The Fires of El Petén

There’s a magic to the jungle in Petén that you can’t find anywhere else. That’s a cliche, but the undergrowth is alive and old —stand under the trees and listen to the countless living things around you, and you will for a moment catch a glimpse of yourself stuck in deep time; a mote floating on a sunbeam, tiny and new. Those who’ve experienced this feeling have tasted a deeper part of Guatemala —they have wandered and in wandering glimpsed a tronche of this land’s deep natural history, touched slice of eternity nestled in the warm bosom of the earth.

Unfortunately, the Republic of Guatemala seeks to put a price on this priceless natural wonder. Environmental activist Roberto Arias said that there is no framework in place for the protection of this jungle, and that if there were, “most ranchers would slash and burn for cattle, crops, and landing strips anyways.” The cost of this non-policy is a raging wildfire that’s been spreading for weeks, upending the region and growing more menacing by the day.

The fires that burn Petén come, for the most part, from out-of-control trash fires started by narcotraficantes and other settlers who come to claim the jungle as their own. International and national groups seeking to protect the jungle have proliferated. Mexico and Honduras contributed firefighting helicopters to bolster Guatemala’s efforts. Still, the jungle is vulnerable. In 1962, 1988, 1998, 2002, and 2003, Petén was scorched by massive fires.

Those who fought to stop these fire work long hours in dangerous conditions. States of emergency and firefighting efforts can’t stop these fires from consuming some 15,000 hectacres. The jungle has burned and will continue to burn unless we can take the necessary steps to protect one of the great jungles of Latin America and all the world. Petén will recover slowly, as did the jungles of Vietnam sprayed with Agent Orange. That herbicide stripped plants of their leaves and left the earth scarred with bald spots —empty spaces haunted with the carcinogenic wages of war. Today, the jungles of Vietnam are growing back, with shoots springing up to reclaim those empty spaces. The process is slow, and the jungle takes its time, but there is levity too —a winking optimism, the confident busyness of a resurgent living community, living things remaking what had been burned away.

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