Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Our Monument

Last week we toured the ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal. It is a place of magic where monkeys still live wild and a pristine wilderness stretches for miles in every direction. Many of the ruins have been excavated and restored to some of their former glory, but the majority still lie burried beneath the jungle. Every hill in Tikal was once a temple for some long forgotten God, or the palace of a king whose name we no longer remember. 1200 years afer the collapse of the Mayan civilization, all that remains are some mounds in the jungle. There is almost no trace of their vast cities.

People say that when we cut down a forest it is gone forever. We hear that once the topsoil vanishes the land is ruined for thousands of years. Yet these ruins show us that this isn't true. 1200 years ago much of Central America was deforested by the Mayans. The wonderful country of Belize was home to ten times its current population. Tikal was a city of stone and concrete, yet 1200 years later you can barely find it. Nature can recover if we let it. The roots of trees can tear apart the strongest buildings. Lichens can make soil out of the hardest stones.

I know that our earth could be a paradise. I know that there exists a future where a population of some half billion humans lives on a beautiful garden planet, in harmony with the environment. The oceans will be full of fish. The jungles will be full of monkeys. We will treasure and protect our fragile home. We will take care of our fellow man so that the imbalances of the 21st century will never be repeated.

That is not our future. But it could be.

There are few things we can do that make lasting impact on history. The monuments we create will crumble under the relentless assault of time. The empires we build will eventually collapse. Everything we create will eventually be forgotten.

But if we destroy our planet we will not be forgotten. When we killed the last Dodo Bird it was forever. We can rebuild the temples of Tikal, but there will never be another Dodo Bird. It is gone. Many biologists feel that we will lose 50% of mammal and bird species before the end of the century. In our lifetimes we will see the last wild Organgatans and the last Black Rhinos. Our children will see the last Polar Bears. Every twenty minutes one more species is lost.


If we allow this to continue our generation will not be forgotten. We will be cursed by all who follow us.

If ever there was a time to act, it is now. Go to www.globalgiving.com and support a worthy charity. Support the Nature Conservancy. Write letters to politicians and to business leaders. Shout from the rooftops. There is still time to give back some of the land we have taken from the wild things. There is still time to avert the worst of the coming catastrophy. The task has fallen to our generation. There will be no more chances.

Thousands of years from now, we could be remembered as the generations that rose above conflict, self-interest, and short-term thinking to build an unconquerable legacy.

I know that our earth could be a paradise.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Crossing Borders

When travelling in the third world it is hard not be be struck by how mindboggling inefficient some things are. Take for example the border crossing from Belize into Guatemala.

All Latin American countries have large import duties on vehicles. For this reason they require that tourists get a temporary vehicle importation permit before they can enter the country. The purpose of this permit is to prevent us from leaving the country without our vehicle. Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize all require this.

Entering Belize with a vehicle is simple. The first desk is immigration. They give us permission to enter the country. The second desk is customs. They record our information in a ledger and fill out a form showing that the vehicle has been legally imported into Belize. They then make a note in the driver's passport showing that they came in with a vehicle. About 100m past the border is an insurance office where we can buy insurance by the day, week, or month. It is all very straightforward and efficient (though it is amazing that in 2007 this process is still done on paper).

Guatemala is an other story altogether. "I need a photocopy of your license, registration, passport entry stamp, and front page of the passport," explains the border guard.

The problem is that the border post doesn't have a photocopier. As a matter of fact, the only working photocopier is about 3km down the road in town. Oh, and the main road into town is closed because there is a fair today so we will have to drive the long way around. Except we can't drive because our vehicle isn't legally in the country yet.

So before we can get the vehicle into the country we have to take a 10 minute taxi ride into town to get a photocopy of our paperwork. And there is no way we could have gotten this photocopy ahead of time because it has to include the entry stamp. Luckily taxi rides are cheap, but the whole process sucks up a lot of time and would be pretty hard for a non-spanish speaker to follow.

Once we provide all the photocopies the guard fills out a form for us and we have to pay a small fee for the paperwork. Since there have been so many problems with corruption at the border we have to go to a bank to pay this fee. This is actually a great idea because it makes it hard for guards to accidentally inflate the prices. (It used to be standard practice to tell tourists that there had been a price increase but they only had outdated forms that showed the old price). Luckily the bank office is in the same building and the line is short.

Fortunately we already had car insurance from our last trip to Guatemala. If we didn't we would have had to find an office that sells car insurance to foreigners. These are few and far between. When we went into Guatemala last month we had to drive almost 3 hours to Huehuetenango to find an insurance office.

When a simple act like crossing the border takes several hours nobody benefits. This is one of the reasons why poor countries are poor. They lack the basic capital to do things efficiently. How many thousands of hours are wasted every year because border posts can't afford photocopiers? The lack of capital creates a drain on the whole economy. We have been to oil change places that didn't stock oil or filters (we have to go to a parts store and buy those seperately). We've seen lawns mowed by Machette because nobody can afford a lawnmower. Everything takes longer, and is more difficult then it needs to be because people can't afford the tools to do the job right. And that drains the whole economy and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Snows of Guatemala

It is snowing today in Guatemala. Thick flakes of ash fall from the sky. All around us are fires as the jungle burns. It is a vicious cycle. Poor people in search of land cut down the forest to feed their families. But bronze-age farming techniques are hard on the land. Within a few years the thin topsoil washes away and another piece of forest will burn.

The good news is that there is widespread recognition that something must be done. The newspapers in Guatemala are full of stories about the threat to the environment. Many state and local governments now have environmental departments which are trying to protect the remaining forests. There are numerous agencies and conservation groups working to protect the environment.

The bad news is that the demographics are so awful. The population of Guatemala is set to double in the next twenty five years. According to the national newspaper nearly 65% of the country has been deforested already. In a country where 60% of people are subsistence farmers it isn’t hard to figure out what will happen when the population doubles. The forests will be washed away by an ocean of people.

In Guatemala, as in the rest of the world, one of the best ways to protect the environment is to address social problems. When people are educated and healthy they have fewer children. When farmers have access to modern technologies and farming techniques they can be more productive. And when people no longer need to worry about where their next meal comes from they can start to think about what type of world they want to live in.

Nobody would choose to live in a world where there are no Jaguars in the wild. We all want a world where people are healthy and educated and in balance with their environments. But there is little time to act. We are entering an age of consequences, where the actions we are taking can no longer be undone. If we are going to do something, we must do it now. In twenty years, it will be too late.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Cultured Masses

It seems like everyone agrees that culture is a good thing. Culture should be preserved. Traditional cultures should be respected. We enjoy visiting countries that have interesting cultures. But is culture really all that it is made out to be? When we attempt to preserve traditional cultures, are we doing it becaue we really want to help people? Or are we doing it because we like the pretty clothes.

In Guatemala there are many different groups of Mayan indians. Each of them has their own unique language and style of dress. Tourists love it. The indians are very colorful, and the mix of indigenous languages lends an exotic soundtrack to the street markets. Yet the same culture that gives us the clothes and the languages that we enjoy so much, also has a dark side. Women are second class citizens. Traditional slash and burn agriculture destroys the rainforest. The traditional diet of corn and beans is low in nutrients. The traditional languages of Mam and Quiche aren´t very useful in a country where all major activities are carried out in Spanish.

Some elements of traditional culture have no place in a modern world. Women should have equal rights. The environment can no longer afford traditional subsitence farming techniques. People need to learn the dominant languages of their countries if they want to have a voice. Yet each of these things destroys traditional culture.

Given real freedom, most women wouldn´t choose to spend their lives at home sewing and cleaning traditional clothing. Given decent tools and proper training in agriculture, most men wouldn´t choose to spend several months cutting down virgin rainforest with a machette. Given a choice, most parents wouldn´t choose to educate their children in a language that few people speak.

It´s hard not to feel a little sad when we go into traditional areas and see people wearing modern clothes and talking on cell phones. It seems like something precious and beautiful is being lost. Yet when I see a little indian boy wearing jeans and speaking Spanish, I feel hope. What other modern ideas is this boy being exposed to? Maybe this boy will treat his wife with respect. Maybe this boy will have a voice in politics. Maybe this boy will learn how to farm his land better. Maybe this boy won´t have ten children. The traditional clothes may be beautiful, but they come at far too great a cost.