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Successes and many challenges in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve

  • The Maya Biosphere Reserve, which covers one-fifth of Guatemala, is one of the most important tropical forest areas north of the Amazon.
  • The reserve is a gem of biological and cultural heritage, with more than 500 species of birds, numerous endangered and iconic wildlife species, and dozens of ancient Mayan archaeological sites.
  • The reserve’s multiple-use zone has generally succeeded at reducing deforestation and providing sustainable livelihoods for communities living there. But deforestation remains a huge problem in the reserve as a whole, pushed along by complex factors, including illegal settlement by landless migrants, oil development, and the presence of drug traffickers, cattle ranchers, and other armed groups.
Other stories in Mongabay’s series on the Maya Biosphere Reserve:
Killing of Guatemalan activist in the Maya Biosphere Reserve raises alarm
Communities lead the way in rainforest conservation in Guatemala
Controversial park plans in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve

Flashes of color move about the trees lining the path to the Waka’ archaeological site inside Guatemala’s Laguna del Tigre National Park. It’s the army ants that set things in motion. A river of ants flows across the path and into the rainforest, overturning leaves and uncovering insects along the way, and birds flock to the area to feed — at least a dozen different species.

Carlos Cuz wants to double check the identification of a few, and he swipes his finger across a tablet running the iBird Pro program a visiting birder gave him. Cuz learned the Maya Q’eqchi’ names for many bird species from his parents. They moved to Paso Caballos, a village inside Laguna del Tigre National Park in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, when Cuz was a young child. He later discovered his passion for birds in the forest around his new home.

A guide for the Guacamayas Biological Station during the week, Cuz returned to school as an adult and has been completing his high school education on the weekends. Cuz’s favorite course so far, though, was one on bird identification the Audubon Society offered to locals two years ago. There’s no shortage of subjects for practice. More than 500 bird species live in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

There’s such a flurry of activity following the army ants that it’s hard to see the whole picture. While watching the red-throated ant tanager (Habia fuscicauda) move through the understory, the barred antshrike (Thamnophilus doliatus) and grey-throated chat (Granatellus sallaei) flitting around the upper branches stay out of sight. Taking a step back brings the brown jays (Psilorhinus morio) and Montezuma oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma) hovering around the edges of the scene into view, but obscures the activity down on the ground.

A male Montezuma oropendula. Photo by Kathy & sam/Wikimedia Commons.

The situation in the Laguna del Tigre National Park — and the Maya Biosphere Reserve as a whole — is analogous. The park and the reserve are home to a complex mix of interconnected threats and impacts: oil company operations, drug trafficking, illegal logging and cattle ranching, forest fires, and an influx of impoverished Guatemalans from other parts of the country. The government agency entrusted with managing the reserve, which covers roughly one-fifth of Guatemala, receives just around 0.15 percent of the national budget.

The Maya Biosphere Reserve, a grand experiment in forest management, has its share of success stories in terms of forest conservation and community management. But between the lack of resources and frequent changes in government policies and personnel, there is little capacity to address the various threats that contribute to an ongoing deforestation problem in the biosphere reserve, one of the most important tropical forest areas north of the Amazon.

Explanations of the situation often focus on a single element rather than the bigger picture.

“I think that sometimes there’s a real tendency to look for that sound bite or for that easy, palatable way to think about things,” Wildlife Conservation Society Guatemala program director Roan Balas McNab told Mongabay. “It’s just a real cauldron of a number of factors and any one seen in isolation doesn’t tell the whole story. It really makes for difficult interpretation and it doesn’t lend itself for a nice easy story.”

Carlos Cuz, a Maya Q’eqchi’ guide who lives and works inside the Maya Biosphere Reserve, steers a boat along the Sacluc River. He took note of a Morelet’s crocodile basking in the sun along the way. Photo by Sandra Cuffe.

A unique reserve

The Maya Biosphere Reserve was established in 1990, as was the National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP), the government institution responsible for managing it and the rest of the country’s protected areas. At 2.1 million hectares, the reserve is roughly the size of Belize or El Salvador. Located in the northernmost part of Guatemala, it is wedged between Mexico to the west and north and Belize to the east. Together with stretches of forest in those two neighboring countries, the Maya Biosphere Reserve is part of the largest remaining tract of tropical rainforest in Mesoamerica.

A jaguar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The reserve protects endangered and iconic wildlife species suffering from habitat destruction. “There are only 300 scarlet macaws left in Guatemala and they’re all in the Maya Biosphere Reserve,” said Balas McNab. The reserve is also home to large mammals, including the jaguar (Panthera onca), endangered Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii), and white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari). Dozens of ancient Mayan cities and archaeological sites are also located in the reserve, including the tourist mecca of Tikal.

When the reserve was created, the country was still immersed in a 36-year armed conflict between left-wing guerrilla forces and the Guatemalan military. Between 1960 and 1996, more than 200,000 people were killed, tens of thousands were disappeared, and an estimated one million were displaced. The Petén department that now contains the Maya Biosphere Reserve was not one of the worst hit by military atrocities, but it was certainly affected. In 1982, government forces killed more than 200 women, men, and children in the village of Dos Erres. Five soldiers would later be sentenced to thousands of years in prison for their roles in the massacre.

The 1996 peace accords put an end to the conflict, but little was done to address the country’s massive inequality in land tenure and other factors that had motivated people to take up arms against the government in the first place.

Los Laureles agricultural cooperative member Delia Hernández Gómez moved to the Petén at age 12 in the 1970s, when her parents left western Guatemala in search of a plot of land for subsistence corn and bean farming. They found what they were looking for in the department’s western region, now home to the biosphere reserve’s Sierra del Lacandón National Park, where the Usumacinta River marks the border with Mexico.

There was little consultation with local communities when the Maya Biosphere Reserve was first created, and many people in Los Laureles opposed the idea. That’s no longer the case, said Hernández Gómez. “It has changed,” she told Mongbay, adding that the main factor behind the shift in attitudes is simply time. “People aren’t clearing the forest anymore,” she said.

Hernández Gómez is part of a local women’s group that makes and sells aloe vera shampoo. They’re supported by the Association of Forest Communities of Petén (ACOFOP), which includes Los Laureles and more than 20 other cooperatives, communities, and groups. Home to an estimated 180,000 people, the Maya Biosphere Reserve differs in design and practice from the exclusionary model of many national parks and UNESCO biosphere reserves.

Rainforest in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Photo by Charlie Watson, USAID/Public Domain Images.

The reserve is divided into three zones. The core zone, covering just over a third of the reserve’s total area, albeit not contiguously, is comprised of Laguna del Tigre, Sierra del Lacandón, and other national parks and nature reserves. New settlements, logging, and agriculture are prohibited in the core zone, although some tightly controlled forest clearing for subsistence agriculture is permitted at select locales like Paso Caballos. The multiple-use zone includes community and industrial forest concessions, biological corridors, and other areas, to cover 40 percent of the reserve. The remaining quarter is a buffer zone that stretches across the southernmost part of the reserve, where land sales and forest conversion for cattle ranching and agriculture are permitted.

Overall, the Maya Biosphere Reserve is losing its forest at a rate of 1.2 percent annually, but it’s far from uniform. The deforestation rate is 1.0 percent in the core zone, a mere 0.4 percent in the multiple-use zone, and an alarming 5.5 percent in the buffer zone, according to a Rainforest Alliance report. In the western half of the reserve, forest conversion for illegal cattle ranching, unregulated settlements, and other activities have spread rapidly along roads beside and into core-zone areas. Massive fires, some of them sparked by slash-and-burn agricultural practices, have roared through swaths of forest. Other areas of the reserve verge on pristine.

A map of Guatemala shows the shows the location of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which covers about one-fifth of the country. Map courtesy of the Rainforest Alliance.
A map shows the extent of deforestation in the three zones of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, including active community forest concessions certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Map courtesy of the Rainforest Alliance.

Multiple uses, multiple benefits

The multiple use zone is arguably the most innovative element of the Maya Biosphere Reserve’s design, and in many ways it has also been the most successful. The tightly regulated extraction of timber and non-timber forest products like ornamental xate (Chamaedorea elegans, C. ernesti-augusti, C. oblongata, and C. nerochlamys) palm fronds and ramón (Brosimum alicastrum) tree seeds is permitted in many multiple-use zone areas managed by local communities. Between 1994 and 2002, the Guatemalan government signed 25-year contracts with companies and community groups for forest concessions. There are currently two industrial forest concessions managed by logging companies and nine active community forest concessions in the multiple use zone.

Fernando Baldizón deals with the forest concessions on a daily basis as CONAP’s director of forest management for the Petén. The fact that the concessions even exist is due to a combination of factors lining up at the right place and right time, he said.

“I think it was a particular juncture in time when several things coincided: international support, political will at the time to open up to the issue of concessions and forest management, and also the participation of communities and companies in forest management,” Baldizón told Mongabay.

The concession model has paid off. The deforestation rate in the forest concessions is lower than that of the national parks in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Socio-economic benefits for local residents and forestry practices in Guatemala have seen marked improvements in a relatively short period of time.

“All the theory of broadleaf forest management was basically set in motion here. This is where it was put into practice. So when all of this began to be implemented, it gradually became the standard,” said Baldizón.

At the beginning of the process, however, no one was sure the community forestry model would effectively protect forest and wildlife habitat. Baldizón began working for CONAP in 2010, after the forest concessions were granted, but he knows the history well. The uncertainty with regard to the community concessions was a driving force behind the creation of biological corridors in the multiple-use zone to connect some of the largest national parks, he said.

The fears turned out to be largely unfounded. In fact, because the concession model largely works to keep the forest standing, there is significant support in the region for community associations to acquire concessions in order to manage the biological corridors and remaining multiple-use zone areas. The proposals for community management of these areas would permit the controlled harvest of xate and other forest products, but not of any timber.

Uaxactún village residents chat outside the xate warehouse in their community forest concession, located in the multi-use zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Photo by Sandra Cuffe.

Trouble in the buffer

The buffer zone is another story altogether. The nine-mile swath of land stretching from Mexico in the west over to Belize in the east ostensibly protects the core and multiple use zones from the non-protected areas south of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. In reality, however, the buffer zone has had little to no proper management or protection. As a consequence, there has been massive unregulated deforestation, beyond the permitted forest conversion.

Located in what used to be a hospital in San Benito, the central town in northern Petén, the regional CONAP office halls are lined with signs for the institution’s various departments and units. Among the many separate little offices, there’s Forest Management where Baldizón works, the Laguna del Tigre National Park, and ZAM – the buffer zone. The zone has been so neglected that when Baldizón began working at CONAP, the idea that the buffer zone only really exists in theory was quite tangible.

“Internally within CONAP, the ZAM even disappeared from the administrative structure. Physically it existed, but no staff was assigned to it. It’s just a few years ago that personnel was assigned to it again,” said Baldizón. “The ZAM was, well — unfortunately the ZAM was left somewhat abandoned by the state,” he said.

The buffer zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve was really an afterthought, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Balas McNab. “When the reserve was created, the concept of the buffer zone was sort of tacked on at the end,” he said. “It’s had essentially no investment and has had almost no CONAP presence at any time, and by default really no conservation focus or ability to enforce conservation as such.”

The abandonment of the buffer zone is due to severe underfunding. With limited funds, CONAP has prioritized core and multiple-use zone areas. Most environmental NGOs operating in the region have done the same.

Some conservationists and community leaders are concerned about the potential expansion of oil-palm plantations in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. There are now just a few in the buffer zone, but there is a real worry that they could spread illegally into the other zones as well, with potentially serious consequenses for protected waterways and wildlife, as recent events nearby made clear. The southwestern Petén in and around the municipality of Sayaxché is home to massive oil-palm operations that have sparked intense concern and conflict. After aquatic life turned up dead along a 100-mile stretch of the La Pasión River last June, a judge ordered the suspension of the REPSA oil palm company’s operations on September 17. The following day, three community leaders were abducted by company workers and an outspoken local teacher was killed by unidentified assailants.

The San Pedro River marks the southern border of the Laguna del Tigre National Park. An oil palm plantation across the river in the Maya Biosphere Reserve’s buffer zone lies in the background. Photo by Sandra Cuffe.

Lack of government support

CONAP has broad management, monitoring and regulatory responsibilities in more than 300 protected areas covering approximately 30 percent of Guatemala, two thirds of which corresponds to the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The agency is also charged with protecting biological diversity throughout the entire country.

For the past two fiscal years, CONAP has been assigned an annual budget of between 13 and 14 million dollars. It amounts to roughly 0.15 percent of the national budget. By contrast, the Secretariat of Social Works of the First Lady has a budget of nearly 21 million dollars. Even the Guatemalan Olympic Committee gets between 11 and 12 million dollars a year.

Protected areas don’t usually figure very prominently in government objectives, as is abundantly clear from CONAP’s limited budget. The problem isn’t just a lack of funding, however. There’s a lack of vision and long-term planning, according to Erick Cuellar, a program director for the Fundación Naturaleza para la Vida, a Petén-based environmental NGO.

“One of the main threats to the processes of natural resource management in Guatemala is the State’s lack of policies with regard to resource management. Usually what exists are government policies that are very short-term,” Cuellar told Mongabay. Policies and priorities often shift from one four-year administration to the next, based on each government’s interests or even on the interests of whoever backed its political campaign, he said.

“Political instability is a permanent threat to these processes,” said Cuellar. “It’s the situation of all issues in Guatemala, but even more so on the issue of natural resources.”

Resource management policies aren’t the only thing to change from one administration to the next. The incoming president chooses cabinet ministers and other political appointees, but the changes often have a snowball effect across government institutions. After a new CONAP executive secretary is appointed, he or she almost invariably replaces the regional CONAP directors, who often then replace sub-regional directors and even department heads and personnel further down the ladder.

Cuellar experienced the phenomenon first hand. He worked at CONAP during the first three years of the institution’s existence beginning in 1990, working on setting up Yaxha-Nakum-Naranjo National Park inside the nascent Maya Biosphere Reserve. He was let go when a new government came to power, but was hired back during another administration in the late 90s as director of the Laguna del Tigre National Park and later of the buffer zone.

A makeshift barrier gate crosses the road at a CONAP-staffed checkpoint for the eastern area of the Laguna del Tigre National Park. Photo by Sandra Cuffe.

Invasions, oil, armed groups

Many of the pressures and challenges the Maya Biosphere Reserve was facing when Cuellar last worked for CONAP are still present today, and perhaps even more so. There are heavilly armed actors vying for the control of land and resources in different parts of the reserve, but there has also been a stream of Guatemalans seeking a small plot of land to call home and on which to grow basic staples like corn and beans. Without systemic change at the national level, though, it’s difficult for Cuellar to envision a resolution to the situation.

“It’s not easy. What’s going on in terms of the internal migration of people is the result of a wrongheaded system of development. It’s a lopsided system. There’s a lot of land in the hands of a few, and little land in the hands of many,” he said.

“As a result, the demand for and pressure on land is constantly increasing. There are always more people who need land to work, and that causes these movements of people who come to the reserve because in the southern part of the country people think the reserve has a lot of land,” said Cuellar.

Many incursions and settlements in the Maya Biosphere Reserve have been concentrated in the concessioned multi-use zone areas along the road leading up to the Carmelita community forest concession and along the road inside the western area of the Laguna del Tigre National Park.

Along the latter road, oil production and exploration activities have been going on since the 1980s. The 25-year oil contract was grandfathered into the Maya Biosphere Reserve, but not without controversy, particularly with regard to a 15-year extension the Guatemalan government granted in 2010. Anglo-French company Perenco has now been operating for years without a valid environmental impact assessment and, as a result, is mired in legal conflict with the Ministry of the Environment, CONAP, and other institutions.

Roads such as the one to Perenco’s operations certainly facilitate access, but where and how landless Guatemalans end up settling in the reserve is often influenced by more powerful groups seeking territorial control, according to NGO and government officials in the region. Security concerns are ever present in some parts of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, and they take a toll on government monitoring and control.

“The level of ungovernability is quite high in some areas,” said Baldizón of CONAP. “There are areas where if there were a checkpoint without the presence of the army, the checkpoint would no longer exist. There are checkpoints that have been set on fire. Resource rangers have been held prisoner.”

Several representatives from community and environmental organizations spoke with Mongabay about the armed groups, and the impact of drug trafficking in the region, but did so on the condition of anonymity for safety reasons. Their concerns are well-founded. Resource rangers and community conservationists have been killed in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The latest victim was Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios, a community cooperative leader who opposed hydroelectric dams proposed in the region and contributed to the arrest of wildlife poachers and land usurpers. He was murdered on March 16, 2016.

Violence and threats often go hand in hand with illegal deforestation, but it’s often difficult to disentangle cattle ranching from drug trafficking and money laundering activities in the region, a local NGO staffer who has worked on the Maya Biosphere Reserve for more than 20 years told Mongabay. Incursions, including into the three now-defunct community forest concessions, often start out with landless families that clear the forest for subsistence crops. But it’s usually not long until armed ranchers start showing up with cattle.

“They use the local population as a shield,” said the NGO representative. “Behind it all, there’s a whole organized structure. They threaten the community members.”

One of the problems in the now-cancelled concessions was that the government put the onus on local residents to evict outsiders, the NGO representative said. Locals don’t have the capacity to do so, especially when heavily armed ranchers and other groups are involved. “Political will is needed,” the source said, adding that the police and army need to be more proactively involved.

A government official explained to Mongabay that drug traffickers often play a role. “It’s not always, but much of the time when it comes to invasions, a group of people will enter, and there’s someone behind the scenes with an interest in that happening,” the official said. “There’s often a thin line between a cattle rancher and a drug trafficker.”

Even when villagers have filed formal reports about incursions, the investigative process can drag on for years, the official said. What begins as an incursion of a couple families can end up as dozens of people and armed ranchers by the time a case gets to the point when a judge should order an eviction, the government official said. One eviction last year resulted in violent clashes and gunfire, wounding at least 13 police and civilians. When there is an eviction order, security forces usually insist CONAP cover all of their logistical costs, from food for police to gas for their vehicles, which further limits the institution’s capacity, the government official said.

Walter Manfredo Méndez Barrios, an environmental activist and community leader in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, was murdered on March 16, 2016. Photo courtesy of Defensores de la Naturaleza.

Hope amid the challenges

Between all of the institutional and systemic challenges afflicting the Maya Biosphere Reserve, it can be easy to forget the other side of the story. CONAP officials and conservationists agree: had the reserve not been created, vast areas of the intact rainforest would have succumbed to rampant deforestation like that of the buffer zone and southern Petén. Conservation efforts such as the community concessions have demonstrated great promise in a relatively short period of time.

“I think there’s a really remarkable conservation story in the Maya Biosphere Reserve,” said Balas McNab.

“We’re fighting for the future. Even though the present trends may be somewhat astounding and depressing, we have to keep that in mind. This is for future generations,” he said. “If we can reach the social, political, and economic arrangements that are necessary, we can recuperate huge areas of the reserve.”

Reaching those arrangement will be no easy feat, but there appears to be an increasing understanding among the region’s conservationists and at least some government officials that the complex, intertwined nature of the challenges facing the Maya Biosphere Reserve will require similarly nuanced responses.

“I think part of the good news in that is that there’s a collective realization that you need really holistic, integrated approaches to make things work in a landscape like this,” said Balas McNab. “So much of the reserve is still intact, and so much potential still remains for the reserve in the future.”

Disclosure: This series on the Maya Biosphere Reserve is supported by a grant from the Morgan Family Foundation. Jeff Morgan, the foundation’s trustee, is also the founder of Global Conservation, an NGO working to protect Mirador–Río Azul National Park within the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Mongabay’s executive director Rhett Butler serves on Global Conservation’s advisory board. However, Mongabay editorial staff maintained full editorial control of the series.


Scarlet macaws in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Photo by USAID Guatemala/Flickr.