New film highlights recreation, conservation

Aaron Bible
Summit Daily
Special to the DailyThe Rios Guatemala Foundation will tell its story tonight in a film premier highlighting the groups recent advancements - and near life-threatening encounters - in preserving the rivers of Guatemala through eco tourism.

The Rios Guatemala Foundation will tell its story tonight in a film premier highlighting the groups recent advancements – and near life-threatening encounters – in preserving the rivers of Guatemala through eco tourism.

Tonight will be the first public screening of the film, at 7 p.m. in the Colorado Mountain College auditorium, 107 Denison Placer Rd., Breckenridge.

Silverthorne resident, river runner and filmmaker Paul Heesaker is the driving stateside force behind the project. He, as well as the film’s hero and on-site leader for Rios Guatemala expeditions Max Baldetty, will be in attendance.

The group is asking for a $10 donation at the door to benefit the Rios Guatemala Foundation in its efforts to preserve and restore wild rivers in Guatemala. There will be an entry-ticket raffle with river swag donated by Frisco’s Ten Mile Creek Kayaks.

The group’s mission is simple: To provide for the enjoyment, preservation and restoration of Guatemala’s wild rivers. Getting to this point, however, was far from simple.

“I went down there not knowing for sure if I could establish a river preservation organization in Guatemala,” Heesaker explains in the film. And in the process, he narrowly escaped with his life. An expedition to paddle and film the country’s endangered rivers quickly turned into an international crisis when local Mayan villagers held the group hostage, mistaking them for dam builders and outside spies for engineering and development companies.

The film tells the story of a group of paddlers, conservationists and filmmakers who risked their lives to gain access to the endangered Rio Copon. Along the way, viewers are treated to astounding footage of six other jungle rivers as well as scenes of Guatemala’s other natural and cultural attractions. Show up tonight to find out how the incident ends.

Heesaker made his first trips to the country in the early 1990s and in 1993 began taking paying customers down Guatemala’s rivers through his company Area Verde Expeditions. “It was the perfect place to combine my passion for whitewater and river exploration with exotic travel,” Heesaker said. “I’m often asked, ‘Why Guatemala?’ That question always comes from people who haven’t been there. Guatemala is the perfect location for an Indiana Jones movie or a National Geographic photo spread. It’s amazing.”

“But there was another side of the country that I didn’t consider,” Heesaker said. “Guatemala was then and still remains a country marred by 36 years of civil war; a war rooted in the unequal distribution of land and wealth.”

“Rios Guatemala is a dream of many of us in the country, and in fact an opportunity for communities to develop through outdoor sports and come out of extreme poverty,” foundation co-founder and in-country operations manager Max Baldetty explained. “It’s an opportunity the country has to promote outdoor sports, conservation and restoration. The rivers are the veins of the world and we can be a part of keeping the rivers alive.”

According to Heesaker, who has been spending time in the country for nearly two decades, the most productive agricultural land in Guatemala is used for export crops, leaving many indigenous Maya little choice but slash-and-burn agriculture in remote jungle regions, an unsustainable practice that depletes the soil and ultimately leads to increased poverty. Leading river trips for Rios Guatemala and working in eco-tourism is a way out of that poverty.

Locals have also seen mines and dams destroy their lands and have been manipulated by the government, with little or no compensation or opportunities for an improved standard of living.

The 36-year-long civil war in the country ended in 1996, leaving 20,000 dead, mostly native Mayans. “This reputation, along with trip cancellations due to travel warnings, hurricanes, a historic drought, and the theft of office and river equipment made Guatemala a difficult place to make a living,” Heesaker said, and he made the decision to close his business Area Verde Expeditions in 1998. “The war tarnished the reputation of what should be one of the world’s top travel and river-running destinations.”

His dream of building a riverside base camp that would be the focal point for the preservation and exploration of wild rivers did not end there, however. In January, Heesaker connected with Baldetty, and the two shared a vision. “The establishment of Rios Guatemala is the passing of the torch from one generation to another, from an American to a Guatemalan,” Heesaker said. “Max has the charisma, work ethic and character to see this vision become a reality.”

“I’m excited because I am believing in something that I can see. It’s a purpose, and I always say, if there is a purpose in one drop of water to make a river flow, we all have to have a purpose,” said Baldetty. “Sometimes dreams seem far away but it doesn’t matter how many times you fall to make the dreams come true, it’s how many times you get back up.”

“Recreation takes people outside. Investigation makes us understand. Orientation helps us channelize information and educate. Sustainability is the closing of the circle where we work together with the communities to restore and preserve the rivers,” Baldetty continued. “Be a part of a project that helps you give and receive.”

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