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Guatemala national park nearing ‘collapse’ amid land grabbing, deforestation

  • Guatemala’s Sierra del Lacandón National Park has lost thousands of hectares of forest over the last two years, raising concerns among government officials and conservationists that the area may soon be lost to illegal actors.
  • Some communities that were already living in the area when the park was established have declined to cooperate with the government’s plans to work together on sustainability, education and public health projects.
  • Instead, the communities have expanded their presence with roads, cattle ranching and airstrips for drug planes, all of which have exacerbated deforestation rates.

Officials are struggling to keep up with an increasing wave of deforestation in one of Guatemala’s largest protected areas, where squatters are clearing the rainforest to make room for settlements, roads, cattle ranching and airstrips for drug planes.

Sierra del Lacandón National Park, which sits on the Mexican border, has lost thousands of hectares of forest over the last two years, raising concerns among government officials and conservationists that the protected area may soon be lost to illegal actors.

“I believe we are on our way to a serious collapse,” said Javier Márquez, executive director of Defensores de la Naturaleza, one of the organizations managing the park.

Deforestation is pushing closer and closer to previously untouched areas of the park, Márquez said. Data collated by Global Forest Watch show that fire activity has not only spiked well above yearly averages but also advanced farther west, where the forest is mostly still intact.

At risk are over 200,000 hectares (nearly 500,000 acres) of protected land and the health of the Usumacinta river basin, which acts as a biological corridor together with other ecosystems in the region. It’s home to 56 species of fish, 24 species of amphibians, 60 species of reptiles, 326 species of birds and 69 species of mammals, as well as over 30 archeological sites from Mayan and other Mesoamerican civilizations.

Fire alerts in Sierra del Lacandón National Park.

The park makes up one piece of the larger Maya Biosphere Reserve, which covers over 2 million hectares (5.1 million acres) of rainforest across northern Guatemala and connects to other protected forests in Mexico and Belize. When the reserve was founded in 1990, there were already several rural communities living there — many of them relocated due to the civil war — creating immediate debate about how to conserve the area.

The government has established “cooperation agreements” with eight communities in Sierra del Lacandón, and the two sides now work together on sustainability, education and public health projects. The communities recognize and respect that they’re living in a protected area, Márquez said. But two remaining communities have declined to sign on, and continue to expand inside the park.

Known as Guayacán and Nuevo Paraíso, the communities have dedicated themselves to unregulated cattle ranching, which requires clearing huge swaths of forest with fires that sometimes burn out of control during the dry season, according to Defensores de la Naturaleza. Neither community could be reached for comment.

As Guayacán and Nuevo Paraíso have expanded, so have the roads and clandestine airstrips for planes arriving from Colombia and Venezuela with cocaine, which is meant to be smuggled into Mexico. Last year, seven airstrips were destroyed in the area, according to Defensores de la Naturaleza.

Officials in the park said rural communities have the backing of powerful political and economic figures involved in the drug trade. They pay community members to invade new parts of the park and oversee cattle ranches that are used for money laundering and disguising new airstrips.

“[The communities] will never say they’re doing this for such-and-such minister or mayor so-and-so,” an environmental legal expert, who wished to remain anonymous due to fear for their life, told Mongabay. “They never talk. We don’t know if it’s out of fear or something else, but they won’t talk to us. They’re the ones who suffer the legal consequences, but the people actually funding the encroachment stay out of reach.”

Although communities have been living in the park since its founding, officials said they had been largely successful at fending off advancing deforestation. A few years ago, when it showed signs of getting worse, officials increased enforcement and managed to push out many illegal actors. Many reportedly moved to the neighboring Laguna del Tigre National Park to the east. But now, it appears they’ve returned to Sierra del Lacandón in full force.

Sierra del Lacandón National Park. (Photo courtesy of CONAP)

Similar to Laguna del Tigre’s management plan, officials in Sierra del Lacandón rely on a cooperation agreement with the military and national police to carry out patrols and make arrests. But many of the people they bring into custody resolve their case the same day by paying a modest fee. The way environmental crimes are designed in Guatemala makes it hard to hold people accountable, the legal expert said.

The Public Ministry and National Council for Protected Areas didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Officials said they also need more personnel on the ground to make their patrols effective. Right now, the park only has two posts where law enforcement operates. Large expanses of the park that are harder to reach continue to go unmonitored most of the time, giving illegal actors free reign to push into the healthiest parts of the forest.

“The most important thing would be an improved state presence,” Márquez said, “because even if you have all the money in the world, you still need to be able to capture these people, to follow the legal process…I think, for us, that’s the most important thing.”

Banner image: Military officers walk through forest destroyed by fire in Sierra del Lacandón National Park. Photo courtesy of Ejército Guatemala/Twitter.

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