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Illegal settlements, hunting and logging threaten a state reserve in Mexico

  • The Balam-Kú State Reserve, in southern Mexico, is facing strong pressures from illegal activities.
  • Between December 2022 and February 2023, 510 deforestation alerts were recorded within the reserve’s limits.
  • Most of this forest loss is happening in the municipality of Candelaria, where illegal settlers are clearing forests for ranching and agriculture without the necessary permits.

In the Yucatec Maya language, Balam-Kú means “jaguar temple.” That’s the name of the biggest state reserve in Campeche, in southern Mexico. Part of the Maya rainforest, this area is facing intense pressure as illegal settlements are encroaching it. Between December 2022 and February 2023 alone, there were more than 510 deforestation alerts within the limits of the protected area.

Satellite images analyzed through the Global Forest Watch platform show that the forest cover loss in localized areas in the municipality of Candelaria — adjoining the south border of the state reserve — started in the second week of December 2022.

“That’s a critical area,” says Arturo Bernardo Balam Koyoc, an engineer with the Directorate of State Reserves in the state of Campeche. In this area of the municipality of Candelaria, he says, they have identified illegal settlements since mid-2022 that are changing land use by clearing forests for ranching and agriculture. “There are three new settlements being created in the south side of the area. Not inside the reserve but within its borders.”

In July 2022, during a trip to that area, the director of Balam-Kú calculated that at least 100 hectares (247 acres) had already suffered forest floor change without the required permits from federal authorities.

Illegal settlements corner the rainforest

The 409,200 hectares (1,011,155 acres) that compose the Balam-Kú State Reserve were categorized as an Area Subject to Ecological Conservation on Aug. 14, 2003, with the aim, among other things, of stopping the advance of the agricultural and ranching frontier in southern Campeche. This region that borders Guatemala still holds wide areas of rainforest.

Four years before, in 1999, also in southern Campeche, the state government established the Balam-Kin Area Subject to Ecological Conservation, spreading over 110,990 hectares (274,262 acres).

Balam-Kú and Balam-Kin are neighbors of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. The three protected areas encompass nearly 1.2 million hectares (2.9 million acres) and one of the most important forest massifs in southern Mexico, the habitat of the jaguar (Panthera onca) and the tapir (Tapirus bairdii), which are considered endangered species in the country.

Strong pressures including irregular settlements, illegal logging and hunting are affecting all three areas.

The Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii) is one of the endangered species that live in Balam-Kú. Image courtesy of the Campeche State Secretariat of Environment, Biodiversity, Climate Change and Energy.

“One of the factors that have hit the state reserves [in Campeche] harder are the irregular human settlements that have triggered other illegal activities like deforestation, illegal hunting and even drug trafficking,” says the paper “Balam-Kin and Balam-Kú: unknown treasures of the Maya Rainforest,” published in January 2020.

The same paper points out that in 2019, the Directorate of State Reserves together with the gendarmerie and the army evacuated “two human settlements illegally installed in the core area of the reserves.”

Balam Koyoc says that in the south area of Campeche, particularly in the municipality of Candelaria, irregular settlements have multiplied in the last 15 years: “Ten or 15 years ago, all the Candelaria area wasn’t occupied. Now we are talking about three new settlements but there are more that have been there for 15 years,” he says. “At the border with Guatemala and the area at the borders of the Balam-Kú State Reserve we have around 10 settlements that aren’t regulated.”

Natural protected areas in the state of Campeche.

Too close to the state reserve

The three new irregular settlements are 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) away from the Balam-Kú State Reserve. Around 50-100 people from states including Tabasco, Chiapas and Veracruz live there, “but also people from the communities in the Candelaria municipality,” says Balam Koyoc. “They argue that the people taking them there tell them these lands have no owner. … They pay a sort of fee to those taking them there so that they can stay.”

The people who come from other states into these settlements “don’t have lands to work,” says Balam Koyoc. “The ones from Campeche, from the municipality of Candelaria, simply get there to have ownership over the lands, take possession of them and then sell them. It’s not that they need the land, they just want to do business.”

The land where the three new settlements are is part of the forest expansion of ejidos — communal lands used for agriculture — in the region.

Balam-Kú is a state reserve. It contains different types of rainforest (high, mid-altitude and lowland). Image courtesy of the Campeche State Secretariat of Environment, Biodiversity, Climate Change and Energy.

Balam Koyoc says members of the national police forces and inspectors from the Federal Environmental Protection Prosecutor’s office (Profepa) also participated in the trip to the area in 2022.

Mongabay Latam requested information about Profepa’s actions in the municipality of Candelaria but didn’t receive a response.

In 2000, 99% of the surface of the area adjoining the Balam-Kú State Reserve where the deforestation alerts were registered was covered with trees. Between then and 2021, the area lost 3,048 hectares (7,500 acres) of rainforest, according Global Forest Watch data. There, the deforestation increased even more from 2019. That year the tree cover loss affected 658 hectares (1,625 acres). By 2021, that number had increased to 853 hectares (2,107 acres).

On the National Forest Monitoring System maps, Campeche appears to be one of the areas suffering severe deforestation. The official data available show that between 2001 and 2018, 22,805 hectares (56,352 acres) were deforested every year.

Illegal logging and hunting are additional problems

In addition to the advance of irregular settlements, as well as the agricultural and ranching frontier in southern Campeche, the Balam-Kú State Reserve has been facing selective illegal logging.

In the past, illegal loggers sought trees with a characteristic color, like the cedar (Cedrela odorata), mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) or the granadillo (Platymiscium yucatanicum). “Today it’s very rare to find these species; they’re practically gone,” Balam Koyoc says. He says that now tzalam, or wild tamarind (Lysiloma latisiliquum), is among the species loggers look for.

In March 2022, local media in Campeche reported that staff from the Secretariat of the Navy confiscated tzalam trunks amounting to 3.3 cubic meters (116.5 cubic feet) of wood. The trees had been cut within the area of the Balam-Kú reserve.

Camera trap installation in Balam-Kú. Image courtesy of the Campeche State Secretariat of Environment, Biodiversity, Climate Change and Energy.

Illegal logging happens especially to the south of the natural protected area, while poaching happens across the entire region. “It’s a very big reserve. It has 409,200 hectares [1 million acres], a wide surface and a lot of paths. They can come in from everywhere,” Balam Koyoc says.

If something distinguishes Balam-Kú, it is the fact that it is a reserve with water. The protected area hosts the El Teniente and Xbonil lagoons and a few natural ponds. This condition has turned it into a refuge and reproduction site for important species.

Balam-Kú is also the home of five out of the six wildcat species that live in Mexico: the jaguar, the puma (Puma concolor), the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), the jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi) and the oncilla (Leopardus wiedii).

In addition, there are Baird’s tapirs (Tapirus bairdii), white-lipped peccaries (Tayasu pecari), ocellated turkeys (Meleagris ocellata) and deer. This state reserve also hosts the “bat volcano” and two king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) roosts.

Two king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) roosts have been found in Balam-Kú. Image courtesy of the Campeche State Secretariat of Environment, Biodiversity, Climate Change and Energy.

The ecological importance of Balam-Kú isn’t reflected in the budget it receives. In 2022, the state reserve had only a little over $33,000. These resources were used to pay the 14 park rangers who work across three surveillance booths, to buy fuel and to organize monitoring patrols.

Balam-Kú’s park rangers are hired by project. “They aren’t there all year; they are hired for six months,” Balam Koyoc says.

The Tren Maya tracks are expected to add new pressures on the Balam-Kú state reserve. This mega-project is scheduled for December 2023 and will cross part of the territory occupied by this natural protected area.

Banner image: Aerial view of one of the areas inside the Balam-Kú State Reserve. Image courtesy of the Campeche state Secretariat of Environment, Biodiversity, Climate Change and Energy.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Mar. 8, 2023.

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