In the sweltering, midday heat of the Petén, Guatemala’s largest province, workers are stringing barbed wire to posts along a dirt road that borders a swath of open land. This land was forest until just a few weeks ago, when someone set a fire that reduced the trees to ashes. Since then, a hole has been dug for a pond. Once grass takes root in the open space and water fills the pond hole, the acreage will provide ideal pasture for cattle.
But there’s a problem: the property these workers say they are fencing for “the owner” is part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala’s most important protected area. Here, fencing and livestock—not to mention slashing and burning—are prohibited.
This year, manmade fires set in March, April and May—the latter part of Guatemala’s dry season—took an unprecedented toll. In all, the blazes claimed a fifth of the Maya Biosphere Reserve before finally being choked by rains.
An array of factors contributed to the disaster—among them, election year vote- buying, drug trafficking, land shortages, corruption and staggeringly scant government commitment to protected areas. In doing so, they pointed up a painful reality: the highly prized reserve is under siege, and its future is in doubt.
“Our work is harder in Guatemala than in any other country where we are working,” says Chris Fagan, director of ParksWatch, a U.S. nonprofit that is active in Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru and Brazil. “Incredibly, the [Maya Biosphere Reserve] suffers from every single threat ParksWatch has found in the other four countries where we work. Direct threats like the expanse of the agricultural frontier, poaching, oil extraction, roads, drug trafficking, as well as indirect threats like an insufficient number of guards and lack of [environmental-enforcement funds].”
Adds Fagan: “All countries have some of these threats, but the [biosphere reserve] has every single one. This, and the fact that the government does not make conservation of the reserve a priority, makes protecting the reserve a depressing endeavor and one with very little hope if drastic changes do not occur immediately.”
Comprising some 5 million acres (over 2 million hectares), the Maya Biosphere Reserve covers the northern half of Guatemala’s vast Petén province, occupying 19% of Guatemala’s national territory. This is the biggest and most biodiverse protected area in Central America and an important refuge in Mesoamerica for large cats, a subspecies of scarlet Macaw (Ara macao cyanoptera) and other vulnerable and endangered animals. It is home to extensive wetlands, thick jungle and hundreds of archeological sites.
Some 36% of the reserve is classified as national park or biotope land and thus ostensibly receives the strictest level of protection. About 40% is a multiple-use zone where certain extractive activities and subsistence agriculture are permitted. Meanwhile, 24% is designated as a buffer area where private property, agriculture and livestock are allowed.
Experts say that over half of this year’s fires were set by farmers to prepare cropland for planting but then burned out of control. But a troubling portion—an estimated 40%—were set to destroy forest so land could be cleared for homesteaders, cattle ranchers and drug traffickers.
As in many protected areas around the world, homesteading has been a perennial threat in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The Petén is the last frontier for landless peasants in a country with highly skewed land distribution and a largely agricultural and indigenous citizenry. Not coincidentally, it is experiencing Guatemala’s strongest population growth.
But this year, several factors have conspired to make the homesteading problem worse than usual. One is politics. With elections scheduled for November, the mayor of the municipality of San Andrés, which includes several portions of the reserve—among them the Laguna del Tigre National Park—promised to legalize and even build road access to new settlements in the park.
Mayor Uldárico Chata’s pledge reportedly has encouraged homesteaders to move into the park—and perhaps won him a loyal cadre of new voters. But it also has prompted the National Protected Areas Council (Conap), the agency that oversees management of Guatemala’s reserves, to sue Chata for usurpation of protected areas and for trafficking in timber.
Also adding to the homesteading pressure these days are cattle ranchers, experts say.
“Cattle ranchers send the peasants in to clear land and farm it for a year or two so they don’t have to clear the land themselves,” says Marie Claire Paiz, the Petén director of Defenders of Nature, a nonprofit that co-administers the reserve’s Sierra del Lacandón National Park.
According to Paiz, once farming has exhausted the soil, ranchers buy the land from the campesinos and bring in their cattle. “It’s a great way to get huge extensions of land cleared and occupied, and peasants clamoring for land rights are a great human shield for the ranchers,” she says.
But sometimes, the commandeering of biosphere land is less subtle, observers here say.
“What has become evident this year is that the invasions are not always poor, landless peasants who have nowhere to go,” says Anne Dix, natural resources officer for the U.S. development agency USAID, which has donated some US$35 million for Maya Biosphere Reserve projects over the past 13 years. “These are well dressed, heavily armed, well-organized groups of men, not families, who are being financed to slash and burn the land. This is a professional enterprise, and there are people in on [illegal land] invasions who have been in on other invasions.”
Complicating matters in the reserve is a narco-rancher connection. On lands close to the Mexican border, such as those in Laguna del Tigre National Park, cattle ranches provide convenient staging areas for the smuggling of contraband ranging from livestock to drugs into Mexico.
“I don’t want to say all cattle ranchers are drug traffickers,” says U.S. embassy spokesperson Mary Thompson-Jones. “But once land is slashed and burned and the cattle is there, it makes it more attractive for drug traffickers looking for airstrips. Drug traffickers are part of the cycle of degradation going on in the reserve.”
Conservationists have discovered clandestine airstrips in Laguna del Tigre National Park and in Sierra del Lacandón National Park, both of which form part of the biosphere reserve.
Guatemalan drug cartels have become an important link between Colombian and Mexican cartels in recent years, converting this country into a transshipment point for South American cocaine and heroine en route to the United States. Earlier this year, Guatemala was decertified by the U.S. State Department for its failure to cooperate in the drug war.
According to Guatemalan officials, traffickers may be setting the Petén up to be an important drug-production center as well. Ronaldo Herrarte, executive coordinating secretary for Guatemala’s president, says he believes lands already are being cleared in the reserve for marijuana and poppy plantations.
This year’s fires in the biosphere reserve not only helped clear land for such activities, they reportedly gave traffickers a momentary tactical advantage: The smoke made it harder for authorities to track drug-laden planes.
Nearly half of the 990,000 acres (400,000 hectares) that burned in the biosphere reserve this year were in Laguna del Tigre National Park. But environmental destruction in the park, a Ramsar site that is home to Central America’s largest wetland, is nothing new. Though Laguna del Tigre enjoys the strictest protection on paper, it is one of the most degraded areas of the reserve.
Today, there is one active oil concession in Laguna del Tigre. Currently operated by French-owned Perenco, it predates the park’s creation and frequently has drawn criticism on environmental grounds.
Another controversial oil concession was granted in 1992—two years after the park was created—to Basic Resources, which has since been bought by Perenco. This contract was cancelled in March of 2001 amid charges that it violated protected-area laws. But while it operated in the park, Basic Resources opened up roads that environmentalists say have attracted homesteaders.
“The homesteaders and the oil company are mutually beneficial,” says Mynor Barrios of San Carlos University’s Center for Conservation, which co-administers a portion of the park called the Laguna del Tigre Biotope. “The company opens up roads for its operations, which in the end help the homesteaders. And it behooves the company to have homesteaders in the park. Their presence and the destruction they cause could be used as justification for demanding that the government rezone this area and lower its protection status, [allowing for more petroleum blocks].”
Due to relatively recent influxes of squatters, some 2,000 people currently live in Laguna del Tigre and Sierra del Lacandón parks. There are also nine other communities, comprising approximately 600 homesteader families in all, that in 1997 and 1998 negotiated agreements with the government allowing them to remain in Laguna del Tigre.
Carlos Albacete, director of the Guatemalan green group Trópico Verde, believes these talks set a bad precedent that underlies many of the park’s current problems.
Byron Castellanos, technical director of Conap’s Petén office, acknowledges that the agreements with these communities—signed by Conap officials with a previous administration—were based on political considerations rather than technical ones.
Oil exploration to continue
Despite continuing controversy over oil activity in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the government appears to favor continued exploration in the area. It recently opened two new oil blocks in the reserve’s buffer zone.
While it is legal to explore for and produce oil in the buffer area, some here are worried how these activities could affect other parts of the reserve.
Among those expressing concern are organizers of a community forest-concession effort in the park, a program under which locals gain logging rights in return for practicing sustainable, environmentally certified forestry.
“The problems caused by oil exploration in Laguna del Tigre could be similar in the buffer area,” says Marcedonio Cortave, president of Acofop, an association of communities that hold forest concessions in the reserve’s multiple-use area. “It could become a focal point for employment, attracting people with no jobs to come to the area and stay.”
The environmental impacts of such an influx cannot be overstated. Consider the plight of the local variety of scarlet macaw (Ara macao cyanoptera).
According to Roan Balas, director of the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society’s Guatemala program, fully 80% of the bird’s known, remaining nests in Guatemala are between El Peru and El Burral, areas located within Laguna del Tigre National Park.
Balas says that of 56 chicks that hatched this year, only three remain—and only one is likely to survive. Many macaws were poached by homesteaders, he says, and fires pushed more falcons—the bird’s natural predators—into macaw habitat.
“This is the most devastating year we’ve had,” says Balas. “Unless something is done, scarlet macaws will go extinct in Guatemala.”
Government gets bulk of blame
For many observers, the bulk of responsibility for the Maya Biosphere Reserve’s plight rests with the Guatemalan government.
“The reserve has a lot of problems, but there is one common factor behind them all, and that’s a total and absolute lack of political will to conserve it,” says Trópico Verde’s Albacete. “We see this reflected in extremely low budgets and personnel levels. The people in Conap in the Petén are trying, but they have no support from the government.”
According to Albacete, the protected areas with the lowest spending and staffing were those most affected by fires this year.
Conap’s Byron Castellanos says his Petén office’s annual budget is less than US$4.5 million. This represents 65% of Conap’s total budget, but the Petén encompasses 83% of the country’s protected land.
Government dysfunction was nowhere more apparent than in the response to this year’s fires. When the fires began, there was just $200,000 in the government fire fund. That was the remainder from last year; Congress had failed to allocate new fire funds for 2003.
With the blazes raging, the presidency made an emergency allocation of $1 million. But because of budget problems, the Finance Ministry released only $200,000 of that amount. So donations from USAID, the presidency, non-governmental groups and funds scraped together from Conap and other government agencies were brought to bear.
The presidency’s Herrarte acknowledges that the funding was a fiasco, but he assigns the blame to Congress. Even thought the ruling party—the Guatemalan Republican Front—has a majority in the country’s congress, Herrarte says its legislators don’t always do what the executive branch wants.
“This government is committed to conservation, but the problem is we have a shortage of funds,” Herrarte says. “The government won’t resolve environmental problems in Guatemala by giving millions of dollars and assigning more personnel. The solution corresponds to all of Guatemalan society, and there isn’t environmental awareness in Guatemala.”
- Catherine Elton