What prompted you to
My long-time fascination with region and the river goes back
to my first reading of B. Traven's stories and Caoba Cycle novels
35 years ago. Then in the 80s, when I was a raft guide in the
Adirondack Park in northern New York, my partner and I were map-scouting
Mesoamerican rivers for a possible winter business when National
Geographic's story on the original Usumacinta dam proposals appeared.
It seemed like the perfect river in the perfect place, but I soon
got out of rafting, became a magazine editor, and began a novel
set in the region.
From '89 to '97 I took four trips to the area and in '95 my
eventual editor published an essay of mine in an anthology. When
she moved to Norton she asked if I would pitch her a non-fiction
book. Instead of abandoning the work, I suggested what would be
come Sacred Monkey River.
Can you provide some specific examples of how tourism can
benefit local communities and the environment?
I can't give you any better examples than those outlined in
the book at Lake Miramar and even more decisively at Uaxactun,
At Miramar, Fernando Ochoa and Ron Nigh have gotten the Maya
communities surrounding this pristine lake to plan a shift to
organic agriculture and direct marketing, and refrain from cutting
timber and hunting in the steep lake basin in return for proceeds
from wilderness-style tourism. It hasn't made them a ton of money,
but it has raised awareness of the advantages of a non-motorized
existence, and of the actual, continually replenishable value
of their place to the world.
At Uaxactun, Roan Mcnab has organized the community around attracting
tourism and refraining from uncontrolled hunting, helping to build
hotels, restaurants, nurseries, and most importantly, attracting
money from outside to pay for an official government charter not
planned around timber extraction. It's working there, and being
passed down through the generations.
How has this changed over the years you've visited the Usumacinta
I'm happy and surprised to say it's worked its way slightly
deeper into the public awareness, to the point where it's no longer
dismissed out of hand as impractical, but worked into the plans
of various indigenous organizations and communities.
Can you tell more about the recent Maya Forest Coalition
The coalition began as an initiative under the UN Man and the
Biosphere program, oh, ten years ago, I think. Conservation International,
the Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Nature Conservancy
put together a directorate and pulled together numerous regional
ngos in the three nations of the Maya forest to begin thinking
about the selva as a continuum. The main objective, I believe,
was to facilitate and implement the erection of cross-border bio
corridors. One of the first events was a conference of scientists
on the implementing cross-border conventions to protect the Usumacinta
All these were of course fairly theoretical, with little government
support, but they did do a lot of consciousness raising, and put
together good maps of the Selva Lacandona, Maya Biosphere Reserve
and contiguous wildlands in Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and Belize,
showing where stress points and protected areas converged and
diverged. The purpose of the conference earlier this year was
to hand over all future responsibilities to regional organizations,
for the Washington gang to step back and serve in advisory capacity,
and to brainstorm immediate concerns.
Major threats were deemed to be: the Chilillo dam project in
Belize, a new road planned through the Maya Biospere Reserve from
southern Yucatan to Tikal, and the spread of oil exploration in
northern Peten. Any one of these would occasion disastrous habitat
losses, and associated spin-off losses to local economies. A letter
is currently being drafted to the Canadian development firm which
is engineering and promoting the Chilillo Project.
A couple of other people and I spoke out loudly in favor of
wilderness-style, self-propelled "ecotourism" infrastructure --
trails, guards, campsites, water routes -- to fend off the growing
industrial so-called "ecotourism" gaining the upper hand in the
The banner of "ecotourism" has been raised by all sorts
of places and organizations that have no concept of what it might
be, beyond something that gringos like. The ecotourist hotels
of the kind currently being planned for Tikal, for instance, are
just big, impersonal, concrete tourist hotels where maybe you
can take a tour while sitting in half-track doodle-bug to look
at some animals and see a piece of "real rain forest." Such planning
can only increase the kind of pressures and expectations that
fuel habitat fragmentation and worker exploitation.
What do you mean?
When I say "wilderness-style," I'm talking about infrastructure
such as trails, campgrounds and primitive campsites, small backcountry
lodges, guides, guards, maintenance personnel, waterway take-outs
and put-ins. In short, a way of being in nature that is that muscle-powered,
non-motorized, and more or less self-supporting. Again, the Adirondack
Park exemplifies this kind of development. In the Usumacinta region,
small-group recreation can only take place in a swath of primary
habitat such as the Montes Azules and the Maya Biosphere Reserves.
There's no reason you can't have a limited amount of more traditional
tourism around the edges -- it does produce a faster economic
"high" or rush. But it won't last over the long run and you need
to establish wilderness-style tourism first, or it it will be