The site of Waka' sits at the heart of Laguna del Tigre's core biosphere zone. More than 10,000 hectares of mature tropical forest and world heritage wetlands surround the site core of approximately 900 hectares. Beyond that, in collaboration with government and non-government partners, the Waka Archaeological Research Project seeks to enhance protection of another approximately 60,000 hectares of forest and wetlands to the north of Waka'. The southeastern salient of the Park is also home to two invader communities: Paso Caballos to the east, and Buen Samaritano to the west, both on the San Pedro Martit River. Both of these communities have negotiated agreements with the Council for Protected Areas and exist within established perimeters in the Park. The Waka' Project hires workers from both Paso Caballos and Buen Samaritano, as well as from two communities just outside the southern border of the Park, Centro Campesino and a string of villages along the road to San Benito we collectively call "Cruce Perdida" (the crossroads at Laguna Perdida.)
From 1960 to 1996 Guatemala endured the longest civil conflict in the history of Latin America. The war displaced thousands of farming families who sought new places to call home. Many of these landless families established communities within Guatemala?s protected areas. The issues surrounding communities within Guatemala?s protected areas are complex, and experts, institutions, and individuals have weighed in on both sides polarizing the debate. In some cases, communities have been evicted from protected areas, only to return, or retaliate against those removing them from what they consider to be the only chance for them to make a life for themselves and their families. In some cases, as in Laguna del Tigre, the Government took the initiative of changing the designation of some of the already occupied land from reserve, creating polygons of multipurpose land, where farming is permitted.
Dozens of communities have now established themselves within Guatemala?s national parks. Their impact grows with their success, straining the edges of the multipurpose polygons, at times spilling over in the form of new invasions. The challenge, therefore, is sustainability ? the key concept of conservation ? and one which remains elusive and problematic in complex situations such as that in Laguna del Tigre.
When work began at Waka? the vision was one of long-term commitment to research at the site, and to work within the park. Co-directors David Freidel and Hector Escobedo recognized that any long-term commitment would have to include forming collaborative relationships with the communities in closest proximity to El Per?. Though these communities had no experience working on archaeological excavations, the majority of the every season?s workforce has come from the communities of Paso Caballos, Buen Samaritano, and Cruce Perdida, all communities within the boundaries of Laguna del Tigre. Augmented with experienced excavators from Dolores, a community famous for its tradition of archaeological excavators, the project has quickly developed a skilled and dedicated work force.
Paso Caballos, a K'ekchi' Maya community, was established in 1992 near the headwaters of the San Pedro Martir River. It is the natural gateway into the Laguna del Tigre Park and the terminus of the only open land route into the Park from the south. The Waka' Project works with men and women from the community. The project houses and feeds all work staff during the field season in addition to wages. People working for the project learn new skills, including masonry, carpentry, vehicle operation, and cooking, in addition to archaeological field excavation techniques. People who have been working for the project for the last five years are now effective advocates for Park development as the viable route to a secure future, as opposed to invasion and deforestation activities paid for by cattle ranchers, wood thieves and others.
The Council for Protected Areas (CONAP) maintains a guard house at the bridges on the only road access to the park, but unarmed guards are no match for the people intent on taking over the Park, precipitating its collapse, and transforming it into lucrative tracts of private or multipurpose use land. The only real obstacle that can be placed in front of this imminent threat is Paso Caballos. The Waka' Project works to sustain the loyalty and support of Paso Caballos, Buen Samaritano, Centro Campesino, and Cruce Perdida, through continued work in the archaeological site, while working to expand the communities? potential as a partners to government in and around the park zone. Our goal is that ultimately this could include site maintenance; wilderness road and trail design, construction and maintenance; tour guiding; survey; and reconnaissance.
Our work with communities is vital. Through word of mouth from our workers, people in the communities to the south of the Park border are learning first hand about what we are trying to accomplish at Waka'. By including them in our work, and arranging work parties consisting of individuals from all four communities, we are fostering cooperation and relations of confidence between people who might otherwise regard themselves as competitors for the limited opportunities. Each of these communities controls some important aspect of the future security and well being of the park. Buen Samaritano, the other invader community, is in a position to impede further destruction of forest along the western flank of the enclave if its people feel that they have a major stake in the survival of the forest enclave. Cruce Perdida communities virtually control the road that tourists and their guides must travel to come into Waka'. By providing people in these communities with sustained employment over a period of years, we seek to gradually establish the future survival and welfare of Laguna del Tigre Park as goals in their local political and social deliberations. The reality of Pet?n is that Peteneros have to stand against those who would destroy the forests.
Our site at Laguna del Tigre.