After the Amazon, Mesoamerica’s Maya Forest — or Selva Maya in Spanish — is the second-largest remaining tropical rainforest in the Americas. Its extensive and diverse forests provide refuge for countless rare and endangered species like the white lipped pecarry, tapir, scarlet macaw, harpy eagle and howler monkey.
One can often spot jaguar tracks on the forest’s floor. It is one of the few places on Earth where five large cat species live - jaguar, puma, ocelot, jaguarundi and margay. The Maya Forest harbors up to 400 species of birds and in peak winter migratory months as many as several million birds rest in the area.
The 13.3 million-acre Maya Forest stretches across Belize, northern Guatemala and through Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The Conservancy has worked to protect the entire forest as well as crucially important sites—the 4.5 million-acre Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, the 1.8 million-acre Calakmul Biosphere Reserve and the adjacent Calakmul-Sian Ka'an Corridor in Mexico, and in Belize the 260,000-acre Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, the 1.2 million acre Maya Mountains Massif and the 830,000 acre Maya Mountain Marine Corridor in Belize.
The forest also preserves archaeological sites of the ancient Maya civilization and today its descendants continue to live in the area. Agriculture, harvesting timber, honey production and the harvest of other commercially important species such as allspice, chicle (traditional base for chewing gum), and xate palm (used in many floral arrangements) are staple livelihoods.
Due to the expanding population in the area, the jungle is being cleared for agriculture, fragmenting the forest cover. Roads, dams and development are also putting pressure on the forest's shrinking resources. The area is targeted for new tourist development, and that ultimately means larger roads, the influx of workers and more visitors.
The Nature Conservancy created a coordinated tri-national plan to protect the Maya Forest working with local organizations, landowners, regional governments and the scientific community. This unprecedented endeavor looked at the entire forest across national borders, brought together various government agencies and partners to safeguard this ancient forest for future generations. The plan helps:
- inform regional land-use planning,
- manage uncontrollable fire across the region,
- improve the capacity to monitor wildlife across the region
- and promote sustainable tourism-based livelihoods.
The Conservancy is also working on new and innovative methods to protect the forest.
In 2006 the Conservancy along with Conservation International brokered a debt swap between the United States and Guatemala. Under this deal the U.S. is forgiving $24 million in debt owed to it by Guatemala in exchange for this money being put into tropical forest conservation in Guatemala.
Fire management has taken a leap forward with an international consultancy developing a diagnostic of priority border areas for the three countries. Mexico has set up a control and communication center and Guatemala and Belize have a binational project promoting better fire management policies.
In 2006, the Conservancy purchased two parcels of privately owned land in Guatemala’s Sierra del Lacandon. The combined 77,000 acres include some of the most intact and biologically diverse tracts of rainforest in Guatemala.
Also in Guatemala, an innovative coordinating body was set up to exchange information and develop protocols for monitoring land cover, forest quality and jaguar and macaw populations.
In 2004, 370,000 acres of threatened tropical forest in Calakmul were permanently protected under a historic land deal between the Mexican federal and state governments, the Conservancy, Pronatura Peninsula Yucatán and four local communities. The Conservancy also has worked to strengthen management of the neighboring Balam Ku State Reserve, which is home to jaguar, king vultures and an immense bat cave.
In Mexico partners have used motion-sensitive cameras to record mammal activity in 15 sites within the Calakmul Reserve. So far white lipped peccary, all five species of wild cats and tapir with young have been photographed.
A harpy eagle was spotted for the first time in 50 years in late 2005 in the remote Bladen Reserve in Belize’s Maya Mountains Massif after it was thought to be extirpated from the area. Since then several more harpies have been seen, indicating that the forest’s health is slowly recovering.
The Bladen Reserve covers about 4 percent of the country and is a haven for migratory birds. Birdwatching is an important tourism experience in the area and the Conservancy has helped impoverished local communities set up ecotourism projects along with local partners and the government.January 18, 2011