In 1990 about half of the Petén department was protected under the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The Reserve was created to protect the largest area of tropical forest remaining in Central America. The other half was leftunprotected, as an economical resource for local communities
When I first came to live in the Petén in 1997 about 1 third of the unprotected rainforest had disappeared. Nevertheless, with 2 thirds still standing plus the immense Mayan Biosphere Reserve being protected, we were living in the middle of a vast area of seemingly endless rainforest with a few spots of slashed forest that had made way to agricultural land.
Conserving the rainforest of Guatemala.
By the time I left the Petén in 2001, about 75% of the unprotected rainforest had disappeared. Why? What happened? What is going on?
The answer is population increase and unsustainable ways of living. The people populating the Petén are not originally from that region. The Petén started to be populated by families from more southern parts of Guatemala in the 1950s. These families took their life style and traditions with them when settling in the Petén. Although the rainforest is a great food source, still today the inhabitants of the Petén have kept their agricultural traditions of slash and burn, planting corn and beans instead of gathering food from the jungle.
The population growth in Guatemala is nearly 3% per year. The fertility rate in Guatemala is the highest in Latin America, with an average of 6 children born to each Guatemalan woman during her lifetime.
Rainforest of Peten
With this in mind, it is only logic that the rainforest of the Petén is disappearing.
Speaking 2009, we can say all unprotected rainforest of the Petén has made way for mostly abandoned agricultural land. The agricultural methods used in the region are so poor that land can only be used for a few years before the soil becomes unfertile or is washed away by rainfall.
Since about 10 years the Maya Biosphere Reserve has been heavily affected by agriculturalists and cattle ranchers settling in the reserve with their families and abusing the land illegally. Many times these invading families are protected by narcotics traffickers who have obvious interests in controlling the region. This and the vastness of the reserve have complicated protecting the reserve at large.
What can be done to protect the rainforest?
- Family planning and birth control should be encouraged among the population of Guatemala. The reluctance of the Guatemalan government to institute population control policies can be partly attributed to its strong ties with the Catholic Church.
- Guatemalans should receive more education on ecological balance and the importance of preserving the rainforest. At the same time they should be offered alternative and improved agricultural practices.
- Preservation projects should be executed on a smaller scale. Vast areas of jungle have proved to be nearly impossible to protect. The Maya Biosphere Reserve would benefit from having several smaller protected areas within the reserve like Tikal National Park and the plan proposed by the Mirador Basin Project.