Itza' - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The traditional economy, based on swidden (milpa) horticulture has undergone radical change in the twentieth century. The chicle industry was the principal employer of men in the region from about 1890 until 1970; since 1990 it has had a mild resurgence owing to Japanese demand for a natural base for chewing gum. Since 1970, the timber industry, which is focused on the extraction of fine woods, has been a major employer, but fine woods are becoming increasingly scarce. Peteneros collect other forest products for overseas export, primarily honey, allspice, and a small palm called xate used by florists. Illegal traffic in Mayan antiquities and drugs is also significant in Petén.

Tourism is an increasingly important industry. Tikal and other archaeological ruins of the Classic Maya ( A.D . 250 to A.D. 900) attract tourists from all over the world. A number of Itza' men are employed by the national park system as workers or guards. Since 1989, development and conservation groups have been promoting ecotourism as a way to provide alternative employment to the local inhabitants and to preserve the natural ecology of the Petén forest. The Itza' have established a 36-square-kilometer reserve dedicated to the conservation of the forest and of their culture.

Industrial Arts. Many San José men work in traditional and modern construction as carpenters and masons. There are also a half-dozen furniture workshops in town. Several men occasionally make dugout canoes, but these are in decreasing demand.

Trade. San Joseños sell furniture to other Peteneros and forest products destined for overseas export. There are a number of small food shops and saloons in town, mostly run by women. Most food, clothing, and modern goods are purchased in San Benito, on the south side of Lake Petén Itza'.

Division of Labor. Men are swidden farmers, cowboys, masons and carpenters, national park employees, and collectors of nontimber forest products such as chicle. Women manage the household, tend small gardens, and raise chickens and pigs. Some women are shopkeepers, and others prepare food for sale.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, all inhabitants of the township (municipio) had usufruct rights (without charge) to land for their milpas and ranches and ownership rights to improvements. One could sell rights to land previously worked. Population pressure is putting stress on the system, and land that was formerly communal has been sold to outside developers, several of whom plan to build hotels on the beaches of Lake Peten Itza'.

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