In 2005, about 37 percent of Guatemala was still forested, down from 40 percent in 2001. Most of the country was at one time covered by forests, a fact attested to by Guatemala’s ancient Mayan-Toltec name meaning “land of the trees.” The once-forested Pacific plains have given way largely to sugarcane and coffee plantations while the forests of the Caribbean slope have been turned largely over to banana plantations. The highlands, for their part, have been under intense cultivation since preconquest times, though there are still substantial forests left in remote corners of Quiche and Huehuetenango in the Western Highlands.
Most of the loss of forest cover in the past 40 years has been due to government incentives aimed at colonizing the northern department of Petén in an attempt to ease pressure for land by an ever-increasing population. The Petén thus became an escape valve from pressures for land reform historically thwarted by Guatemala’s agricultural elites. It is here that a modern-day battle is being waged over Guatemala’s remaining forests.
It is hoped that history will not repeat itself, as the ancient Mayans have a valuable lesson to teach about what happens when the forests are cut down. It is speculated that among the reasons for the Classic Mayan collapse is widespread drought caused by the overwhelming deforestation of the tropical lowlands the Mayans inhabited. This may have, in turn, led to widespread warfare among Mayan city-states as populations scrambled to assert dominance over dwindling resources. The southern and central sections of Petén have been almost completely deforested, leading to local declines in annual rainfall marked by prolonged and warmer dry seasons. The northern third of Petén remains mostly intact, for now, protected as The Maya Biosphere Reserve. Pressures against the reserve continue to mount, however, with illegal land grabs and clandestine logging continuing to make inroads. There is no guarantee that the reserve’s borders will remain inviolate or that they will stave off the advance of the agricultural frontier.
It bears discussing here the process by which seemingly endless tracts of forest become tropical wastelands resembling the dustbowl-era plains of Kansas. While the lowland Mayans practiced advanced farming techniques, including terracing and irrigation canals, what survives today is a simplified form of subsistence farming known as slash-and-burn agriculture. An area of forest will be felled and burned to the ground, with nutrient-rich ashes allowing crops to grow, though generally for a period of only two years. After that, a new plot of forest must be destroyed to grow crops again.
The problem lies in that the soil of tropical forests is notoriously lacking in nutrients; the vast part of the ecosystem’s biomass is in the trees themselves, with forest topsoil only reaching about two inches in depth. The old plot is abandoned, with the soil having been compacted, and sold to cattle ranchers. And so, each year more and more land is deforested and turned into a jungle wasteland. The forests are particularly at risk at the tail end of the dry season, when slash-and-burn agriculture can get out of hand and burn uncontrolled into protected areas. Many times fires are set purposely inside park lands.
In addition to the activities of peasant farmers steadily encroaching on virgin forests, the activities of contraband loggers, looters of unexcavated archaeological sites, and wildlife poachers inside park boundaries constitute an additional threat to the forests. Adding insult to injury, contraband loggers, wildlife poachers, and peasants from neighboring Mexico have been scuttling the border to burn forest, kill wildlife, and plant crops in cleared lands. A now-famous Landsat image appearing in the October 1989 issue of National Geographic shows the once razor-sharp border between Mexico and Guatemala’s Laguna del Tigre National Park. The border is now dotted with burned-out land parcels along much of this boundary marker as a curious extension of the wide-scale deforestation in Mexico.
A recent development is the clearing of forest to build clandestine landing strips for drug-laden aircraft coming in from South America. With the virtual absence of local law enforcement and the aid of poor peasants eager for extra income, drug lords have found a haven for their illicit activities in Guatemala’s remote parks. Whether through bribes or the falsification of documents, narcos have infiltrated Guatemala’s protected lands to suit their illicit operations. The existence of these “narco-farms” was brought to the attention of Guatemalan authorities after eight park guards were kidnapped and held hostage by armed men in June 2005 in Sierra del Lacandón National Park. The guards and members of a conservation group had decided to verify reports of clandestine logging inside the park. They were later released unharmed. The Public Ministry began a long process of expropriating the illegally titled lands while lawyers and land surveyors working the case faced intimidations and death threats. Meanwhile, the narcos reportedly moved their operations south to the Petexbatún region after a new military-trained environmental protection unit was created to destroy many of the clandestine landing strips and prevent further illicit activity.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com