SAN JOSE PETEN, Guatemala - Norman B. Schwartz, professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware, this summer is visiting the front lines of what he sees as a vast cultural struggle playing out in the Peten region of Guatemala.
Schwartz, a cultural anthropologist, has been interested in the region since his graduate school days at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his doctorate in anthropology in 1968. He has worked and studied in the area, returning there this month, and is the author of "Forest Society, a Social History of Peten, Guatemala," published in 1991 by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
Schwartz's concern is for the Itza Maya, a people who have made a living from the rain forest near Lake Peten Itza in northern Guatemala for centuries.
"The Itza have felt for some time that the destruction of the forest is an attack on their culture," Schwartz says. "If the forest is lost, the culture may be lost, too," he says.
Last to surrender
The Itza are famed both as the settlers at Chichen Itza on the Yucatan peninsula and as the last Mayan nation to surrender to the Spanish conquest, holding out as an independent people as late as 1697.
Today they again seem to be near the end of their resistance to a new invader - the increasing pressures of the 20th century. Their native language is spoken by only a few dozen village elders today. Many of their young, educated in public schools that teach only in Spanish, have left their villages in search of better jobs and greater opportunities.
Schwartz says that Guatemala is trying to conserve the Maya Biosphere Area, the forest reserve it created in Peten. "But problems are created as people move into the reserve, although the physical danger of the situation can be exaggerated."
Schwartz is a consultant for Washington-based Conservation International, an organization that seeks to identify alternative economic enterprises to retard destruction of the area's rain forests and to work with local people to improve their economic situation. "If people can't use the forests wisely, the forests will be destroyed," Schwartz says.
The forest is a source of lumber that the Itza use in carpentry, a traditional occupation. It provides plants that Itza women use in medicines and collect for food. But in an age of change and development, the forest may be more important as a symbol of Itza tradition - the ground of their ancestors.
Conservation International identifies short-fallow "slash and burn agriculture; cattle ranching; illegal logging; lax enforcement of protected areas; massive immigration of landless peasants; large-scale use of pesticides and insecticides; oil and gas exploration; refugee migration; road construction" as threats to the area's ecology.
'Threatened by colonization'
Peten is Guatemala's largest and northernmost department. Conservation International reports that "while the northern reaches of the lowlands are still covered by forests and wetlands, they too are threatened by colonization and agricultural practices ill-suited to the region.
"The communities in this region have traditionally relied on the extraction of a wide variety of forest products for income, developing what is referred to as a forest society. 'Peteneros' live by a value system of ecological reciprocity whereby one takes from and gives back to the forest in the same fashion. Yet, within the past few decades, this traditional forest society has begun to break down as a result of modernization and growth. The Peten's population has grown from roughly 20,000 people in to over 400,000 in the mid-1990s. As a result, nearly half of all the Peten area's forests have been lost," Conservation International says.
Reginaldo Chayax, 58, of San Jose Peten, may be one of the younger men alive to speak the Itza Maya language. He believes that if the forest is lost to development, the moral defeat will be so great that the Itza will give up all their traditions and their language, culture and identity.
Only about 2,000 Itza remain in the Peten rain forest, a region that, Chayax says, "has served as our home for generations."
Saving a language "is chancy once you get less than a couple hundred people who speak it," says Schwartz. "The younger people tend to see it as pointless and give up."
Ironically, the apparent decline of the Itza culture comes in the midst of an awakening by Guatemala's indigenous people, who make up about 44 percent of the country's 11 million population.
At a time when Maya intellectuals are excitedly talking about a pan-Maya movement stretching from southern Mexico through Central America, many small Maya language groups face extinction. Scholars, such as Guatemalan anthropologist Flavio Rojas Lima, believe the Itza language is the Maya tongue closest to extinction.
Only three dozen elderly Itza speak their language fluently, experts say. The elderly here say they realize their native tongue, which they call simply "Maya," is on its way out.