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Time, Logging Begin to Erase Site of Jonestown : Cult: Visitors find that a timber firm's road and encroaching vegetation are taking a toll on the former commune. Some want a memorial to the tragedy.

March 06, 1993|TIM REITERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The day before a cult siege began in Waco, Tex., a group of Americans coincidentally had ventured into a remote jungle of Guyana to view the overgrown site of another cult tragedy that occurred nearly 15 years ago.

The visitors found the going surprisingly easy, however, because a two-lane dirt road had been carved through the rusted and rotted remains of Jonestown, the one-time Peoples Temple commune.

To the foreign timber company that holds a government lease there, the graded route is a direct way to reach millions of acres of surrounding forests and does no harm.

"There was always a road through Jonestown," said Sandra Seeraj, spokeswoman for Barama Co. Ltd. "It was improved for access. The former Jonestown site has been taken over by secondary vegetation. There is nothing left but a few pieces of equipment."

But to some Guyanese--and others--Jonestown remains a place of symbolic importance. There, Jim Jones and 913 followers, including a number of Guyanese children, died in a ritual of suicide and murder that shocked the world, heightened awareness of cult-like religious groups and embarrassed a struggling Third World nation.

"Lots of people want to forget it," said Gerry Gouveia, the pilot who escorted a group of American business people and consular officials to Jonestown last Saturday. "But I believe that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." After visiting Jonestown, Gouveia wrote a letter urging the Guyanese government to protect the site.

"We were appalled," he said in a phone interview. "The site was bulldozed and razed to accommodate a large road that bisected the entire Jonestown site. Mementos . . . were all forced aside and covered with mounds of earth."

On Tuesday, the issue was taken up at a meeting of the Guyanese Cabinet, and President Cheddi Jagan ordered one of his ministers to halt any operations at Jonestown until the matter could be investigated.

"President Jagan was alarmed this happened," said Moses Nagamootoo, senior minister of information. "The Cabinet reacted with a sense of disappointment and despondency that Jonestown came under the plow. It is more than a piece of land. It is a part of history."

In 1991, Barama Co., a joint venture of South Korean and Malaysian interests, obtained a 4.1-million-acre timber lease from the Guyana government, then headed by Desmond Hoyte. The company plans to ship the logs to a plywood factory that is under construction.

To prepare for logging, the company made road improvements. The grading only skirted the Jonestown site, Seeraj said, noting that she had visited late last year and had to walk some distance to view the remnants. "It's not as though we have bulldozed what was once Jonestown," she said. "What little is left . . . is still there. What's all the fuss if we refurbish a road that already was there?"

After the Jonestown tragedy on Nov. 18, 1978, the settlement had disintegrated slowly. The Guyanese army at first guarded it, hoping that the 3,850-acre farm could be resurrected, but no one wanted to live there. The government carted off useful machinery, and the place was later abandoned to the jungle and scavengers, who dismantled buildings.

Ten years after the tragedy, the site appeared from the air as a scar in the forest, and the only land route was a narrow six-mile trail from tiny Port Kaituma, about 150 miles from the capital, Georgetown. On closer examination were ghostly signs of the past: machinery, a tractor tire from the children's playground, a basketball standard, a cottage floor, a filing cabinet from Jones' house, fruit trees and a rusted tractor, perhaps the one that had carried gunmen to Port Kaituma to kill Rep. Leo Ryan of California, three newsmen and a Temple defector.

A week ago, Lance Turner, personnel director of Reynolds International, a subsidiary of the Richmond, Va.-based Reynolds Metals Co., arranged for a trip to Jonestown. He said he has been fascinated by the tragedy since his high school days in Amarillo, Tex.

Accompanying Turner and his wife, Julie, were a few other Reynolds employees involved in a bauxite mining venture with Guyana, plus three U.S. consular officials who also wanted to see the infamous site.

Vice Consul William Schmonsees, speaking as an individual, expressed concern that the place is now so easily reachable. "It is only a short walk, a few steps, to some of the relics," he said. "It struck me that in the future the site could be degraded and you would lose some things of historical value."

Said Turner: "We saw . . . the pavilion (area) where they took the poison, a bean dryer (metal shed), an old engine and an old pickup truck."

It appeared as though a bulldozer had pushed through the remnants of the Jonestown shop area, he said, and elsewhere had uncovered a muddy wad of documents that was entwined in tree roots and appeared to be Jones' 1968 tax return.

"I personally think the site should be a memorial," Turner said.

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