Though small, Sierra Caral, a 26-by-9.5-kilometer (16-by-6-mile) woodland on this country’s border with Honduras, is the most biodiverse forest remnant in Caribbean Guatemala. Beset by illegal settlers and deforestation, it also ranks among the region’s most endangered.
That’s why the Universidad del Valle, a private Guatemalan university, recommended last year that the country make it a national priority to conserve Sierra Caral, which scientists consider a valuable center of endemism for reptiles and amphibians.
The Guatemalan government thus far does not appear to have heeded such calls, but conservationists are waging a two-pronged battle to improve the beleaguered woodland’s prospects. First, they are calling on the nation’s gridlocked Congress to impose land-use restrictions in Sierra Caral and provide the funding needed to enforce them. Meanwhile, they have been buying portions of the land directly in hopes of providing immediate protection while the fight for congressional action continues.
Experts say the stakes are high.
They cite the Sierra Caral forest’s role in retaining water deposited during rains, thereby preventing downstream flooding and preserving water supplies not only for humans, but also for the region’s plant and animal species.
“Uncontrolled logging means that rainwater won’t be as easily absorbed, rain patterns will change and temperatures will rise, which means that cold-climate species, such as amphibians, will disappear,” says Carlos Velásquez, a specialist in reptiles and amphibians at the University of San Carlos School of Biology.
Fueling such concerns is Sierra Caral’s deforestation rate. According to the National Council of Protected Areas (Conap), a total of 4,230 hectares (10,452 acres) of the area’s woodlands were cleared during the period 2001-10, mostly by peasants looking to grow corn. Conap says that at this pace, Sierra Caral could disappear completely in 48 years.
Marco Vinicio Cerezo Blandón, director of the Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation (Fundaeco), a Guatemalan green group pushing for protection of Sierra Caral, says one reason peasants are entering the area is that narco-ranchers have forced them out of the Motagua Valley.
Velásquez of the University of San Carlos says it is difficult to establish how long it could take to regenerate Sierra Caral. “It’s not easy to work that out,” he says. “The good thing is that Sierra Caral is one of the forests in Guatemala with the highest rates of forest regrowth, and that opens up the possibility of saving it.”
Located in the department of Izabal along Guatemala’s border with Honduras, Sierra Caral forms part of the Merendón mountain range. It encompasses 35,000 hectares (86,000 acres) of broadleaf evergreen forest, where 22% of Guatemala’s amphibian species are represented.
Twelve of these amphibians are classified as “threatened with extinction” on the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Five are listed as “critically endangered” and are endemic to Guatemala: two salamanders (Nototriton brodiei and Cryptotriton wakei), and three frogs (Agalychnis moreletii, Duellmanohyla soralia, and Ptychohyla hypomykter). And seven endemic amphibian species recently have been discovered in the region, including an arboreal blue-toned pit viper (Bothriechis thalassinus) that has been described as endemic to Sierra Caral.
The forest also boasts rich bird diversity, serving as a stopping point for 120 Nearctic migratory species, including some whose populations are declining. It harbors 13 bird species considered regional endemics and 40 bird varieties on global conservation-priority lists. A number of insect species are endemic to the area as well.
Sierra Caral forms part of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which runs through the Central American isthmus. It is home to a number of notable mammals, such as the endangered black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra) and the Central American spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi). In addition, the forest contains the Bobos, Las Ánimas, Negro, Chiquito, Frío, Plátanos, and Nuevo Cacao rivers, which are tributaries of the Motagua, one of Guatemala’s largest and most important rivers. Collectively, these rivers constitute a crucial water supply.
On a regional scale, Sierra Caral is considered an important component of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, sharing a biogeographical connection with Honduran protected areas to the east, southeast and northeast: respectively, Cusuco National Park, Montaña Chiclera and Cerro San Gil. According to the IUCN, conservation of Sierra Caral is “vital in order to maintain the regional connectivity of this portion of the Mesoamerican corridor.”
Conap lists Sierra Caral as a “special protection area” under a 1989 law that regulates land use in 20 areas of biological and hydrological importance in Guatemala. The legislation touts the importance of land conservation, but does not provide funds or set penalties for enforcement.
Last year, Conap attempted to address those deficiencies by designating Sierra Caral as a “protected area.” This would effectively boost the reserve’s conservation status, qualifying it for extra protection. Each Guatemalan protected area is covered by legislation establishing its particular land-use restrictions, a budget to implement them and a mechanism for increasing that budget when necessary.
In the case of the still-pending Sierra Caral legislation, three land-use areas are proposed:
• A 4,676-hectare (11,554-acre) nucleus comprising three non-contiguous areas where the main river basins are located. Here, no human settlements would be permitted and scientific investigation would be the only human activity allowed.
• An 8,930-hectare (22,066-acre) multiple-use zone surrounding the nucleus zone where conservation activities such as reforestation could be combined with low-impact hydroelectric-power generation, farming and cattle ranching in suitable areas.
• A 5,406-hectare (13,358-acre) buffer zone surrounding the multiple use zone where income-producing activities for local communities would be allowed as long as they are deemed environmentally sustainable. This is the area where most human settlements would be permitted. (A reduced number would be allowed in the multiple-use zone.)
Open-pit mining, an activity that has drawn strong opposition in Guatemala from indigenous communities and green groups, would be forbidden in all three land-use areas. However, the legislation establishes no penalties to back up this and other land-use restrictions, likely leaving forced eviction as the sole means of enforcement.
The bill also states that the National Land Fund (Fontierras), a government agency charged with settling peasant land claims, would grant land titles to peasants already living in Sierra Caral. The titles would be conditioned on the settlements being sited in the buffer zone or in certain portions of the multiple-use zone so as to avoid undue environmental impacts and farming disputes, a common problem in the department of Izabal and in many parts of Guatemala.
According to Fernando Castro, Conap’s director of conservation units, there are 22 communities in Sierra Caral, most of them ladino, or non-indigenous, along with some that are Chortí Mayan. Conap and Fundaeco have stressed that they do not seek to evict peasants but to regulate land use, protect the forest and encourage sustainable development. Local communities have supported the bill and last year lobbied Congress for its approval.
Castro says that a Q6 million (US$766,871) budget would be needed to implement the bill during the first five years; after that period, the bill states that the government would assign Q1.5 million (US$191,717) a year for the protection of Sierra Caral. One of the top priorities in terms of resources would be the hiring of 16 forest wardens for the area.
However, Castro explains that the bill was put forward in 2011 as part of “green package” of environmental bills that seek to protect other endangered areas and to impose tougher regulations on water use and solid-waste disposal nationwide. The idea was to act on the bills before the Sept. 2011 general elections, but supporters failed to secure enough backing for the bills, which have languished in Congress.
The Guatemalan Congress is currently divided between the official Patriot Party (PP), the opposition Libertad Democrática Renovada (Lider) party and a number of small parties. With the PP and Lider blocks determined to block each other’s legislation, Congress has been in a state of gridlock.
Conap’s Castro is pessimistic about the chances of advancing the Sierra Caral bill. “No government has ever made the conservation of protected areas a priority,” he says. “Without support in Congress it will be very difficult to secure its approval.”
Concerned that time is running out to save Sierra Caral, Fundaeco in July of last year purchased 410 hectares (1,013 acres) of land, part of which lies within the nucleus areas proposed for maximum protection.
It did so with the support of individuals and groups including the International Conservation Fund of Canada; Our Children’s Earth Foundation; the American Bird Conservancy; the IUCN’s Amphibian Specialist Group; World Land Trust–US; Nature and Culture International; the University of California-Berkeley; Guatemala’s Museum of Natural History; and Banco Industrial, the country’s largest bank.
In several transactions, Fundaeco spent a total of US$250,000 to buy:
• 225 hectares (555 acres) of forested land in the Río Grande-Río Ánimas watersheds. The property, located in one of the nucleus areas, was sold to Fundaeco by the Maderas El Alto logging company. Maderas El Alto, whose owner is Carlos Meany, the energy and mining minister under former Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom, decided to sell the land after encountering financial and managerial problems. As the company had grappled with those problems, its oversight of the property had slipped, prompting an influx of illegal logging and settlement by peasant farmers.
The tract, 800 to 1,100 meters above sea level, has the highest levels of endemism in Sierra Caral. Seven amphibians have recently been discovered in this area: three types of salamander (Nototriton brodiei, Cryptotriton wakei, and one undescribed species), all endemic to Sierra Caral; two leaf-litter frogs (Craugastor species), which are endemic to the Guatemala-Honduras border area; and two tree frogs, the Copán brook frog (Duellmanohyla soralia) and the Copán stream frog (Ptychohyla hypomykter), which are endemic both to Sierra Caral and to the Sierra del Espíritu Santo mountain range in Honduras.
• 135 hectares (333 acres) in the La Ceiba-El Quinto area, next to one of the proposed nuclear zones and in a portion of Sierra Caral where illegal settlement and cattle ranching have been advancing rapidly.
• 50 hectares (123 acres) in the San Joaquín area that are not in a nucleus zone and would be earmarked as a resettlement location for squatters.
Fundaeco has named the purchased areas the Ecological Reserve for the Conservation of the Sierra Caral Forest and Its Amphibians. The idea behind the acquisitions, explains Cerezo, is to purchase Sierra Caral land for conservation bit by bit, establishing land uses consistent with the protected-area law as efforts continue to get that legislation enacted.
Organizers aim to fend off illegal settlement and logging by creating a nature reserve where peasant communities will be involved as ecotourism guides, artisans and forest wardens, gaining a stake in the land’s protection.
Fundaeco believes that over the long term, the principal drivers of Sierra Caral’s deforestation threat will be population growth and poverty. To address them, the organization is carrying out eco-friendly rural-development projects to promote shade-coffee cultivation, community forest projects and agroforestry. Fundaeco also has established a network of reproductive health clinics for rural women across the Sierra Caral area in partnership with the Ministry of Health and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
“The new reserve will contribute to the protection of Guatemala’s and the world’s biological heritage,” read a statement issued by Fundaeco last year as part of its announcement of the land acquisitions. “International interest and support for the establishment of this reserve stems from its incredible and unique diversity of amphibian species, which is unparalleled on a global scale.”
- Crosby Girón and Louisa Reynolds