Guatemala Clamps down on Christmas Fir Poachers
GUATEMALA CITY Police have seized thousands of branches of an endangered Guatemalan scented fir species used for Christmas trees in a clampdown to protect it against extinction, police said Tuesday.
Environmental police found more than 4,000 of the branches, which have a natural lemon aroma, hidden under the false floor of a truck parked at a makeshift seasonal market in Guatemala City Monday.
Poor street vendors staple the blue green cuttings to poles and sell them as Christmas trees, a practice that stretches back 50 years to when U.S.-style Christmas decorations became fashionable in Guatemala.
Now this imported tradition is threatening Guatemala's only native fir species with extinction, despite a law punishing branch poaching with up to 10 years in jail and a campaign to promote imported Canadian trees.
Vendors say sales of the home-grown fir as well as other native decorations like wicker reindeer remain strong, even in the face of the campaigns and competition from imported tinsel and baubles to decorate plastic trees.
"People are buying, they say the Canadian trees just don't smell the same," said vendor Jorge Lopez, 42.
The Guatemalan Fir -- Abies Guatemalansis -- took root during the Ice Age and thrived in the cool highlands that rise above the Central American country's steamy tropical coastal plains.
Once widespread, it is now found only in dwindling pockets in mountainous regions.
Though remaining forests are protected by villagers' patrols and this year by extensive police operations, poachers have still managed to saw off tens of thousands of branches.
"In some areas all the trees have been stripped naked this year," said police spokesman Carlos Cajul, who said that police had impounded almost 20,000 branches this year.
When poachers hack off branches they also take the small cones that are the firs' seeds, meaning the trees are unable to reproduce.