"What started in late January with an international expedition to paddle the remote Rio Copon-Chixoy in northern Guatemala quickly escalated into a tense faceoff in lawless lands … ”
So begins the tale of indigenous Mayan villagers detaining a group intending a raft-supported descent of the pristine 55-mile Class IV section of jungle river. Rocky Contos’s story appears in our June issue, available on newsstands now. Read the unabridged trip report HERE. A few days after the trying ordeal that lasted 14 hours, two local politicians took a helicopter back into the remote area with trip members Paul Heesaker and Max Baldetty to speak to the villagers, who apologized for mistaking the foreigners for developers seeking to build a mine or a dam, and returned stolen items. Heesaker called the meeting a "tipping point" toward river preservation. The irony was that members of the group were intending to make a film promoting conservation, responsible eco-tourism and highlighting Guatmala's best rivers.
That film debuts at 7 p.m., Friday, June 29, at the Colorado Mountain College campus in Breckenridge, Colo. Members of the Rio Copon expedition will be in attendance, including Baldetty. A $10 donation goes to the RIOS Guatemala Foundation. Click HERE for more information.
See the trailer below:
RIOS Guatemala Highlands to the Sea:
Heesaker provides more context for the diplomatic, return trip to the village of Campamac in his report below:
When the government helicopter approached Campamac's soccer field-landing site, we looked down and expected to see police and armed forces. None were in sight. Instead, Q'eqchi villagers rushed to the area. We were on our own.
Our apprehension ended when the same people who held us captive just days before, met us at the helicopter with hugs and handshakes. Instead of being forced to a central plaza and a mob set on vigilante justice, we gathered together and heard community leaders apologize and welcome us to enjoy the natural beauty of the rivers and forests.
However, these same speakers didn't lose the opportunity to send an unmistakable message to the Guatemalan government. Doors now opened to tourists and river runners would remain slammed shut to dams and mines.
One community leader expressed the sentiments of many when he said, "The 86 communities of the Zona Reina are in agreement. We are organized to defend our natural resources – our rivers, our forests."
Another said, "Our apologies for what happened last week. We will now welcome tourists here."
When Max took the microphone, he spoke of a common bond.
"We are all family. We are all Guatemalans. We need to fight to protect our natural resources so that we can prepare the earth for our children."
Perhaps Max was inspired by one of the hand held signs in the crowd before him.
For the defense of our territories,
of our mother earth
Like women that fight
for the lives and future
of their children.
Everybody listened intently and he added, "We are grateful for your actions today, for the change in attitude, for leaving some things behind and enjoying a new opportunity in your lives. We have learned. You have learned. Let's not go backwards, but look at this new opportunity...We love you!"
After all the speech making, we walked to a nearby pickup truck and much ceremony was made of returning the stolen items. The applause and cheers made it obvious that the people were embarrassed for the actions of a few thieves and sought our forgiveness.
We were then ushered to and seated around an outdoor table, just as steaming bowls of Kakik arrived, the traditional turkey soup served on special occasions.
I noted that the head waiter, a man rushing to make sure everybody's needs were met, was the same man who had threatened me with a machete five days earlier, just before our things were stolen.
There was no time for post meal conversation. Dark clouds formed overhead, and accompanied by hundreds of our new friends, we hurried back to the helicopter. Stolen items were stashed in a cargo department until nothing else would fit. These items would be taken by pick up truck - whatever it takes.
The weather prevented a fly over of the Rio Copon. The river remained elusive yet again. Another day, but with Q'ekchi leaders and a common purpose - no dams.
We rose above La Zona Reina and I peered through rain-streaked windows and down on a checkerboard landscape – corn fields cut into forested hillsides. After all we had been through, there was still hope.
We lost an opportunity to run and film the Rio Copon, but the cause gained national and international attention. The Guatemalan government and the financiers of hydroelectric projects witnessed organized and vehement opposition to any incursions into the Zona Reina, especially those that exploit the region's natural resources. Dam builders now knew that they faced violent opposition and potential investors saw that this was risky business indeed.
Adversity had tested the founders of Rios Guatemala, people like Max Baldetty and Roberto Rodas and the members of the Rio Copon Expedition. They had all passed the test.
And for me. It was a new beginning. Dreams once left to wither and die, caught fire once again. I already had plans for another Rio Copon Expedition.
Baldetty describes RIOS Guatemala: