Guatemala is a much richer country than I expected, both in terms of levels of poverty and ecology. Maybe our expectations were much lower after having passed through Belize which was in fact poorer than expected. Belize which was more expensive and seemed to have less to offer, suffered from a classic case of high expectations from a lifetime of passing compliments thrown its way. But the Belize reality for me was underwhelming at first glance. As is often the case for most countries that you’ve heard a lot about even if only in general terms. But leaving Belize in a small overloaded lancha (boat) from Punta Gorda and crossing the wide bay to Livingston Guatemala, while extremely uncomfortable for me, was my introduction to Guate. Livingston was actually quite a nice little town and not really what I existed from a port town. Having seen Belize City (also a port town) which quite frankly was a dirty mess of a city that hardly anyone likes, I began to assume many other port cities in the region would have the same vibe. Luckily that’s not the case and Livingston was a pleasant surprise not just for its aesthetics but for being proof that we in fact survived the crossing. Livingston was short lived as it was a pass-through town on the road to Finca Tatin in the jungle.
After spending a couple days at Finca Tatin at the edge of the Guatemala jungle, we rode up the river on a boat to Rio Dulce then got a car ride with the Finca Tatin owners to GC (Guatemala City). It was during that boat and car ride from the Atlantic coast jungle through the interior and out almost to the Pacific coast of Guatemala that I got to see how different Guate is from Belize. Of course it still makes no sense to me why the currencies of the 2 countries don’t reflect the on-the-ground realities or why Belize is so much more expensive, but the level of development and infrastructure between these 2 countries was pretty stark; bringing into question the role that race played in how these 2 countries were allowed to develop by external parties.
One thing that stood out was the state of Guatemala’s ecology. Guatemala clearly has rich soil, likely from it’s volcanic history, but it also has a deforestation problem in some areas. I recognized it immediately, given my adolescence in Haiti and could see that both Haiti and Guate are on the same track, albeit at greatly different paces. Guate likely will never suffer the same fate as Haiti due to the size of the country vis-a-vis its population. Its mean economic potential and the advent of technology might also help make some of these issues moot. But the trend seems to be toward a significant amount of ecological challenges in the interim, particularly in the country’s interior. But in Belize this didn’t seem to be an issue at all. There was little if any visible mountain agriculture and no significant signs of erosion or deforestation. In Guatemala however I saw all the same traits of slash and burn agriculture on a huge percentage of the mountains we passed between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Additionally, slash and burn techniques weren’t coupled with terraced planting making the landscapes even more vulnerable to erosion and the consequences that brings. Another similarity between Guatemala and Haiti was the regular smell of burning wood. This was a sign that charcoal was also a major fuel source here which also compounds the issues. In some places the landscape looked EXACTLY like Haiti suffering from a lack of rainfall and poor soil. Clearly not all of this was man made, as is the case in Haiti. It’s to be expected that the further inland you go the less rainfall there is in general and the vegetation provided much of the proof of that, but there was a definitive human footprint on the land. Again there seemed to be a much more sustainable policy concerning ecology in Belize, whether from official policy or socio-economic realities. Perhaps due to its reputation for beauty and marine ecosystems, Belize has been able to shift more from agriculture to tourism, allowing its lands to remain less exploited by the local population for a source of income. I can’t say I know the reasons without having done any research but I found the differences stark and interesting and couldn’t help to think of Haiti during my time in both Belize and Guatemala.
Ad hoc, first-come-first-serve land management policies in Guate, or the lack thereof have clear effects. This is made more obvious due to the mountainous terrain that seems to make up most of the country. But the hand of man shows almost everywhere you look. Mountains that once held a large variety of flora now shelter only one type of tree or grasses. There’s no doubt both the pines and the grasses are endemic to the region but their distribution is evidently a product of man. Land that was once cultivated and eventually abandoned has attempted a recovery but only the more successful, rapid, and resource efficient plants have managed a real come back and those are generally the pines and the grasses. And the evidence is on the mountains themselves where areas of pine and grasses sit right next to pristine unexploited regions with a much more varied selection of trees. Patches of land have been shaved clean, and areas have even been carved into for sand, rock and other minerals, leaving gaping holes in the landscape. Large swaths of land have suffered this end, once again reminiscent of Haiti. But there are also the lush untouched natural settings speckled throughout that prevent your perspective from turning too bleak.
But I should mention that there was also considerable replanting in much of Western Guatemala. Rows and rows of trees have been planted along the lowlands, replacing what likely was a period of significant deforestation. Huge tracts of land are now artificially forested did to this policy. It’s a positive sign that lessons are being learned and changes are being made. Additionally, the recycling program in some places seemed more established and organized then anywhere else I had encountered up to that point in central America. There were other aspects of the country that impressed such as Guatemala city has a modern public transport system with dedicated bus lanes, which were also equipped with wifi. In fact, parts of the capital had all the trappings of a bustling modern city. I would even go as far as to say that in a few areas, the city was actually quite attractive and looked like one that would be interesting and entertaining had I had more time. All in all, Guatemala, feels healthy, like a young child who is starting to figure things out. It’s made plenty of mistakes, has the scars to show for it but it’s learning quick and growing well.
The next 20 years will likely see the worst damage from an ecology standpoint, before the whole country adopts a more sustainable development policy partly from external pressure, partly from internal social pressure and partly due to better access to the technology that will facilitate the move into a greener future. That being said, it was clear that Guatemala in general is in a period of significant growth and prosperity. It undoubtedly has its issues, but there was a distinct sense of progress, development that gave the impression that the country as a whole was on the right track. I’d love to see it again in 20 years.