National Geographic : 1985 Oct
The Usumacinla River: Troubles on aWild Frontier By S. JEFFREY K. WILKERSON Photographs by DAVID HISER SPECTACULAR WILDERNESS, the Usumacinta.The meaning of its name lost in antiquity, the river (pronouncedoo-soo-mah SEEN-tah) drains the largest surviving rainforest in North America. Here duringthe first millennium A.D. the Maya raised great cities andforged a brilliantlycomplex civilization-mostof which had revertedto jungle long before the Spanish conquest. With the colonial societies of Mexico and Guatemalaconfined largely to neighboringhighlands, the region and its small remnant Maya groups remained in virtualisolation.Much of the river became an internationalborder in the late 1800s, as explorers and archaeologists were probing the jungle for Maya sites throughoutthe region. About ten years ago the river'sfrontierstatus took on an ideologicalstripe as Guatemala'saggressiveMarxist guerrillaforces found the remoteness suited to theirsurvival. Pawns in u ST this struggle, thousands of displacedGuatemalanscrossed the Usumacintain the early 1980s Florda for refuge in Mexico. Today the two populous nationsrace to develop the regionfor electricity, oil, and settlement. These plans, says cultural ecologist and archaeologistJeffrey Wilkerson, YUCArTAN threaten both the priceless legacy pE"NSULA of Maya antiquity and the fragile BLZE ecological balance of North G ATEM ALA America's last great tropical S EAGE524 HONDURAS redoubt. A YOUNG GUATEMALAN SELLS PARROT CHICKS 4- ALONG THE USUMACINTA.