Fires raged in the Mexican state of Campeche this summer, with NASA satellites picking up nearly 10,000 fire alerts the state so far this year — around twice the number recorded in 2018. This puts 2019 in third place (behind 2003 and barely behind 2013) for the highest incidence of fires in the state since data collection began in 2001.Of these fires, 15 percent occurred in protected areas. Several afflicted Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, one of which burned through 3,087 hectares (7,628 acres) before being extinguished.Stretching across the central Yucatan Peninsula to the Guatemalan border, the Calakmul Reserve, as well as the Balamku and Balamkin state reserves that sit contiguous with it, comprise more than 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) of jungle. The reserves are home to some of the country’s most impressive biodiversity and provide vital habitat to threatened animals and plants.The main driver of fires in Campeche is slash-and-burn agriculture. Officials worry that fire seasons will only intensify as more people set up farms in the region, and as state funding to fight fires continues to dwindle. CAMPECHE, Mexico —When a fire broke out in June in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in southern Mexico, more than 200 volunteer firefighters and specialists were deployed to help keep it contained. Faced with limited road access and marshy terrain, the team needed nearly three days to reach the fire and start getting the flames under control. By that time, 3,087 hectares (7,628 acres) of protected jungle had been destroyed. Officials remain uncertain about the exact cause of the fire, but speculate that it most likely started as a result of a farmer acting careless with slash-and-burn agricultural practices, the most common cause of deforestation in the Yucatan Peninsula’s largest protected area. The jungles of Calakmul, located in the state of Campeche, normally burn within a 90-day window lasting from April to June, though fires sometimes begin as early as February and last as late as July, depending on the year. Intact forest landscapes (IFLs) are areas of native land cover that are large and intact enough to retain their original biodiversity levels. Only one IFL remains in the Yucatan, and Calakmul Biosphere Reserve protects a large portion of it. While fire activity around Calakmul has died back in recent weeks, it has intensified in other areas. Source: GLAD/UMD; NASA FIRMS. “VIIRS Active Fires.” Accessed through Global Forest Watch on September 12, 2019. Satellite data from NASA show that while burning in Calakmul largely followed the normal April-June season in 2019, fire activity in the surrounding areas of Campeche began ramping up in mid-February. All told, NASA satellites have picked up nearly 10,000 fire alerts in Campeche so far this year — around twice the number recorded in 2018. This puts 2019 in third place (behind 2003 and barely behind 2013) for the highest incidence of fires in the state since data collection began in 2001. Of these fires, 15 percent occurred in protected areas. While every fire is cause for concern, officials have expressed satisfaction with the low number of instances in recent years, and with their quick and effective responses to those that have popped up as a result of clearing land for cattle ranching and other agricultural practices. But there is concern that this year’s heavy fire season may only be the start of a trend as more people move into the area to farm. “Calakmul is one of the most protected municipalities both on the state and international level,” said Martha San Román, the director of environmental policy and economics at the Campeche Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. But she added, “What worries us at this time is population growth.” Communities in and around Calakmul are expanding, in part because residents of less prosperous areas of Mexico come searching for available land. At the same time, farmers are beginning to transition from manual to mechanized agricultural practices, allowing them to work larger areas of land. Together, these factors portend a challenging future for the reserve. “If we fail to find a balance between economic and social development and the environment,” San Román said, “we can’t move forward.” Controlling slash-and-burn Stretching across the central Yucatan Peninsula to the Guatemalan border, the Calakmul Reserve, as well as the Balamku and Balamkin state reserves that sit contiguous with it, comprise more than 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) of jungle. The reserves are home to some of the country’s most impressive biodiversity, providing vital habitat to animals such as white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu pecari), spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) and jaguars (Panthera onca). Much of the reserve also hosts the rare ciricote tree, which takes decades to reach maturity and whose precious wood is often targeted for lumber trafficking. Dotted within this jungle are Mayan ruins. The city of Calakmul, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, was one of the Mayans’ most powerful urban centers more than a thousand years ago. Today, many of the approximately 27,000 residents living in or near the reserve still speak a traditional Mayan language while at home or working in their fields. They also make use of traditional agricultural techniques, planting seeds by hand with stakes while tying string across field rows to keep them straight. A landowner must know how to gage the strength and direction of the wind before deciding to light a fire on his property. Photo by Max Radwin for Mongabay. These traditional techniques also involve slash-and-burn (also called “shifting”) agriculture, where farmers rotate their crops every five years from one section of land to the next while letting the nutrients in the earth replenish. Though it is illegal to burn land within the reserve, the law doesn’t apply to residents who were living there before it was founded in 1989. They can light fires as long as they stay on their properties and are used only for agricultural purposes. Rather than persuade residents to give up slash-and-burn clearing, officials have chosen to focus their efforts on helping farmers set fires safely and at the right time. “The work with the municipalities is essential,” San Román said. “The use of fires in agricultural activities is one of the main causes of deforestation. What we have started to do is promote strategies to prevent fires.” When it’s time to burn, farmers are required to apply for a permit with the nearest municipal government. Not only do they have to provide the acreage of their land and the dates they intend to burn, but also the exact hours of the day they will be burning as well as a small sketch of where on the property the fire will be set. Last year, Calakmul received more than 3,000 fire permit requests. While some farmers lack the literacy or patience to leave their fields for a full day to navigate the municipal bureaucracy, steep fines and educational workshops have won the cooperation of nearly every resident, officials said. Annual workshops are presented to communities by municipal government to reinforce safety steps while burning. A landowner must know how to gauge the strength and direction of the wind before deciding to light a fire. Even a mild breeze can carry sparks out into dry grass, which is extremely flammable and can lead to uncontrollable brush fires. Farmers are also urged to dig trenches around their land to help prevent fires from spreading under the topsoil.