for National Geographic News
More than a millennium ago, fierce power struggles raged between Maya kings in the city of Waka, deep in the Guatemalan jungle. Today, the city is once again under assault, this time from drug smugglers, cattle ranchers, and the impoverished farmers they hire as arsonists.
Last year, more than 2,000 forest fires were set in the region, burning more than 100,000 acres.
On the front lines of this battle: archaeologist David Freidel, whose team is excavating the ancient site, nestled inside Laguna del Tigre National Park, Central America's largest nature preserve. As the forest disappears, he warns, the Maya history is being wiped out, too.
Freidel believes Waka was once an important economic and political center of the Maya world, a stop on a royal road between major cities like Calakmul to the north and Tikal to the west. Among the most important discoveries his team has made in Waka is a royal tomb containing a female Maya ruler.
Now, Freidel is part of a collaboration by conservationists, residents, and the Guatemalan government that is calling for 230,000 acres of rain forest to be set aside for special protection, and promoted as an eco-tourism destination.
"The situation is extremely serious," said Freidel, a professor at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, who has worked in Maya country for more than 20 years. "One of the great Maya sites could be lost forever."
Laguna del Tigre National Park, meaning "Jaguar Lake," was established 14 years ago. It's home to several endangered species, including the scarlet macaw, and the focus of much conservation work. Also threatened by deforestation are brightly colored toucans, rare pumas, and jaguars.
In recent years, cattle ranching and other forms of invasion have been encroaching on the park. Illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture are major problem, as is drug smuggling. Much of the forest in the western part of the park is gone.
"The eastern part of the park, where I am, is still under high forest," Freidel said. "But it's now under attack by unscrupulous peoplecattle ranchers and wealthy peoplewho are divvying up the park among themselves. [They are] waiting for it to be officially pronounced dead, so they can claim the land, clear it for cattle pastures, and profit from its sale eventually."
The ranchers and smugglers, Freidel says, are rushing to complete the job of destruction before the new democratically elected administration can mobilize a defense against them.
Visitors to this remote region have to travel by plane or riverboat since few roads exist. Discovered by oil prospectors in the 1960s, Waka has been professionally studied only once, in 1971, when Harvard archaeologist Ian Graham mapped out more than 600 buildings there.
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