Skip to comments.Saving the Selva Maya a Tropical Forest/Jungle in Central America
Posted on 08/23/2003 7:34:05 PM PDT by Coleus
Saving the Selva Maya
Sunday, June 29, 2003,
Editor's note: As part of his research for a book, Editorial Writer Jim Wright made several recent trips to the tropical forest in Belize, where until a few weeks ago a smoky haze often clouded the skies.
WHAT IS THE SELVA MAYA?
The Selva Maya consists of mostly contiguous jungle in three Central American nations: Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize. The three nations have created biosphere reserves, national parks, and other conservation areas to protect the jungle, conduct scientific research, and seek sustainable development.
Guatemala has the 5-million-acre Maya Biosphere Reserve.
Mexico's most significant holdings are the 1.5 million-acre Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve and the 1.7 million -acre Calakmul Reserve.
Belize's Selva Maya holdings include the Programme for Belize's 260,000-acre protected area in the north and the 265,000-acre Chiquibul National Park and the 147,000-acre Chiquibul Forest Reserve further south.
THE SATELLITE imagery from NASA tells the story: In the heart of Central America stands a 9-million-acre tropical forest known as La Selva Maya - the Maya Forest - and it is under siege.
The satellite photo, taken this spring, gives a glimpse of the devastation: hundreds of fires, represented by red dots in the photo, are in large part the result of escalating human encroachment.
The fires subsided with the rainy season's arrival, but the damage was done. In a typical year, hundreds of thousands of acres in the Selva Maya are lost to intentional fires and other deforestation. Roan McNab, a Guatemala-based field biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, estimates that in that nation's 5-million-acre Maya Biosphere Reserve, as many as 1 million acres burned this spring alone.
The Selva Maya also includes parts of Mexico and Belize (see sidebar, Page O-4). The three nations signed an international agreement to protect the vast jungle from such destruction, and for good reason.
The recent fires are one indication of how that landscape is changing. Humans and the forest are too often on a collision course as a result of entrenched poverty, increasing population, and development pressures. There is also talk of new roads through the region to boost tourism and facilitate trade and oil extraction. The fires and new roads increase the fragmentation of the forest, disrupting the habitat that many bird and mammal species need to thrive.
Guatemala is the largest concern. Political conditions, still rocky after a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, have compelled the U.S. government to routinely issue travel alerts.
WHY THE SELVA MAYA MATTERS
A bit larger than the state of Maryland, the Selva Maya is the largest contiguous tropical forest north of the Amazon. It is supposed to be protected, and for good reason.
Although the forest comprises less than 1 percent of the Earth's land mass, it contains an estimated 7 percent of its biological diversity - including one of the few thriving habitats for the Mexican black howler monkey and the mighty but endangered jaguar.
Nearly 400 plant species are unique to that region. Each winter, it is home to an estimated billion migratory birds from the United States and Canada, with billions more passing through to habitats farther south.
The Selva Maya helps mitigate global climate change by acting as a giant "carbon sink" - removing carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the air. Conversely, when the forest burns, it sends carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere.
The jungle also is the heart of the lost Maya empire, with thousands of archaeological sites, including the world-famous Tikal ruins in Guatemala. At the height of the Maya empire, between roughly 600 and 900 A.D., the region's population reached an estimated 4 million before mysteriously going into a sharp decline. Most of the forests have been growing for hundreds upon hundreds of years.
- Jim Wright
In the Petén region, the supposedly protected biosphere reserve is a demilitarized zone where drug trafficking is gaining a foothold, looting of Maya ruins is commonplace, wildlife poaching is rampant, and huge chunks of jungle are razed for cattle-grazing or subsistence farming - the by-now notorious slash-and-burn agriculture that adds nutrients to the thin layer of topsoil but gradually destroys the jungle itself. The soil is soon depleted, and more forest is burned. When the dry season is drier than usual, as was the case this year, the effects are sweeping.
"Some of these fires were legitimate - in small agricultural patches by indigenous people who have lived here since before the biosphere was established," says McNab of the WCS. "But other fires were started by people who shouldn't have been in the biosphere to begin with. Some were full-out invasions of what we call the 'core zones' - the fully protected areas and the government capacity is such that they cannot protect them.
McNab says invaders have set fire to nesting sites of the endangered scarlet macaw and other wildlife habitat so that it no longer has value as conservation land. Invaders are also drawn to some areas because they have water, which is rare in Guatemala's Maya forest and which is advantageous for cattle-ranching.
The lawlessness that pervades the region has been an enduring challenge for archaeologists. Arthur Demarest, head of Graduate Studies in Anthropology at Vanderbilt University, recently directed the Petexbatun project, one of the largest investigations ever of the ancient Maya, which explored the mystery of their collapse. He has directed 21 field seasons in Guatemala and El Salvador, often during the civil wars in those nations, and he says that he has become an expert in "dealing with political crises, the army, guerrillas, G2 [Army intelligence], narcotraficantes, robber bands, and the like."
According to Demarest, a large part of his work "consists of facilitating the work of other scientists by providing them safety and logistical support in these difficult environments. This aspect of my career continues today, although the army and guerrillas have been replaced with warring regional drug lords and looters, who dominate the remote zone of the Petén."
William Saturno, a research associate at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology who discovered the oldest intact Maya mural last year in northern Guatemala, is even more blunt. "The situation can't get worse," he says. "Nearly every Maya site is being looted or has been looted already."
The problems in Mexico are not as dire, but the Selva Maya there still faces enormous pressures. A largely poor and landless population keeps intruding into biosphere reserves, killing wildlife for food, removing the hardwood trees, and - increasingly - appropriating parts of forest for subsistence agriculture.
In the 1.5-million-acre Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve to the west of Guatemala, tensions are high. Dozens of small communities have sprung up, with settlers clearing land for slash-and-burn farming. Conservation groups and long-established indigenous communities in the reserve have been pressuring the government to relocate the newer arrivals.
Ignacio March, a top Conservation International representative in Mexico, says his group "is sympathetic to the plight of these landless settlers, but we are talking about the massive destruction of the last humid forest of Mexico, and the water supply it contains. The forest's water basin is the most important basin in Mexico. The country's future will depend on the water from this forest. Without the water, we will have no development elsewhere."
The conservation groups want to see the landless intruders removed not through the use of force but through financial incentives, but there are no simple answers. Advocates for the communities say they are indigenous people and political refugees, forced from their lands elsewhere in the region by paramilitary violence, with nowhere else to go.
To the east, Belize is perhaps the least threatened - for now. The biggest problems in the region have been poaching of both mahogany and wildlife. The border between Guatemala and Belize is unprotected, and poachers from Guatemala see tempting targets. Looting is not as big a problem, in part because most the sites were looted decades ago.
In two huge chunks of Belize jungle - the 133,000-acre privately owned Gallon Jug estate (home of the eco-tourism Chan Chich Lodge and considered "a zone of cooperation" within the Selva Maya) and the 260,000-acre Programme for Belize's Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area to the north - hunting is banned. To discourage poaching, gatehouses guard all roads leading to the properties.
The area is one of the few places left in the world with a healthy jaguar population. WCS field biologist Carolyn Miller believes that the major reason is the abundance of wild prey in the area. Elsewhere, jaguars are more far likely to prey on livestock, forcing farmers to kill them. Because hunting has been prohibited for more than 15 years in Gallon Jug, it has become what Miller calls "a wildlife factory," churning out such prey as white-tailed deer, peccary, and ocellated turkeys.
A third huge parcel, the privately owned Yalbac, is extensively logged for mahogany and cedar, and part of the jungle has been cleared and burned to facilitate orange groves. The dirt logging roads that crisscross the property make it more vulnerable to interlopers from across the border in Guatemala, and the owners have had a constant problem warding off the poachers in the remote sections of the property.
In Belize's protected areas to the south, squatters from Guatemala further complicate the situation. With so much poverty in that country, people sneak across the unprotected borders into the jungle, set up little villages, and chop down and burn the forest to create milpas (small cornfields) or marijuana patches.
The situation could get worse if plans are realized for a new eco-tourism road from Cancun to Tikal through the unfragmented northern Maya Biosphere Reserve. The Inter-American Development Bank, which funds road construction throughout Central America, says the highway is not in any of its current projects. But conservationists say that the road is still under consideration, and they fear that it would not only give wildlife poachers and mahogany poachers easier access to the natural treasures just over the border in Belize, but also open up vast portions of the jungle to land-starved squatters - setting off a whole new cycle of slash-and-burn farming that will deforest the Selva Maya even more.
The strategy to save the Selva Maya ranges from the basic to the high-tech. International conservation organizations work with local community groups to preach sustainable development, such as encouraging more eco-tourism without harming the jungle, or teaching farmers to grow crops such as shade-grown coffee that don't destroy the tropical forest.
The jungles themselves offer crops that can be harvested without leaving permanent damage. For example, the xate palm leaf - which U.S. and European florists prize because it can stay green for more than 60 days - grows quickly and can be harvested from the jungle floor every three months. Already, the xate palm leaves are a business that generates more than $4 million in revenues and employs thousands in Guatemala.
Another strategy is to offer financial incentives both to private land owners to keep part of their property forested and to illegal biosphere settlers to repair the environmental damage they've done and move to a more suitable location. The organizations also work to block plans for any major new road construction within the Selva Maya.
In one bigger-picture effort, The Nature Conservancy worked with the U.S. government and Belize to protect 23,000 acres of tropical forest, in exchange for forgiving roughly half of Belize's debt to the United States.
Then there are those dramatic NASA satellite shots. The Central American Commission for Environment and Development uses the satellite snapshots to keep an eye on what's going on in the remote regions of the Selva Maya and elsewhere - and then relay the information as quickly as possible to the appropriate officials.
The long-range digital photographs of all the fires in Guatemala's biosphere reserve are part of the effort to get people to see the big picture when it comes to saving this unique and invaluable swath of Central America.
Jim Wright 's e-mail address is email@example.com
There isn't too much reference on the Free Republic regarding the demise of the tropical rain forest/jungles in central and south America. I understand it's not as bad as the liberals portray it to be. I've done keyword and title searches for deforestation, jungles and rain forests on the FR and came up with two sites with not that much information. Also, what would happen to our climate of all of these South American jungles burn down? Nothing, a world calamity, no more clouds or rain, severe weather???
If you have any sites on the net refuting the myth of the conflagrations in the rain forest/jungles, please post them. Thanks.
Let me know if you wish to be added or removed from this list.
I want to offend anyone evil enough to defy God's commandment to Adam: Subdue the Earth.
I learned in high school bio (40 years ago!) that only 0.02% of our O2 comes from land based vegetation, and that is because Phytoplankton constitutes 99.8% of the vegetation on Earth.
As for the "miracle drugs from plants" idea, most of the plants of the jungles were well documented and analyzed before the close of the 19th century. It's a false argument for many reasons, but the best reason is that their medicinal properties are known and proven, but their use is forbidden by law at the demand of the AMA and the pharmaceutical industry.
Perhaps a plant or critter that has medicinal value? The only problem, and I think we'll agree, to "save" this piece of real estate means restriction of human activity to these freaks.
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