State officials monitor satellite readings that show changes to forest cover from the previous five days. They can also show trenches being dug in preparation for illegal burning, in which case officials will travel to the area and investigate.

The threat of development

Because farming is such an arduous task when done manually, some landowners have started abandoning traditional techniques in favor of mechanization — a trend that officials worry could lead to a boom in deforestation in the years to come, as the efficiency of tractors and plows would allow farmers to harvest more land in less time. In fact, farmers already using machinery are producing yields as much as four times those produced by farmers who harvest by hand, according to the Campeche Ministry of Environmental Biodiversity and Climate Change (SEMABICC).

And not only would more rainforest be cleared to make space for more fields, but these fields would need to be burned at the end of each harvest, potentially increasing the number of yearly fires as well as the likelihood that one of them spreads out of control.

“I won’t say that it is wrong to use machinery,” said Edwin Martín, a SEMABICC technician in charge of fire and forest management. “We support people living in natural reserves with responsible fire use so as to achieve a more sustainable management of resources. We cannot encourage deforestation in areas subject to conservation and protection.”

Communities living legally within the reserves already occupy a clearly demarcated area that, in theory, should prevent them from advancing on the jungle. But SEMABICC said the allure of an increased seasonal output has already driven some property owners to burn small swaths of the tree line each year, the idea being that officials won’t notice such incremental changes.

A similar concern exists outside the northern border of Calakmul, where communities not subject to the stringent environmental regulations of the reserve can expand at an even faster rate. Officials believe that some of these communities may end up spilling into the reserve in years to come, which in a worst-case scenario could result in forced evictions and clashes with law enforcement.

Past the northern edge of the Calakmul reserve, the largely indigenous Nuevo Durango community has taken to mechanization at an especially rapid pace due to the influence of Mennonite settlements that began arriving from the northern state of Durango between 1995 and 2000. Though the Christian group embraces a simple way of life removed from modern technology, it has accepted tractors and other agricultural equipment while working in the fields.

“They don’t make sustainable use of the resources but rather opt for deforestation,” Martin said. “In a month they can clear an area and then plant corn or soybeans, then the agricultural frontier opens up and gets closer and closer to the reserve.”

Last year, Mennonite communities were responsible for over 7,400 acres of deforestation outside of the reserve. Photo by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

In some cases, the Mennonites rent land owned by local residents, SEMABICC said. But more often, they purchase the land for themselves and re-hire the locals to oversee it. In both cases, land is increasingly being worked with tractors and combine harvesters.

“What a local farmer does in a month, Mennonites do in a day,” said Paulino Jorge Tun, Nuevo Durango’s secretary commissioner.

Last year, Mennonite communities were responsible for more than 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of deforestation outside of the reserve, according to SEMABICC. They now have 12 settlements and, as the Mennonite population continues to grow, more planned for the near future.


The prospect of communities illegally occupying land in an ostensibly protected reserve is not an entirely new idea, however; there have been illegal, or “informal,” settlements within such areas for years, albeit in small quantities.

One of them, called Candelaria, sits in the southwest portion of the Balamku state reserve. The community started forming around 30 years ago when residents from the nearby states of Tabasco, Chiapas and Veracruz found themselves without enough money to purchase land in those more expensive real estate markets, or having to escape threats from organized crime.

“One person comes after another, then comes another and another, and that’s how a community forms,” said Arturo Balam, subdirector of Balamku and Balamkin, two state reserves that share a border with Calakmul. “And with such a large community they can elect a commissioner, a leader that fights for the land.”

Members of the squatting community of Candelaria work in a cleared field. Photo by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

Residents of Candelaria argue that because they have occupied the land for more than 15 years, they have legal claim to it. Though officials disagree, residents of Candelaria continue to evade eviction by law enforcement, and are even negotiating with the government for basic resources, such as roads, water and electricity.

The community is also looking for a way to increase its agricultural output, as manual cultivation currently only yields enough for residents to be able to feed their families, not sell their crops for a profit.

“If the government helps us with a tractor we can make progress because harvesting is costly. Sowing seeds is costly. We have to have a grader,” said Alfredo Perez, a resident of Candelaria. He added, “The goal for the future is farming machinery because we can’t advance with machetes, with just our hands.”

Without title to the land, the boundaries of Candelaria and other unofficial communities in the reserve remain vague and flexible, more an approximation than an official delineation. Officials worry that if Candelaria obtains the equipment it desires, the surrounding jungle will come under threat of rapid agricultural and cattle ranching development — and, in turn, additional fires.

Not enough funding

Officials working in the reserve hope to limit the amount of deforestation in the years to come, in part by increasing surveillance of areas that are under threat. They hope to build three more bases that will serve as checkpoints, equipped with four-wheelers and trucks ready to tackle fires.

Helping that effort along is a federal program started this year to support the restoration of deforested land. Sembrando Vida, or “Cultivating Life,” grants rural landowners approximately $250 a month to restore about 2.5 hectares (6 acres). The program also supplies them with crops to help the process along.

The main concern with the program in Calakmul is that, because land must already be burnt to qualify, farmers are setting their properties on fire before applying, according to state officials. However, they have been unable to address the issue due to the difficulties of matching satellite readings of burnt land with the Sembrando Vida registry, which is at the moment only accessible to the federal government.

Some officials have also expressed concern over budgetary restrictions at both the federal and state levels, which they worry may hinder their ability to address deforestation issues as they intensify.

Deforestation in the Balamku state reserve Photo by Max Radwin with SEMABICC for Mongabay.

This year, state and federal budgets granted reserve officials less funding than in 2018 — just over $47,000 compared to more than $200,000 in 2018 — a decrease they are hoping will not become a trend.

“Not receiving sufficient resources would limit us in our ability to carry through with productive projects with the surrounding communities of the reserve,” subdirector Balam said. “Receiving sufficient funds is essential.”

In years past, 140 firefighters have been authorized across six encampments in the Balamku and Balamkin reserves. But in 2018, only 70 firefighters were authorized for four encampments. With five bases left empty, less than half the firefighters had to cover nearly twice as much ground. And if deforestation starts to intensify in the years to come, they may be stretched even thinner.

Still, officials like Balam are optimistic about the future.

“We have a lot of hope,” Balam said. “When we have financial resources; when they allow us to develop projects that have a positive impact on the conservation of natural resources, we can benefit the communities in and around the reserves. I believe that is one of the biggest hopes we have as officials, and we have all the desire to see them through.”


Banner image: Residents of the Calakmul, Balamku and Balamkin reserves clear land to make room for agriculture and cattle ranching. Photo by Max Radwin with SEMABICC for Mongabay.

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis
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