applause from hundreds in the audience.
Tamargo, too, promised reforms and a new direction – infrastructure upgrades to replace leaky septic systems and water treatment plants for the sensitive Yucatán region.
While some attendees expressed skepticism at how or when such promises would be fulfilled, Pati Ruiz Corzo, director of the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve in Querétaro, said her faith is firmly in the power of “social pressure.”
“In order to make it happen, the civil society needs to push, pull, and carry them at the speed we need,” she said. “That’s why I’m always trying to push them from bottom up. Things do not happen easily here – or in the States.”
With the fast approach of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen next month, this congress, organized by The Wilderness Foundation and held roughly every four years, is placing a strong emphasis on natural areas’ ability to help mitigate climate change. The gathering adopted the slogan: “Wilderness, the Climate’s Best Ally.”
The chairman and Executive Committee of the 9th World Wilderness Congress today issued The Merida Message, calling for the protection of critical land and sea wilderness areas to mitigate climate change and conserve biodiversity and healthy ecosystems that provide products and services vital to human well-being.
Various models of wilderness protection are being discussed and questioned at the congress, from dependence on eco-tourism to forest protection via an expected expansion of carbon-credit markets worldwide.
But it will take more than selling carbon sinks to offset industrial pollution to protect the wild. For wilderness to be preserved, the needs of people must be met, as well, keynote speaker Jane Goodall said.
“How can we possibly save the natural world if people living around a national park are struggling to survive?” she asked.
Goodall’s response to the human needs around her adopted Gombe Stream National Park in western Tanzania was to support better access to education and develop a program of micro-credit loans.
University of Idaho archeologist Hansen, too, puts little faith in the long-term safety of forests without providing a sustainable economic model for those who live in and around them.
Within the Mirador Basin of Guatamala, considered the last tract of virgin rainforest remaining in Central America and the birthplace of the Maya, Hansen is working to establish a bi-national wilderness archaeological preserve straddling Guatemala and Mexico.
He is fighting to keep logging roads out of the area. Roads bring slash-and-burn agriculture, he warns, and drug runners have been known to launder their money through cattle operations, bringing further destabilization.
“These logging models have failed. They’re losing money and they have to be subsidized. Where they put their logging roads, they lose the forest. If we want to keep the status quo, we can guarantee a forest lost in 10 years,” Hansen said.
Instead of roads, he hopes to construct a small train network to transport tourists to El Mirador’s pyramids from nearby towns. That development, though resisted by some environmentalists, would improve the economies of the area communities while preserving the forest’s remarkable biodiversity, he said. The preserve would also allow the sustainable harvest of some renewable resources such as chicle, used in chewing gum.
Hansen argues that basic economics supports his argument for tourism-based preservation. For example, the five remaining logging concessions in Guatamala’s Mirador zone provide $740,000 to the national economy each year.
By comparison, the pyramids and platforms of pre-Columbian Maya civilization at northern Guatamala’s Tikal archeological site bring in $220 million per year from visitors from around the world.
“We can generate hundreds of millions of dollars more per year conserving this area than logging it or cutting it for milpas or using it for cattle,” Hansen said.
This year’s World Wildlife Congress has attracted more than 1,500 attendees and continues through the weekend.