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Organized crime puts unprecedented pressure on Guatemala’s largest rainforest

The Maya Biosphere Reserve, stretching 2.2 million hectares (5.3 million acres) across northern Guatemala, has seen a wave of land invasions this year in areas that have historically not faced threats of colonization, like Naachtún-Dos Lagunas Biotope and Mirador-Rio Azul National Park.

Those arrested for the incursions are often more heavily armed than in the past, something that the unarmed park guards can’t always handle on their own.

Observers say criminal groups want to take advantage of the government’s broad support for agrarian reform to gain access to the land, which can be used to launder money on cattle ranches and move drugs across the Mexican border.

Criminal groups have made a renewed push into one of Guatemala’s largest rainforests this year. As new trails open up and fires spread, officials have raised concern not just about deforestation but potentially losing control of the area altogether.


The Maya Biosphere Reserve, stretching 2.2 million hectares (5.3 million acres) across northern Guatemala’s Petén department, has seen a wave of land invasions in areas that have historically gone untouched. Many of the invaders are well-armed and have the backing of organized crime, experts say.


“The lack of governance in the protected areas of Petén has caused the usurpation of lands, deforestation and the establishment of illegal livestock farming, which become high-risk areas and sources of imminent forest fires,” more than a dozen environmental NGOs said in a statement.


The reserve is made up of dozens of national parks, biological corridors and land concessions, each with their own unique conservation challenges. This year, authorities have made arrests in areas that have long struggled with incursions, such as Laguna del Tigre National Park and Sierra del Lacandón National Park. But they’ve also made surprising arrests in areas that usually see fewer threats, like Naachtún-Dos Lagunas Biotope and Mirador-Río Azul National Park.


Those arrested are often more heavily armed than in the past, something that park guards — who aren’t armed — can’t always handle on their own. Even though many patrols take place with personnel from the National Civil Police and military, the guards say they’re worried about escalating confrontations.


Officials destroy an illegal camp in the reserve. Photo courtesy of Walter Garcia.

“This was not a few poor families trying to squat in a national park,” he told Mongabay. “This was a planned, systematic and large-scale deployment to invade Mirador National Park on its northwesternmost limit.”


Additional patrols were carried out in response, including one by law enforcement to clear the markings. But some of the markings have since been redrawn, suggesting that a group is still interested in taking over the area.


In a statement, the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP) said the reserve was under threat from encroachments, forest fires, logging and illegal wildlife trafficking from “unscrupulous people who are being managed by sectors interested in generating a crisis of ungovernability.”


In May, police also destroyed illegal fencing from a 1,380-hectare (3,410-acre) illegal cattle ranch in Laguna del Tigre National Park. The ranchers living nearby retaliated by burning the rainforest beyond a major firebreak meant to stop deforestation from advancing to untouched parts of the reserve.


Invasions tend to increase during a government transition, such as the one that occurred this January with the inauguration of Bernardo Arévalo as the country’s new president. But the situation is far worse than in previous years, according to multiple sources working in the reserve.


Trees marked in Mirador National Park. Photo courtesy of Walter Garcia.

One reason might be the political stance of the new government, which is far friendlier to rural and Indigenous communities than its predecessor. Since the inauguration, the Arévalo government has met with numerous rural and agrarian groups to negotiate a list of goals for the first 100 days of the term, among them providing access to land for farmers, many of them Indigenous, and addressing the “agrarian conflict” caused by communities’ loss of land following the civil war. The conflict has also been exacerbated by organized crime’s interest in obtaining land near the border.


A proposed reform to Guatemala’s protected areas law and the law that established the Maya Biosphere Reserve would no longer deem communities living in the reserve as “human settlements” and allow them to live there with only loose restrictions on agriculture, livestock or wildlife use. Its backers argue that they can’t control the area’s natural resources as long as they’re managed by the government, with support from NGOs.


“We’re convinced that legal security for Indigenous peoples and local communities, coordination between institutions and people is fundamental to advance the care, protection, improvement and restoration of flora and fauna,” various agrarian reform groups said in a March statement.

While observers say they doubt the reforms will happen, they recognize that an important debate is taking place about who controls Guatemala’s natural resources. But they also say they worry the rhetoric is too easily co-opted by powerful elites and organized crime, and often at the expense of the reserve. They also argue that the claim to the reserve’s natural resources is controversial because almost no one lived there before its founding in 1990.



Officials make an arrest in the reserve. Photo courtesy of Walter Garcia.

Rarely is there evidence that the people settling in the reserve have a historical connection to the area, they told Mongabay. Instead, criminal groups want to take advantage of the government’s broad support for agrarian reform to gain access to the land, which can be used to launder money on cattle ranches and move drugs across the Mexican border.


“We’re going to send some farmers to the forest and they’ll say, ‘Oh, this is my land and we’re going to use the land,’” Javier Márquez, executive director of the Nature Defense Foundation, explained of criminal groups’ thinking.


Conservation groups and government agencies met with President Arévalo in April to discuss balancing the needs of rural communities with securing protected areas. Many of them say they came away feeling more confident that Arévalo will provide the necessary support to the reserve, hopefully in the form of a framework to address the spreading threats.

The following month saw an increase in coordinated patrols with CONAP and law enforcement to combat wildfires throughout the reserve.


“We’ve been working hard to support CONAP and the Emergency Operations Center, together with nongovernmental organizations and forestry communities,” said Gabriela Ponce, the country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “We look forward to continuing to work together to safeguard key forests that support biodiversity and sustainable livelihood opportunities for communities.”


by Maxwell Radwin on 20 May 2024

MONGABAY

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