- Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve is facing increased pressure from cattle ranching and farming at the same time that droughts threaten to spark an unprecedented wave of fires.
- A tumultuous government transition could also leave environmental agencies without enough funding and resources to keep up with the increased fires, which could further hinder efforts to tackle deforestation.
- The areas that have been traditionally badly hit by deforestation include Laguna del Tigre National Park and Sierra del Lacandón National Park, but there are signs that informal settlers are pushing into new parts of the reserve.
Central America’s largest protected area is in for a difficult year next year.
The Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala is facing increased pressure from cattle ranching at the same time that drought threatens to spark an unprecedented wave of fires. Meanwhile, a tumultuous government transition could leave environmental agencies without enough funding and resources to keep up with it all.
“We’re never completely sure if it’s going to play out like we think it will,” said Víctor Hugo Ramos, adviser for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Mesoamerica program. “But the factors that we’re observing do lead us to recommend preparing for a bad year — or very bad year.”
The reserve stretches 21,602 square kilometers (8,341 square miles) across northern Guatemala and is divided up into different parks, concessions and biological corridors, some more badly hit by deforestation than others. In the west, Laguna del Tigre National Park and Sierra del Lacandón National Park have suffered from illegal cattle ranching and the expansion of informal settlements, sometimes with ties to organized crime.
Officials established a “shield” of firebreaks and patrol paths within intact habitats to keep illegal settlers and deforestation from advancing farther east. But in June, a patrol discovered campsites and land-grabbing demarcation lines cut into the trees that broke through the shield for the first time in years. Even more worryingly, the paths led all the way to the Mexican border, suggesting that criminal groups may be working with rural communities to push onto new land.
“It set off alarm bells for us because a week before, there wasn’t a trail there. This stretch didn’t exist,” said Luis Romero, WCS’s environmental protection director.
One of the campsites had clothes and equipment left behind that were more sophisticated and expensive than what most rural people in the area use, Romero said. Officials also spotted drones flying over the area.
“Our fear is that they’re organizing groups of rural residents, large ones, and that they’re going to suddenly go and occupy the territory,” Romero said. “That’s going to be hard to counteract.”
Most communities in the reserve don’t have legal titles to the land but manage to stay due to the high legal bar required for carrying out an eviction. Should they manage to push into new parts of the reserve, Romero said, they’ll likely set fires to clear the vegetation before spreading grass seed for cattle ranching. It’s a common form of money laundering for criminal groups moving drugs across the Mexican border. Cattle ranching can also disguise clandestine airstrips for drug planes arriving from Colombia and Venezuela.
The newly discovered area is already showing signs of deforestation, with satellite data from Global Forest Watch showing heavy expansion of clearing this year in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the north between Laguna del Tigre and the Mexico border, as well as throughout its southern portion.
The National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP) and other government agencies work with conservation groups to keep the fires under control. But that might become more difficult moving into next year as El Niño, a global weather phenomenon in which ocean surfaces heat up, brings higher temperatures and longer periods without precipitation.
El Niño occurs every two to seven years, but this one is expected to be especially strong, with some of the highest temperatures since 1950, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“People entering the area without permission cause fires,” a CONAP official, who wished to remained anonymous over fear of losing their job, told Mongabay. “Almost every year we have that issue. But next year, the forecast is for a long, dry season.”
Some fires are also started on land that’s already been cleared, as families prepare for a new crop. But the hotter and drier it is, the higher the chance that those fires get out of hand and spread to primary forest. Even a few days of occasional rain can limit those accidents, the officials said, while a month without rain can mean disaster.
Combating El Niño requires money and labor. Patrols have to be carried out to maintain firebreaks and hold informal settlements at bay while other officials have to travel to the far reaches of the reserve to keep fires contained. CONAP’s dwindling budget has been a problem for years, though. And there’s growing concern that the needs of the reserve will fall by the wayside as Guatemala struggles through a government transition.
Dark-horse candidate Bernardo Arévalo, running on an anticorruption platform, won the presidency in August, but the outgoing government has tried invalidating his political party and carrying out raids on electoral officials, creating fears that there won’t be a peaceful transition of power in January.
Even if everything goes smoothly, a government transition could complicate conservation efforts in the reserve. Confirmation on what the annual budget will be usually takes longer. New officials replace the old ones, and they either don’t know the issues or want to implement their own strategies, which can take up a lot of time, the CONAP official said.
“But the advantage we have today is that there’s already a prevention strategy in place,” the official said. “We have a fire prevention plan.”
Banner image: The forest from above in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Photo courtesy of ACOFOP.
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