In the Land of the Maya, A Battle for a Vital Forest

In Guatemala’s vast Maya Biosphere Reserve, conservation groups are battling to preserve a unique rainforest now under threat from Mexican drug cartels, Salvadoran drug gangs, and Chinese-backed groups illegally logging prime tropical hardwoods.

The 200-foot summit of Temple IV in the ancient Maya city of Tikal provides a spectacular view of Central America’s largest expanse of intact rainforest. In the late afternoon, spider monkeys dangle from nearby branches, stretching to pick small fruits. The guttural barks of howler monkeys echo through the canopy — a lush green broken only by the occasional flash of lemon yellow from a swooping toucan.

This lowland forest is the heart of the Maya Biosphere Reserve of northern Guatemala, a 2.1 million-hectare (5.2 million-acre) sanctuary that covers 19 percent of the country and contains roughly 60 percent of its protected area. The UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve sustains a wide array of biodiversity, most notably the last remaining population of a key subspecies of scarlet macaw.

But this magnificent creature and others that inhabit the reserve — jaguars, pumas, Guatemalan black howler monkeys, Baird’s tapirs — are being pressured not just by the standard threats common to tropical regions, such as illegal logging, fires, and commercial hunting. Even more virulent forces are gnawing away at the Maya Biosphere Reserve, including Mexican drug cartels that cut into the forest to build airstrips to transport drugs, Salvadoran gangs that carve out huge cattle ranches to launder drug money, and Chinese organized crime groups moving their illegal logging network toward the reserve to supply Asian markets with prime tropical hardwoods.

As a result, this natural and cultural treasure — the heart of the Selva Maya, a forest spanning the borders of Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize — has in recent years effectively been cut in two. The western side, which includes two of the reserve’s five national parks and is bordered on the west and the north by Mexico, is under siege, according to Guatemalan park officials. The eastern part of the reserve, where Tikal rises above the jungle canopy and which borders Belize, is lush and intact.

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