Drug Trade, Land Grabs Threaten Guatemala Rainforest

The ancient Mayans abandoned their monumental cities in Central America's jungles over a thousand years ago, and many blame their civilization's collapse on massive deforestation.

CRUCE A LA COLORADA, Guatemala — The ancient Mayans abandoned their monumental cities in Central America's jungles over a thousand years ago, and many blame their civilization's collapse on massive deforestation.

In the following centuries, a wildlife-rich forest regrew in Guatemala, now home to one of the largest tropical rainforests north of the Amazon.

But modern Guatemalans are now watching a repeat of their ancestors' mistakes, as slash and burn tactics by illegal loggers, cattle ranchers and drug traffickers destroy enough trees to fill an area the size of Dallas, Texas each year.

The 5-million-acre Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala's northern Peten region was created in 1990 to protect part of a wilderness that extends in patches across Central America and into Colombia and southern Mexico.

The area represents less than half a percent of the Earth's landmass, but at least 7 percent of the world's animal and plant species are found there, including giant anteaters, howler monkeys, scarlet macaws and the elusive jaguar, an endangered jungle cat that can kill armadillos and other prey with a single, skull-piercing bite.

But in recent decades, lax control in Guatemala has led to some of the highest deforestation rates in the world, with over a third of the forest already destroyed.


"The government completely abandoned the national parks," said an official from the National Protected Areas Commission, known as CONAP.

"Now other interests have moved in with links to drug traffickers," he said asking not to be named for fear of retaliation. "It's turned into a no-mans-land."

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates 70 percent of cocaine bound for the United States passes through Central America, often moving through unruly Peten where criminal bands smuggle not only drugs but people, exotic animals and looted Mayan artifacts.

Scant government resources means few forest rangers are charged with protecting the reserve, and drug traffickers routinely threaten them, along with ecologists and archeologists working in the region.

Last year, heavily armed thugs invaded the ruins of an ancient Mayan city called Piedras Negras, one of the thousands of Mayan sites partially excavated or still buried under thick jungle cover.

"Narco-ranchers" use their resources to illegally buy up large swaths of land inside the park often from peasants who have invaded the protected areas.

The cattle ranches serve as a way to launder cash and clear space for clandestine airstrips, government officials said.


In 2003, Guatemala declared a national fire emergency when thousands of smoldering acres choked the sky with dense smoke and left charred soil with a thin layer of nutrients easily washed away by rain.

In as little as three years, land that has been slashed and burned is no longer fertile and the original forest can take as long as 50 years to grow back.

One theory for the relatively sudden Mayan collapse 1,200 years ago is that clear-cutting of trees led to widespread erosion and evaporation.

Studies of settlement remains show the deforestation coincided with a dramatic drop in the Mayan population around 950 AD.

These days, forests are replaced with cattle ranches, whose millions of cows excrete methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas.

In Brazil, scientists have shown burning and ranching in the Amazon accounts for 75 percent of the country's emissions, making the South American country one of the world's top 10 polluters.


One hope for the Maya Biosphere Reserve may be found in the "multiple use zones," areas of the park where the resident populations are allowed to legally farm and log under strict guidelines.

Jorge Soza, who once scraped out a living collecting coagulated tree sap to make chewing gum, is now the president of FORESCOM, a community run lumber company that exports wood from Peten certified as eco-friendly.

With funding from international organizations, the company maps areas of the forest using global positioning systems, cutting down less than one trunk per acre every 30 years.

The most profitable woods are mahogany and cedar but the communities are trying to process lesser known species into floor boards and decking for green-minded consumers.

Out of the $4 million dollars the communities earn each year from logging, they spend some $150,000 to prevent forest fires and land invasions in their territory.

Despite these efforts, local environmental groups have also documented serious deforestation problems within the multiple use zones.

But Soza, 53, thinks when it comes to conservation the communities have to be on board to stem the destruction.

"The state is too weak to manage the forest," he said standing on a felled mahogany trunk in the Cruce a la Colorada concession. "When the communities are in charge there is more control, at least there are some limits."

Source: Reuters

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