El Pilar management plan officially endorsed in Cayo
Deep in the Cayo district, the archaeological site of El Pilar straddles the Belize-Guatemala border. But the ancient Maya ruin is facing a modern day dilemma: development that includes the preservation of the natural environment while promoting tourism. News Five's Karla Vernon explains.

Dr. Anabel Ford, Archaeologist
”El Pilar is probably six times the size of Xunantunich. It’s one of the largest centres in Belize, comparable to Caracol. What’s interesting about El Pilar is that the size of it may be not so visible from the Belize side, but as we are developing this bi-national plan you could see the whole site on either side of the border connected by this ancient Maya causeway.”

Karla Vernon, Reporting
Much of the grandeur of El Pilar dates back to 800 B.C. But today visitors are unable to see most of the structures that stretch across the more than one hundred acres of jungle. The plazas, clustered buildings, and acropolis at Copal are still under forest cover. According to archaeologist Dr. Anabel Ford, that is intentional, part of the overall philosophy of respecting the Maya forest as well as ancient Maya civilisation.

Dr. Anabel Ford
”Making it a living museum that we can learn about how the forest is a garden. So you are not just going up there and looking at the ancient Maya architecture, but you are realising the forest itself is part of that heritage as well. And it will be—I mean it is beautiful right now, you can see some hardscape, and it’s the only site in the Maya world right now that you can actually go to a house and see a house and forest garden. So that’s pretty amazing, and that is reconstructed.”

“There are a number of traditional people here, Marcelo Medina, Alfonso Tzul, Narciso Torres, who are forest gardeners, they are traditional gardeners. Their lives were disrupted with improvements that were brought to the fore. But here they are having a chance to share their own extremely intimate knowledge of this forest.”

Eriberto Cocom, Traditional Forest Gardener
”The forest garden is very needed for our communities and cities as a whole, because we are seeing that many of our old trees, our big, high ridges are going away. They are being burnt or fallen, we are finishing with them.”

“We the farmers, or people who have their lands should start to reforest their lands so that we can, for more later, we will have sufficient food, including the animals that are suffering from [lack of] food, we are going to have food for them and to feed our children.”

Today government officials, archaeologists and local residents gathered at Be Puk Te Visitor’s centre to participate in the official endorsement of the site’s management plan. President of the National Institute of Culture and History, Yasser Musa, says today’s activity is just one step in developing the El Pilar site.

Yasser Musa, President, NICH
”Last October Dr. Jaime Awe and I signed in Santa Barbara at the University of California, with Dr. Yang, their president of the University, and Dr. Anabel Ford, the management plan. And now today we are extending that same moment by signing it in Belize with the community that this whole management plan is all about.”

“Cayo is a fast-growing tourist destination, not just for cruise tourists that go to Xunantunich, but for overnight tourists. And I think that is the market we want to look at. When you look at the site, it’s not the grandeur and everything cut down in the regular way that sites are presented to the public. It’s a more in depth, more scholarly, people who are interested in nature, people who are interested in botany and things like this, so it has a kind of a different appeal.”

Mark Espat, Min. of National Development and Culture
”The uniqueness of El Pilar, not just as a site, is represented in the collaboration, the cross-border collaboration between the villagers here in Bullet Tree Falls as well as the villagers across the border in Guatemala. The second thing that’s unique about it is that management has employed a plan of really keeping the Maya landscape the way it is. And not denuding it, as I said in my earlier remarks, as we have at many of the other sites. And so the whole aspect of excavation is evolving and certainly we recognise now that the community needs to be a lot more involved as stakeholders, and as primary stakeholders they have to take ownership.”

But during today’s presentation, one of the villagers, Santiago Vasquez, intimated that those closest to El Pilar are being left out of that ownership.

Santiago Vasquez, Resident, Bullet Tree Falls
”The founding management is Ms. Anabel Ford. Much respect to her, but in her procedures of getting funding, Amigos del Pilar, which is the bridge foot to El Pilar site, now it happens that we do not know where this funding goes. And this is what we want know. The third part of it ...”

(Police officer tries to stop him)

Yasser Musa
”Leave him to finish please.”

Santiago Vasquez
”The third part of it is, now, Amigos del Pilar now is not the same Amigos, all of us think about it. She definitely knows that Amigos del Pilar has broken, there is nothing existing about Amigos del Pilar.”

Yasser Musa
”I think that is an excellent example of what I was trying to describe as a complicated situation. I think that we all have to work closer in order to have better communication. And I want to say that I can make myself available to sit down with you to further our discussion. But I don’t think this is the opportunity to raise these concerns. But I want to explain that we have to join forces, we cannot continue to be apart. And I want to reach out to you, sir, and hopefully we can come to a better understanding. So thank you for your comment, and again thank you very much.”

For his part, Minister of National Development and Culture, Mark Espat, remains confident that this is the right way forward.

Mark Espat
”We are very comfortable with the work and the consultation that has gone into this by Dr. Ford of the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as our professional staff and the community in the form of Amigos del Pilar. And so there are so many unique facets to this particular site, to this particular management plan and it is for this reason that it has received the endorsement of the National Institute of Culture and History and of our counterparts in Guatemala.”

The project also appears to have the endorsement of the current Amigos del Pilar, including president Eriberto Cocom.

Eriberto Cocom, Traditional Forest Gardener
”to say something about what Mr. Vasquez has said about El Pilar that has died. It is not true. We are about forty-five members, direct members. He is not a member; he was once before. Thank you.”

Dr. Anabel Ford
”This management plan is unique in the entire Maya world and it’s my dream that it be copied. And if a hundred years from now the next interviews will be about how this in Belize was started and this set a trend of a more sensitive view of how to manage monuments, how to manage the forest and to keep it for the generations yet to come.”

Eriberto Cocom
”El Pilar has been a place that was being all destroyed for our people. It was not intentionally done, but we were struggling for life. I was included there. Now it is growing back again, as a reserve for our archaeological site, Maya site. So I encourage everyone to make good use of their land in reforestation of the plants, any kind of plants. Thank you very much.”