Archeologist Richard Hansen wants to create a privately managed and US government-funded tourist attraction in Guatemala’s Ancient Mayan city of El Mirador. Hansen and US Republican senator Jim Inhofe, infamous for his denial of climate change, wrote bill S.B.3131 to help fund his project. The bill would give developers $60 million in taxpayer dollars. It also helps them get access to $60 million more from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration. Hansen hopes to use the money to build a miniature train, resorts, and restaurants that would make the ruins more accessible and attractive to tourists. In a call with a possible investor, Hansen called the resorts he hopes to build, a “Mayan Disney.”
He believes this project will “change the entire destiny of the country,” arguing that it protects the environment while providing economic stability. On the other hand, Senator Inhofe, a passionate anti-environmentalist, supports the bill because he believes the project will create economic security that can reduce Guatemalan migration to the US.
Guatemalan locals are working hard to oppose Hansen’s project. The country’s Archeological Association, the Mayan People’s Council, the Peten Forestry Community Association, the Mayan Sage Council and many more are lobbying against government support for the project.
“Our nations were never consulted nor informed about this proposal and have never given their consent. Who has given you the right to sell our territory and Our Big House to such characters or whatever they are? Who did you ask permission from? We ask ourselves: What Mayan peoples or groups have you consulted? Have you taken the position of the community members who have worked with you on these projects seriously? And, if you don’t know, there is a wide range of Indigenous or Mayan organizational processes and governance structures in Guatemala… Our civilization never collapsed, sir. The Mayan are still alive and defending ourselves against looters… All of you share an admiration for the material legacy of our ancestors, those great achievements that have impressed the world. But when it comes to us, the Mayan descendants of today, you despise, humiliate, and plunder us with contempt. Respect our territory, our Big House, it belongs only to us, the Mayan Nations. There are people who thank you for your archeological excavations. We have nothing to thank you for, we have never asked you to make your explorations on our territory, our Big House.”
Thousands of people living in El Mirador today work for the forestry concessions program, which would be banned under Hansen’s plan. The program has been in place since 1996 and employs members of the community in sustainable logging and carpentry. It makes nearly $6 million in annual revenue, boasts a deforestation rate close to zero, and includes community members in decision-making processes. Hansen’s environmentalist intentions have been questioned as the concessions program has received mass praise for its success in preserving the environment.
The infographic notes that the El Mirador community has “defended the area from livestock invasion, drug trafficking, industrial-scale logging, and more.” The Mayan People’s Council believes Hansen’s plan “is not real development” as it fails to consider the fact that the El Mirador communities manage the concessions program.
Erick Cuellar of ACOFOP, a coalition of forestry communities said on a Facebook live with the Mayan People’s council: “our community organizations have worked on this model for many years. We have been engaging in community-based processes and training our community, which has brought about many socio-economic benefits. The environmental benefits that come from this are not just for Peten, but all of Guatemala and the whole world.”
Lindoro Hernandez, employed by the concessions program, called Hansen’s efforts to help the community a “big lie.” Hernandez said his plan “shuts communities out” and forces them to “no longer be main actors or owners in the process.” Tour guide Juan Carlos Crasborn said, “many people in my community think we’re better left the way we are.” Thomas Barrientos of Guatemala’s Archeological Association told Vice News, “we don’t see genuine Guatemalan involvement in the decision making… So I hope that we can retake that road and have more Guatemalans participating in this.”
Collaboration between Hansen and local concession communities seems unlikely. In an interview with Vice News, Hansen said the Guatemalan people who have called his plan imperialistic, “lack vision,” and made gestures insinuating drug use on the part of those opposing his plan.
Guatemalans in the US have spoken out against Hansen’s proposal, using social media to bring this under-reported story to people’s attention. A change.org petition created in Los Angeles has garnered mass support, receiving over 200,000 signatures in less than four weeks. Many who signed the petition are calling Hansen’s plan “modern-day colonization.”
Guatemalan law would need to be changed to accommodate for Hansen’s plan, as El Mirador is in a protected National Park, where private development is against the law. Cuellar, the director of a forestry community coalition, believes: “Our communities have shown that we don’t need to create a new law to protect El Mirador. What we do need to do is strengthen the model that Indigenous and local communities have been working on, because they have been doing a great job.” Hansen has met with Guatemalan politicians and informally presented his plan to congress.
This past June 28, the Guatemalan government released a statement in support of concession communities. The government revealed that they do not endorse any international or national financing for the project as the “correct institutions had not authorized it.” Hansen and Inhofe’s US bill is currently awaiting consideration by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Guatemalan archeologists, concession communities, and Indigenous organizations came together to assert autonomy over their land, and so far, it seems as though they are winning.
Featured Image:The summit of the tallest Maya pyramid in El Mirador, La Danta. Credits: Global Conservation.
Maria Hernandez Pinto | Pitzer College
Maria is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Foreign Languages at Pitzer College, where she is a rising junior. Born in Guatemala to Colombian parents, Maria has always been deeply invested in Latin American issues. She is passionate about Latin American politics, human rights, and community development. She is looking forward to using storytelling as a tool for advocacy while writing about Ecuador, Guatemala, and Venezuela as a Latin American Correspondent. Maria is excited to highlight and learn from the important work being done by local organizations in the region and hopes to bring Latin American voices to the forefront.