Fire, cattle, cocaine: Deforestation spikes in Guatemalan national park

21 June 2019

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GUATEMALA – A patrol of eleven men is hiking along a rough jungle trail spotted with the blackened foliage of several small brush fires. Nearby trees, smoke-stained at their bottoms but still alive, are painted with a messy green “M” for La Mestiza, the peasant community staking a claim on the area.

Authorities consider La Mestiza residents to be intruders, as their village falls within Laguna del Tigre National Park, the largest such park in Guatemala. But community members have defended what they say is their right to live on the land and to use its resources, in some cases even resorting to violence.

Five of the men on this patrol are park rangers. The other six are National Civil Police officers, who arrived late the night before to provide additional security. Together, they navigate the forest in a straight line, speaking only in whispers. The leaders hold machetes for clearing the trail of vines and ferns. Most hold water bottles, sometimes more than one. Even at 8:30 a.m., the sun hits so hard that sweat has begun dripping down their necks.

The jungle becomes thinner and thinner until the patrol reaches a five-mile-long field, once as dense as the healthiest parts of the park but now scattered with cattle fences. It’s completely deserted. Over the most distant tree line, a column of smoke rises into the morning air.

“Someone’s started a fire,” says Michel Bertruy, a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) ranger. He helps coordinate joint patrols with the National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP), the police and the military. He looks around at the rest of his patrol. “I think we should follow it.”

Slash and burn

Fire is used to clear the land of forest and make it more farmable, and is the dominant driver of deforestation in the park. Between 2001 and 2018, Laguna del Tigre lost nearly 30 percent of its tree cover, according to satellite data collated by the University of Maryland.

Preliminary data for 2019 indicate the rate of loss is set to rise dramatically this year, with satellites recording more than 82,000 deforestation alerts in the park between January 1 and June 6. Of these, more than 57,000 were recorded in May alone. Satellite imagery shows vast swaths of recently burned land where old growth rainforest stood less than 20 years ago.

Tree cover loss alerts recorded this year shroud the park in pink. Source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch.
Satellite imagery show a burned, cleared area in the northwestern part of the park that was largely covered in forest last year. Source: Copernicus Sentinel-2 and Landsat 8 OLI imagery from Planet Labs, accessed through Global Forest Watch.

Laguna del Tigre comprises about 1,300 square miles of the Maya Biosphere Reserve’s northwestern corner. The reserve itself is a puzzle of many national parks and multiple-use zones, including nine community forestry concessions, that touch along Mexico and down the eastern border with Belize. In total, the reserve comprises over 8,000 square miles, representing about a fifth of all Guatemalan territory.

With thousands of ancient Mayan ruins, the reserve houses some of the country’s most important cultural patrimony. It also sustains dense biodiversity, most famous for its endangered populations of scarlet macaws (Ara macao) and jaguars (Panthera onca). In Laguna del Tigre specifically, CONAP has counted 219 bird species, 97 butterflies, 38 reptiles and 120 mammals. But fires have contributed to drastic population declines.

Extending from southern Mexico through Guatemala and into Honduras and El Salvador, scarlet macaw habitat has shrunk across the entire region. In Guatemala, they can now only be found within the reserve, where officials estimate there are between 150 and 250 individuals. In areas of the park occupied by human communities, jaguar populations have also dwindled as their prey has vanished, with around 340 left in total.

The approximately 38 communities in the park are responsible for the fires, park officials say, as are independent cattle ranching operations and, to a lesser extent, smugglers in need of runway space to land drug planes.

Efforts to stop the advance of deforestation, as well as to recover illegally occupied territory, have faltered at times due to a lack of resources, reliable intelligence and a clear, agreed-upon and ethical approach to working with invading communities, many of which are just looking for a means to live.

La Mestiza, now with a population of between 250 and 500 men, women and children, formed sometime between the late 1990s and mid-2000s as the country was transitioning from a 36-year civil war. Millions of people that had been displaced from rural areas were searching for safe, arable land to restart their lives. Many settling in Laguna del Tigre were unaware that it had been designated protected land in 1990.

“People have also had to migrate due to poor economic conditions,” says Noe Amador, a community leader and activist in Laguna del Tigre. “They don’t have support from the state. And all of that poverty forces people to go looking for a way to survive.”

Park officials argue that the law is clear: anyone residing with Laguna del Tigre is committing a crime. But they’re also aware that there’s a difference between disenfranchised peasants trying to get by and invaders that cut down thousands of acres for personal enrichment.

“These people who already have their piece of land,” says CONAP Ranger Carlos Vasquez, “they keep clearing the area. They light a fire and the fire gets out of control, and they keep taking more and more land even though they have plenty.”

Park officials say that in 2014, members of La Mestiza claimed an additional 14,100 acres of the park with the intention of clearing the area for cattle ranching. Officials managed to push them back from most of the territory. But the next year, members of La Mestiza renewed their claim on the land, then spanning over 45,700 acres. The conflicts continued into February 2016, when archeologists at the nearby, ancient Mayan city of Perú-Waka’ wrote to the U.S. ambassador of Guatemala describing the dangers that the fires posed to the ruins.

Park officials have since “recuperated” much of the territory, including the field where Bertruy and the patrol are walking through now. Recuperating an area of the park mostly involves ensuring that invaders don’t return to interfere with the jungle’s natural growth. But a few men on Bertruy’s patrol notice horse droppings around the field—and they’re fresh. Someone has been traveling here recently.

‘So much to do and so little with which to do it’

Between 2008 and 2017, park authorities recuperated approximately 383,000 acres of land. Some of that has been taken back by invaders, but it’s hard to know exactly how much. Holding recuperated land is a continuous, ongoing process, park officials say, made even more difficult by the size and conditions of Laguna del Tigre, where muddy roads can make even a short trip last all day. Many park officials also say they are struggling with a lack of resources.

“When it comes to Laguna del Tigre, there isn’t much interest in investment,” CONAP Service Technician Alvaro Hoil says, “even though it’s one of the most-affected areas in terms of tree-cover loss. There’s so much to do and so little with which to do it.”

In 2017, CONAP’s national budget was $13.5 million. By comparison, the equivalent park agency in nearby Costa Rica received $65 million during the same year (considerably higher than the exchange rate between the two countries). Laguna del Tigre received about $666,674 of CONAP’s funding. And with around 80 people working in the park, officials have to rely on independent organizations like WCS to help sustain the illusion of a widespread presence.

On this day, most of CONAP’s firemen, as well as the military, are several hours away from La Mestiza, looking into other matters. Having 11 men on patrol can feel like a lot or a little depending on the circumstances.

La Mestiza has gained a reputation for gathering in large numbers whenever one of their own is being stopped and questioned by a park official. In April 2016, a joint CONAP-military patrol was captured by members of La Mestiza and forced to sign a declaration recognizing the community’s right to the land. Military personnel are allegedly shouted at and insulted. One officer claims he was stripped of his uniform and hit in the back with the broad side of a machete.

These are the stories the 11 men on patrol are recounting—who was where during which confrontation; who saw what—as they draw closer and closer to the heart of La Mestiza’s area of influence.

Soon, they reach a stream hidden by a grove of trees and stop on the bank to drink from their water bottles, to nibble on snacks and catch their breaths. The smoke still hangs over the distance, but the source of it isn’t yet in sight. Immediately across the stream, cows are mooing on more open land. And where cows are mooing, people can’t be far off.

“La Mestiza must be less than four kilometers away from here,” one police officer says.

“You can go,” CONAP Ranger Magdiel Manzullero says. “I’ll wait here.”

The men laugh quietly at this joke. But it’s also their way of agreeing on a plan without having to discuss it out loud. The smoke is almost certainly near a residence of La Mestiza. And despite their numbers, weapons, all the distance they’ve traveled and the legal certainty that obligated them to do so, the risk of confrontation just isn’t worth it today.

After all their sweat and planning and navigation, they gather their things and turn away from the smoke, hiking back through the field of recuperated land and past the trees painted with “M”s. A few of the rangers plug notes into a GPS device, documenting the coordinates of their path and what they saw.

It’s also a way of taking notes about what was done in response to illegal activity. Unfortunately, on some occasions, the rangers have no choice but to leave it blank.

Maya Biosphere Reserve at risk

After the patrol, three of the rangers with WCS drive north through the Maya Biosphere Reserve, crossing out of the Laguna del Tigre park limits into the La Corona biological corridor. This 39,700-acre stretch of virtually untouched jungle separates the park from nearby community and industrial forest concessions, which allow legal residents to sustainably harvest forest resources within strict guidelines.

While designing the reserve, officials were unsure whether forestry concessions would work as intended or spin out of control, decimating the jungle. Corridors were inserted into the design to connect all of the national parks, allowing wildlife to migrate from one to the other should there be significant habitat loss.

What the designers of the reserve failed to predict was that the greatest threat of deforestation would come not from forest concessions (in fact, this strategy appears to be working well), but rather from inside Laguna del Tigre.

Because taking back land from communities like La Mestiza has proven so difficult and dangerous, WCS rangers spend most of their time defending the La Corona biological corridor and eastern parts of the park, where there are fewer inhabitants.

In 2002, deforestation crossed over from Laguna del Tigre into La Corona, nearly extending to the AFISAP forest concession. When a massive fire spread through La Corona the following year, WCS and other organizations realized how easily deforestation could encroach eastward into the concessions, putting the entire Maya Biosphere Reserve in danger.

In 2004, they started increasing their presence in the area, implementing a series of guard posts and connecting trails to serve as patrol routes and fire breaks, now known as the escudo or “shield.” By concentrating their patrols on this 100,000-acre swath of jungle, park officials managed to push back illegal occupants by 2010, and to hold new ones at bay. Though it’s difficult to track with exact numbers, park authorities say there has been no expansion of cattle ranching or agriculture since the shield’s creation.

WCS rangers alternate between eight days at home and 20 days in the jungle, living out of the La Corona base camp with outdoor amenities and limited electricity. The intense heat cuts their appetite. Drinking water must be collected in large, plastic vats during rain showers.

Fifty yards away is an adjacent CONAP camp, and a hundred yards from there is an 88-foot metal lookout tower, which pokes out over a flat sea of rainforest canopy. It allows the rangers to spot distant fires and narco planes. On a clear day, it’s also possible to see the edge of the shield, where pristine jungle meets a spread of grazing cattle.

In this part of the reserve, few of the cattle ranches belong to peasant communities like La Mestiza. Instead, they are singular, industrial operations run by independent owners. But so little is known about who they are or where they come from that park officials tend to speak about them in general terms that border on speculation.

The consensus held by park officials is that many of these large properties were initially cleared by peasant communities, then sold to “powerful people” that live in other parts of the country. These wealthy landowners leave day-to-day operations to an administrator with little knowledge of how the land has been acquired, making it difficult for officials to get answers when they go knocking on doors.

“Some people come in,” Second Sergeant Jose Alberto Calchor said. “They burn the land, and when others arrive, they buy it from them and they put livestock on it. All you hear is that some people came first to sell the land to some other people, but no one knows who they are.”

Park officials say many of the cattle ranches participate in the mass-trafficking of livestock into Mexico. The country’s Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development has estimated that between 400,000 and a million cattle enter illegally from Guatemala each year.

Independent cattle ranches occupy excessive amounts of land, sometimes several thousand acres, leading park officials to believe that some of them are also fronts for drug trafficking operations. Such vast areas not only provide space for incoming planes from Colombia and Venezuela, but also serve as a means for money laundering.

Drug planes started arriving in Guatemala in the mid-2000s, after drug authorities started cracking down on cocaine runs through the Caribbean. Traffickers needed a new route to Mexico, and Central America became the next-best option, according to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Between 1980 and 2010, over 75 percent of all drug seizures shifted from the Caribbean to Central America, leading the ONDCP to claim that, when it comes to cocaine trafficking, “all roads lead to Guatemala.”

“Because there’s just so much land, it lends itself to the installation of airstrips,” explains Second Lieutenant Marcos Arturo Rosales. He estimates that around 15 drug planes arrive in Laguna del Tigre each month, though it depends on the time of year. “They take advantage of the summer season,” he adds.

‘Who is worthy of land?’

Many cattle ranches haven’t been established with drug trafficking in mind, officials say. Rather, they are approached by traffickers with an opportunity to make additional money on the side, and it’s too difficult to say no.

Because the shadow of organized crime hangs over much of Laguna del Tigre, negotiations between park officials, cattle ranches and peasant communities is largely a fruitless, if not combative, exercise.

In 2017, former La Mestiza Mayor Jovel Tobar Rodríguez was arrested during a press conference outside the Second Congress on Environmental Justice in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Critics claimed the police acted without a warrant, but officials maintained he had been wanted for environmental crimes and drug trafficking.

The year prior, the Laguna del Tigre and Sierra Lacadón communities introduced an alternative proposal for the development of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, urging for their recognition and “guaranteed permanence” on protected land. But CONAP considered the proposal unconstitutional, even refusing to sign an agreement establishing under what guidelines the proposal could be discussed.

Until a viable method of negotiation can be found between all sides, park officials view the shield, the patrols and lookout towers as largely temporary solutions to protecting the jungle. They set a goal for 2021 to decrease the yearly average area affected by forest fires in all of the Maya Biosphere to less than 1,100 acres. But the deforestation rate in Laguna del Tigre alone still surpasses that several times over.

WCS and CONAP have begun working on peace-building initiatives for the area with international agencies and organizations in the hopes of bridging the gap between environmental protection and human rights. But a lot of work remains.

“The question is: how do you expel organized crime from the area and how do you evaluate who is worthy of land?” Roan McNab, WCS Program Director for Guatemala, says. “These are really tough questions. And if not dealt with, this problem could spread through the rest of the Maya Biosphere.”

Banner image: Members of CONAP put out the last of a ground fire in Laguna del Tigre National Park. Photo by Max Radwin for Mongabay.

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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