The Guatemala section of the Maya Forest forms the six million acre Maya Biosphere Reserve and is the largest protected area within the Maya Forest. In fact, it contains over ten percent of Guatemala's total land area. The Guatemalan government and UNESCO established the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 1990 to safeguard the region’s outstanding biological and cultural diversity. Within the internationally recognized World Biosphere Reserve are eight core protected areas, including the famous Tikal National Park which was declared a Natural and Cultural World Heritage site in 1979.
The Maya Biosphere Reserve is located in the remote Petén department in northern Guatemala and makes up 40 percent of the province. Tikal National Park, encompassing more than 140,000 acres, is located in the south-central part of the reserve. In the far western reaches of the reserve lies Sierra del Lacandon National Park, a 500,000-acre protected area established in 1990 that harbors the Piedras Negras archeological ruins. An ecoregional assessment concluded that Lacandon is among the most intact sections of the Maya Forest.
Why the Conservancy Works Here
The Maya Biosphere Reserve has enormous ecological, cultural and commercial value. The wealth of wildlife and plant diversity, the importance of the region as the principal seat of ancient Mayan power, and its current importance as one of the most visited tourist sites make it a Conservancy priority. However, it is threatened by unplanned colonization, ranching and agricultural activities, unstable and excessive natural resource extraction, and land tenure uncertainty.
What the Conservancy Has Been Doing
Protecting Sierra del Lacandón National Park
Sierra del Lacandón National Park is the second largest park in Guatemala’s national park system. Encompassing wetlands, grasslands, riparian forests, and both high and low tropical rain forests, the park connects the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala to the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas , Mexico . The park is a critical habitat for endangered species like the jaguar and endemic species such as the Morelet’s crocodile, Guatemalan howler monkey and many other species of birds, animals and plants.
The Conservancy and its partners helped the government of Guatemala carry out the largest debt-for-nature swap at the time under the 1998 Tropical Forest Conservation Act (TFCA), securing $24.4 million for conservation of the country’s unique biodiversity. Under this deal, the Conservancy and partner Conservation International each contributed $1 million, and the U.S. government forgave $15 million in Guatemalan debt. These funds and the interest they generate serve to cancel more than $20 million in debt to the U.S. In turn, Guatemala redirects its regular debt payments to a Conservation Trust Fund. Managed by an oversight committee made up of the Conservancy and other participants in the deal, the trust fund provides grants to local NGOs working in priority conservation areas such as the Maya Forest. The fund includes an endowment to ensure financial support for conserving Guatemalan forests into the future.
Forest Carbon Program in the Maya Forest
The Conservancy is evaluating a program in the entire Maya Forest of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala to maintain the carbon captured in the forest and at the same time provide long-term financing for the local communities, NGOs and the governments working to protect the forest and its biodiversity. The global momentum of support and the possibility of new markets represent an opportunity to translate tons of stored carbon into funding that can empower local stakeholders with resources to stem forest loss from illegal cutting, forest fires and agricultural expansion.
Conservation Highlights in the Maya Biosphere Reserve
- In Sierra del Lacandon National Park, the Conservancy and a local partner have been working hand-in-hand to conserve one of the forest’s most pristine areas. In a public-private co-administration agreement that was the first of its kind in Latin America, Conservancy partner Defensores de la Naturaleza and the Guatemalan government agreed to share administration costs and management responsibilities for the park. With Conservancy assistance, they also created the area's first five-year master plan.
- When the park was created in 1990, two parcels of land totaling 77,000 acres were privately owned. In 2006 the Conservancy and Defensores de la Naturaleza purchased these two properties, allowing the entire park to be effectively protected. The title for this property is held by Defensores de la Naturaleza who is managing the property and overseeing stewardship activities. A conservation easement ensures that this forest will be safeguarded into perpetuity.
- Earlier, the Conservancy helped Defensores de la Naturaleza purchase another 22,500 acres in the park to protect some of the most pristine forest in the area and an important Maya ruin.