There are some who see asphalt as a path out of poverty for the people who live in and around the Maya Forest of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, via the construction of new roads that would bring more tourists and other commerce.
But researchers and nonprofit organizations in these countries are working to show the governments and communities involved that preserving the vast wealth that is the Maya Forest through careful, sustainable development and tourism is in the peoples’ best interest.
Organizations in Mexico and Guatemala that have received funding from Conservation International’s Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) are working together to provide local governments, organizations and communities with the information they need to make wise forest choices.
The Impact on Forests
The Maya Forest is the largest contiguous tropical forest in the Americas north of the Amazon. It is also home to many ancient Mayan cities, the best known of which, Tikal, attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
Armed with a recent economic impact analysis conducted by the Conservation Strategy Fund (CSF), grantees Fundacion Kukulkan in Guatemala and Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatán in Mexico have been meeting with government ministries, other NGOs and local stakeholders to promote the importance of the forest as a provider of food and water, protector of Mayan culture and counterweight to climate change.
LEARN MORE: Discover how CI works with communities to benefit both people and nature.
CSF’s analysis, which was funded in part by CEPF, was projected over a 30-year horizon. It found that two of the largest proposed road projects—the Caobas-Arroyo Negro-Tikal and the San Andrés-Carmelita-Mirador project— would result in:
- Deforestation of around 53,570 hectares (about 132,000 acres) for the Caobas-Arroyo Negro-Tikal road and 36,128 hectares (almost 90,000 acres) for the San Andrés-Carmelita-Mirador
- Losses of forest carbon which add up to a global cost of $24 million for the first road and another $15 million for the second
- Total losses of approximately $61 million for Guatemala and $14 million for Mexico
Choosing an alternate route in Guatemala
Kukulkan has been meeting with authorities at all levels in Guatemala regarding potential road projects in the Maya Forest, and has shared a video summarizing the study results with government officials, students, local organizations and other key actors.
Their efforts have helped support the prevention of new roads. The National Council of Protected Areas in Guatemala, the ultimate authority on the Maya Biosphere Reserve, issued a resolution against road construction in the reserve. The Mirador-Rio Azul Multisectorial Roundtable, an influential group of local stakeholder organizations that CEPF helped establish, also sent a letter to the Ministry of External Affairs asking for its support in preventing the construction of two other proposed roads.
IN DEPTH: Road construction, agriculture and development projects all contribute to deforestation and affect species, people, forests and climate.
“These are official documents from the Guatemalan authorities at a national level that also include clear positions of authorities at the local level,” said Jorge Cabrera, executive director of Kukulkan and former environmental minister of Guatemala. Though they have been under pressure from the Mexican government to construct roads to aid tourism, Guatemalan authorities are not planning to pursue road construction in the area, Cabrera said.
Working to ensure careful development in Mexico
Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatán (PPY) and its partners are taking a different approach in southeast Mexico, where roads have already been built within the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, and projects for new roads or improvement of existing roads are likely to move forward.
PPY is working with Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA) and the Jaguar Conservancy to inform decision-makers in Mexico about how best to proceed without damaging vital natural resources. The partnership is developing guidelines for forest-friendly road development, making sure their recommendations are technically sound, legally feasible and socially acceptable, said Efraím Acosta Lugo, PPY’s technical coordinator.
The group is conducting a case study of the road between Escarcega and Xpujil, which crosses two nature reserves and may threaten the north-south continuity of the forest. This main route for travel and commerce between Belize and Mexico is now being widened to 12 meters (about 40 feet) and "improved" by reducing the number of curves.
“We are now analyzing all the potential fauna movements—jaguar, deer, monkey, bats, birds, tapir, amphibians and reptiles—and the hydrology of the site using GIS techniques and field surveys,” Acosta said. “So far we have identified several fauna and water ‘passes’ that must be addressed by road contractors. We will pinpoint them in a detailed map and also provide specific measures that have to be taken in order to mitigate the problem.”
EXPLORE: Mesoamerica Biodiversity Hotspot
The results will be presented to the participating organizations and the general public through a series of events targeting government agencies directly involved in development planning and infrastructure. The goal, Acosta Lugo said, is to get some basic commitment from these agencies to follow the recommendations in present and future projects.
“Most recommendations made by the social sector and non-profits are rejected or at least diminished by the government agencies because they either lack technical support or are not socially/economically acceptable,” Acosta Lugo said. “As this project is a joint venture between different organizations with solid expertise in different areas and the process is consulting with the key actors in the region, we believe that it could be a model to be followed.”
Plans are under way to spread the lessons learned from the initiative to other communities and groups in southern Mexico who are grappling with their own development pressures.
Pronatura and Kukulkan have been meeting and sharing information regarding developments in their respective countries in an effort to make certain there is synergy between their projects across the Mexican-Guatemalan border.
As for the surrounding communities, Acosta Lugo said they have traditionally seen road construction as a positive, providing access to goods and services and opening up better communication opportunities.
“This view, however, is changing every day, and they are more concerned of the effects a road may have on their forest,” Acosta Lugo said. “They are more than open to new ways of construction that protect the natural resources and at the same time benefit them.”
READ MORE: A Better Future in Tanzania's Forests