The final morning the surrounding jungle was distinctively more radiant towering over the river. The sky had a bright cerulean glow and the green vegetation, round grey river rocks, and rushing water appeared vividly remarkable underneath the sun’s piercing rays. It was early in the morning and the heat was already rising. It was hard not to linger about camp longer than usual. These were our last few hours in true wilderness. Several kilometers down river we will see our first signs of civilization and by lunch we will arrive at the Pech village of Las Marias. For the time being, we watched a pair of flamboyantly colored toucans enjoy their breakfast on a nearby Cercropia tree.
It was a magnificent morning to be on the river. The calm crystalline waters reflected the canopy and sky above and the broad stream offered unobstructed views of Pico Dama, a hulking forested mass capped by a foreboding green fang rising 1679 feet above the jungle floor. We lazily floated past a small green clearing marking a locally managed subsistence plot and around the next bend we passed the farmers with their dogs. Using long straight branches, they pushed their way up river in a narrow dugout boat carved from the trunk of one of the areas massive trees. The first permanent habitations began to dot the shoreline; wooden, stilted structures faded to a cloudy gray and obscured by lush vegetation. Along the shore children swam next to longboats, and women hung clothes on a line to dry in the luxurious breeze.
Our first stop is to visit to Umberto’s home, an accurate representation of the average Las Marias residence. Perched on stilts several feet above ground, a long rectangular wooden structure with a thatched roof, open air windows, and a porch running the length of the building stands in the center of the property. Its yard is shaded with coconut, mango, and banana trees and a rather meager looking cow is leashed to one of them. Chickens peck their way around the underside of the house. Umberto’s entire extended family lives here including a half-dozen playful young children and several adults now mulling about. Like most of Las Marias’ citizens, they subsist on eggs from their chickens, the fruit of their orchard, and a small patch of cleared jungle to grow food. The occasional sale of a cow or chicken or now income from tourism, provide the means to the relatively few things only money can buy.
While life remains much as it always has some changes have come to Las Marias. An increasing number of villagers are earning income from small scale ecotourism. Some have opened guest houses, while others guide hikes for the light trickle of tourists who travel upriver by motorboat from the coast. Another relatively recent change to village life came with arrival of missionaries eight yeas ago. In addition to converting all the villagers, the newly constructed church had the unintended consequence of creating a power hierarchy, a new concept in Las Marias largely egalitarian society. The conflict for power split the church into two separate congregations that both hold services in the same tiny chapel.
Most of the Pech also hold long term investments. These are the towering hardwoods scattered throughout the jungle. When one of the Pech discovers a “new” tree in the dense forest, they let the other villagers know of their find. From then on it is collectively understood that its finder owns that tree and the valuable wood is theirs to claim.
Like many indigenous tribes, the Pech concept of land ownership is vastly different from the Western concept. The Pech believe that all of the land up and down the river is owned collectively. Land ownership among Pech has always been more closely related to caretaking. With the exception of each extended family homestead, individual property rights are virtually nonexistent.
The Pech also approach work in an alternative manner. In an environment physically isolated from modern commerce where sustenance produce is relatively abundant and easily procured, accumulation of wealth is rather unimportant. Once their baskets are full and immediate demands are met, the principle aim of the Pech becomes leisure and time spent with family. Because of this, many Hondurans carry the inaccurate perception that the Pech are lazy and unmotivated. Having now spent eight days with Umberto, we know this is far from the truth. In our opinion, a person who desires only what they need and contents themselves with simple natural joys is successful and admirable.
The Pech once had villages throughout the La Moskitia region. However, as part of a series agrarian reform programs which began in 1962, tens of thousands of Spanish speaking Hondurans have settled in the region scattering or outnumbering the Pech population. Las Marias is their last traditional enclave and it is under attack. Laws designed to allow the landless poor to settle “unproductive” or “unused” areas have led to what is essentially an armed land grab. Settlers, often times little more than armed criminals, enter an area of wilderness, cut down its trees, and burn everything to the ground. By “settling” the land in this way they become its legal owners. At this point, they sell their new land at a low rate to one of the large cattle or palm farmers. The settlers then move onto the next parcel of forest.
Despite the fact that the Rio Platano Biosphere is a legally protected park, the settlers have begun invading the forests around Las Marias. While the government turns a blind eye, the Pech are intimidated by threats and want guns to remain silent. This land grab has, in turn, changed the way some Pech are managing their land. As they reluctantly succumb to the idea that land is only secure when it’s been burned to the ground, increasing numbers of Pech have begun razing parcels of forest to prevent the stealing of their land by the settlers. The settler incursion is the most serious long term threat to the Pech way of life as well as the Rio Platano Biosphere wholly.
But as is so often the case for travelers, these issues seem about as remote to us as the deepest and least explored corners of the jungle as we relax at a small farm and guesthouse, sipping coconut milk and watching children play beside the river below.
This is the fourth of a series of posts based on an eleven day rafting expedition to the Rio Platano Biosphere in Honduras during the winter of 2012. Our trip was organized through Jorge Salvaterri of La Moskitia Eco Adventures (https://www.facebook.com/moskitia). They offer a variety of well guided trips throughout the region