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  • Protecting the Mesoamerican Lung



    by Joseph Milewski*

    After decades of abuse in Guatemalan jungle, the IDB launched a program compatible with the conservation of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. It develops alternative activities for the inhabitants  in the fields of agriculture, tourism, environment and culture.

    Ancient city of Tikal -Maya Biosphere Reserve

    Ancient city of Tikal -Maya Biosphere Reserve. Image: iStock

    In Guatemala, the deafening chatter of macaws and guttural shrieks of monkeys are but two of the many sounds to be enjoyed in the heart of Mesoamerica’s most extensive tropical jungle, which was declared the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) in 1990.

    This wilderness of lowlands and high temperatures is the ancient home of the Maya and hosts nearly 4,000 species of plants, birds, mammals and reptiles. The Reserve occupies the northern half of the department of Petén and extends more than 21,000 square kilometers.

    For decades, this Mesoamerican “lung” has confronted threats such as illegal forest cutting, the looting of archeological sites, fires and commercial hunting. More recently, organized crime and explosive population growth have emerged as new dangers to the ecological and archeological treasure.

    In response, six institutions of the Guatemalan government are working together to preserve the nature reserve and confront the threats. A key contribution to that effort has been an IDB-financed loan and donation from the Global Environment Facility, which has resulted in the creation of the Petén Development Program for the Conservation of the Maya Biosphere Reserve (PDPCMBR).

    Commitment to Sustainable Alternatives in the Maya Biosphere Reserve

    The Program, coordinated by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, develops productive alternatives for the local population that are compatible with the Reserve’s conservation and rooted in agricultural, touristic, environmental and cultural activities.

    The Program protects the environment by strengthening the administration of protected areas with the updating of management plans for the Reserve and other emblematic protected areas. At the same time, the construction and operation of a Joint Operations Center for San Miguel La Palotada provides control in a coordinated fashion between the National Council of Protected Areas, the National Army, and National Civil Police’s Nature Protection Division of traffic on the highway leading to the heart of the MBR.

    This helps prevent the looting of the Reserve’s natural and cultural resources. Launched in early 2014, initial results indicate that illegal forest cutting has decreased in this central zone, a preliminary indicator of the positive impact of improvements in environmental management. Meanwhile, a Joint Operations Center is being built at the extreme western end of the Reserve.


    Responsible Tourism

    The Program has financed infrastructure including the visitors’ center at the Yaxhá-Nakúm-Naranjo National Park, the Regional Museum of the Mayan World in the Tayasal peninsula, and tourist signs in Tikal. It also is improving the adventure trail between Carmelita and the archeological site El Mirador. As a result, tourists travelling to the zone each year already are finding improved recreational facilities.  It is hoped that these recent initiatives will contribute to extending the length of visits and of spending by tourists in the central area, as well as boosting the income of families working in tourism.


    Low Impact Agriculture

    The Program also directly benefits the local population. Officials from the Environment Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry are working to develop agriculture of high production and low environmental impact, through the promotion of the cultivation by agro-forestry cooperatives of ornamental plants such as xate and food crops including plantains, macal and cacoa.

    It also has been developing a sustainable farm model in the watershed of Lake Petén Itzá. Three hundred producers there benefit from assistance in designing and implementing appropriate technologies, like reforestation with native species and the management of forage species. It is part of a technological package to increase farm productivity with less use of grazing land and optimization of water use through an improvement in watering places. This increases the income of farmers and reduces the pressure on natural resources.


    Lake Petén Itzá,  “The Witch of Water”

    Lake Petén Itzá, one the country’s most splendid and least contaminated lakes, is situated in the buffer zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The Program invests in protecting the natural heritage there, monitoring water quality and preventing contamination of the lake from more than a million cubic meters of polluted water produced annually by surrounding communities. This is being done through the design of a drainage network in local municipalities, a proposal to decontaminate tributary streams, and the design and construction of a water treatment plant in San Benito, Petén.

    The Program is a long-term commitment, but already, it has helped to moderately decrease the degradation of natural resources and promote the development of the Reserve’s cultural heritage, contributing to an improvement in the population’s quality of life.


    *Joseph Milewski is a Natural Resource Specialist with the IDB working from the Guatemala Country Office on Environmental, Cadaster, Rural Development and Disaster Risk Management Projects in Guatemala, Jamaica and Honduras. Prior to joining the IDB, Joseph has worked for the private sector and a public sector utility in Canada for the power industry, in areas such as human ecology, environmental impact assessments and environmental policy. Joseph is a graduate from McGill University in Anthropology and Urban and Regional Planning.

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