After the Amazon, the Mayan Biosphere Reserve is the largest intact tropical rain forest in the Americas. At 6 million acres, the Mayan Biosphere Reserve covers nearly 20% of Guatemala and is bigger than New Hampshire.
And it's going up in smoke. And up the nose.
Narcoranchers who slash and burn the forest and enforce their illegal land grabs with automatic rifles and intimidation are enforcing the rule of lawlessness on the forest, particularly its Western portion near the Mexican border, according to Roan McNab, the country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society's Guatemala Program. He spoke Tuesday at the launch party for the group's second State of the Wild book.
In the case of Guatemala, the state of the wild is defined by the state of our drug habits.
Forests are burned to create pasture for illegal cattle ranching, and the illicit ranchers get a toe-hold in the protected forest by "capitalizing on the lawlessness and intimidation created by the drug trafficking route in the western part of the reserve," according to Anton Seimon, the assistant director of the WCS Latin America and Caribbean Program. The activity is also "financed in part by the laundering of money obtained through the drug trade." Some 30 air strips have been carved into the forest in just the last couple years. (Editor's note: An error in this paragraph was corrected April 22; the forests are not, primarily, burned to grow coca.)
"This is my forest on drugs," McNab said, waving his arm at an image of smoke emanating from the forest.
While illegal logging and wildlife poaching remain problematic, as they are in other preserves around the world, particularly in poor nations, park rangers and local law enforcement are distracted by the larger issue of what might be thought of as colonization by drug cartel. Nothing but national military has the firepower to challenge the drug trafficers, leaving park rangers and local officials out-gunned and overwhelmed, McNab said.
At stake is one of the most rich forests, biologically speaking, in the world. It is home to 375 plants found nowhere else on Earth; 95 species of mammal, including the giant anteater and five big cat species like the puma and jaguar; 45 reptiles, 18 amphibians and 112 species of fish; and 400 bird species. At the peak of migration, as many as 5 billion birds pass through the area, according to the Nature Conservancy; those birds are familiar part-time residents in the back yards of people across the United States.
The forest is also enchanted with pre-historic artifacts. Mayan ruins are being unearthed and studied in preparation to become part of an eco-tourism destination. Archaeologists, like biologists, are increasingly threatened by drug trafficers, however, jeopardizing not only their intellectual work but the future of Guatemala as a friendly tourist destination.
The U.S. also has a financial stake in the forest. In a 2006 debt-for-nature swap that was the largest of its kind at the time, the United States forgave about $25 million in Guatemalan debt in exchange for the government's pledge to spend the money on preservation of its rain forests, including the Mayan Biosphere Reserve.
McNab's solution to the problem ("It's time for U.S. consumers to own up to the impacts of their activities") is similar to many environmental missives: Vote with your wallet. That is, don't snort coke, don't smoke crack.
Like many environmental problems, solving this one requires breaking addictions that are awfully hard to quit.
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