Five years ago Barrias, Guatemala, was the end of the road. It was a lawless, dangerous place where cowboys on horses came to haul goods into the highlands and maybe have a drink or ten. The vehicles in front of the police station all had broken windows from when the townspeople had tried to burn the station down. It was not a place that we were looking forward to returning to.
Today, however, it is unrecognizable. People are friendly, the air of menace has vanished, and we are staying in a shiny new hotel with hot showers and off street parking. The change has been brought about by one of the most powerful forces of change in the world. The road.
There are new roads connecting Barrias to most of the local communities. The hiking trails and horsemen have all but vanished. Instead, a steady stream of Toyota trucks bounce through the jungle, carrying goods and people back and forth.
Roads are a tremendous force for good. They provide people with the freedom to choose where they want to live. They allow families in remote villages access to distant medical care. They connect people to global markets so that they can buy tools ( and Coca Cola). They give people a broader view of the world.
But the corn fields we pass are also a testament to the destructive potential of roads. Five years ago Barrias was surrounded by a dense jungle. Now the roads spread out through the forest like poisonous tentacles. When a road goes into an area, the people follow. Logging companies remove the biggest trees. The rest are simply burned. Tens of thousands of dollars of beautiful forest slashed down and set of fire so that somebody can make a dollar a day growing corn.
I feel so torn. These forests are so beautiful. The colorful highland cultures are so unique. In ten years time, they will both be gone forever. Yet the benefits are undeniable. Even knowing all the costs, if I lived in a remote highland village, I would want a road.