Cocaine barons and farmers have been accused of cutting down swaths of Guatemala’s rainforest to carve out airstrips and to launder drug money, threatening biodiversity and ancient Maya ruins.
More than a fifth of the 2.1m-hectare tropical forest – Latin America’s biggest after the Amazon – has been burned and cleared by settlers who are often working for drug traffickers, according to environmentalists and human rights groups.
Official figures show the Maya biosphere reserve has lost 21% of its cover since being declared a protected zone in 1990, with impoverished peasants allegedly acting as an advance guard for wealthy drugs-linked farmers. Others put the number even higher.
“The narcos use violence and poverty as tools to push into the reserve,” said Claudia Samayoa, director of Udefegua, a human rights advocacy group. “They cultivate land, put in some cattle, but often it’s just a front.” Poverty, malnutrition, unequal land distribution and the lack of state services gave many such communities little alternative, she said.
A colour-coded map recently published by Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas (Conap) showed the western half of the reserve covered in orange and red blotches, representing areas burnt more than three times.
Some 306,000 hectares were lost between 2001-06, it estimated.
The incursions are threatening the habitats of hundreds of species of birds and mammals, including jaguars, pumas and tapirs, as well as 3,000 types of plants and Maya archaeological sites. “If left unattended, these threats could spread eastward, undermining the economic productivity of the reserve and deteriorating (its) crucial role as a biological corridor at the heart of the tri-national Maya forest of Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico,” said Roan Balas McNab, Guatamala programme director of the Wildlife Conservation Society. The reserve’s eastern half, comprising about 1m hectares and the main Maya ruins of Tikal and Mirador, has remained relatively unscathed thanks to greater protection. An earth-mound firebreak which divides the reserve has become a de facto “shield” which deters illegal interlopers entering the east.
Nevertheless Jeff Morgan, executive director of the Global Heritage Foundation, said drug trafficking and cattle ranching could sabotage efforts to promote tourism and protect key archaeological sites. “Conservation of Mirador is critical for Guatemala and the world and provides the best alternative for legal jobs and income.”
In the past three years Conap reclaimed 110,000 hectares on the eastern side from an alleged drug lord who “bought” the land from peasants who had been given a 25-year lease to cultivate crops in return for managing the forest.
Incursions into the western side appear to be growing.
Dozens, possibly hundreds of airstrips have been hewed from the jungle. Traffickers transfer cocaine from small planes to vehicles which cross into Mexico.
Cattle ranches are the bigger threat. On the four-hour drive from Flores to El Naranjo there is no forest, only pasture and the occasional cow and horse. Two environmental groups, which declined to be identified for security reasons, said narcos use ranches to build roads and basic infrastructure and to launder money.
Last month armed men massacred 27 labourers on a ranch because the owner, who was not there at the time, allegedly stole 2,000kg of cocaine from Mexico’s Zeta cartel.
The state encouraged settlers to “tame” the forest in the 1960s before deciding it would be better to conserve it and promote tourism. A spokesman for Cofavic, a peasant rights advocacy group, said its members were being smeared to justify violent evictions. “They call us narco helpers but we are victims.”