San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Logging, Drug Trade Infiltrate Maya Biosphere

PETÉN, GUATEMALA — TheMaya Biosphere, the largest continuoustropical forest north of the Amazon, isunder attack.Illegal logging, fires, drug trafficking,and the lack of state resources have createda precarious situation that is jeopardizingthis area’s rich biodiversity and endangeredwildlife, including jaguars, scarletmacaws and tapirs.Yet despite the worrisome scenario,there is a glimmer of hope shining out fromthe heart of the biosphere.THE 2.1 million hectares of theMaya Biosphere, which runs along theGuatemalan-Mexican border, are dividedinto eight areas, all of which are protectedto various degrees.More than half of the biosphere isunder “strict protection,” meaning permanenthuman presence is prohibited.In the center of the reserve, in an areacalled the “multiple-use zone,” communitiesare allowed to live and exploit the forestresources in a sustainable manner. Andtheir relationship with nature is setting anew example of sustainable – and profitable– environmental practices.THE Laguna del Tigre, Guatemala’smost emblematic national park, is consideredthe most damaged area of the MayaBiosphere. Environmentalists estimate thatnearly 40% of the park’s nearly 290,000hectares have been cleared to raise livestock.Those clearing the forest – loggersand ranchers who are occupying the landillegally – aren’t sympathetic to those whospeak on behalf of the trees.Last month, a group of four people,including two environmental activists,were kidnapped inside the park. Althoughthe prisoners were freed after two days ofnegotiations, the outlaw sylvans had madetheir point: this is our land.Days after the kidnapped activists werefreed, a special police unit traveled to the areato evict the illegal loggers. They were welcomedby gunfire that resulted in two policemenhospitalized in critical condition.“(The illegal loggers) claim to number20,000, but we think there are between7,000 and 8,000 of them,” says RoanBalas, member of the Wildlife ConservationSociety.Regardless of their numbers, they havealready proven to be formidable resistance.EVEN more daunting than the problemposed by illegal loggers, is that posedby drug trafficking.In Laguna del Tigre, the governmenthas identified seven illegal landing stripsand 13 abandoned jets, allegedly once usedby drug traffickers.The combination of drugs, the illegaltimber industry and violence has made thispart of the biosphere a lawless place.“It’s impossible to govern,” saidClaudia Sánchez, environmental activistfrom the organization Tropico Verde.IN nearby Sierre Lacandon Park, theslash-and-burn practices of campesinosquatters poses another serious threat.“(Squatters) use their land for agriculturalpurposes, and this land is not fertileenough to grow crops for more thantwo or three years,” says Javier Marquez,the park’s director.Fires have claimed 15,000 hectares –or roughly 15% of the park – during the firstfive months of this year. Fighting the flameshas proved difficult, authorities claim.“They play cat and mouse: they starta fire in one place and when we are tryingto extinguish it, they start a fire somewhereelse,” Márquez said.SO far this year, authorities haveevicted some 500 families from the park.Now the government claims it cannotafford to continue the operations, whichcost $5,000 each.But the cost of doing nothing will beeven greater in the long run.“If we don’t do anything in two orthree years the situation will be as bad as itis in Laguna del Tigre,” the park directortold The Nica Times, adding: “This year iscritical, because next year, with the 2007elections on the horizon, no one is going todo anything about this.”FOR most environmental organizationsworking in the area, the occupiedmultiple-use zone in the eye of the biosphereis offering a source of hope for thefuture of the reserve.This 848,000-hectare area – 40% of thebiosphere’s total area – has been granted to13 communities and two private companies,all of which are allowed to exploit the forestresources in a sustainable manner.The 15 concessions granted to cleartrees have received the SmartWood stamp,issued by the Rainforest Alliance, whichcertifies that they are using forestresources in a sustainable manner.Macedonio Cortave, director of theAssociation of Forest Communities ofPetén, an organization formed by all thecommunities in the multiple-use zone,thinks they are doing a good job at preservingthe natural and cultural resourcesof the area, which once was the hub of theMayan civilization.“The lesson we have learned is thatpreservation will be successful only if thecommunities can use the forest resourcesrationally,” Cortave explained.A recent study published by theWildlife Conservation Society found that thesustainable use of the forest is creatingemployment and thus reducing the need touse the land for agriculture or cattle raising,which is more destructive in the long term.Recent satellite images show that themultiple-use zone is much better preservedthan Laguna del Tigre or Sierra Lacandona.However, Balas, of the WildlifeConservation Society, warns the loggingconcessions need to be monitored moreclosely.“Some concessions are making thesame mistakes the Mayans made in thearea,” Balas said. “It was the overexploitingof resources that led to the end of oneof the world’s greatest civilizations.”

Comments are closed.