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Climate Education Guide, Activity 4: Forests of Guatemala

Climate Education Guide, Activity 4: Forests of Guatemala

Total Time 

One to two 50-minute periods


Students learn about the distribution of forest and humans around the world, and then analyze maps of the Maya Biosphere Reserve to determine recent changes in forest cover and to consider the causes of these changes.


  • Students will graph and describe changes over time in two areas of the Maya Biosphere Reserve.
  • Students will identify causes of forest change in Guatemala.

Trees and forests are natural carbon “sinks.” They absorb CO2 and convert carbon into trunks, leaves, stems and roots. But, when a forest is cut down and converted to another use, carbon is released back into the atmosphere -- either slowly through decay, or quickly through burning.

Globally, around 13 million hectares of forests were lost each year between 2000 and 2010 . This represents a total area lost in just one decade of almost 200 times the size of the Petén. In Guatemala, over 73,000 hectares of forest are lost each year. With such huge loses of forest land, deforestation contributes a significant amount to increased CO2 in the atmosphere. In the tropics alone, deforestation releases an estimated 1.5 billion metric tons (tonnes) of carbon annually.

Forests account for more than a quarter of the land area of the Earth, and they store a vast amount of carbon -- more than three-quarters of the carbon in all land plants. Avoiding deforestation can play a key role in reducing future CO2 and other greenhouse gas concentrations.

The Forest Planet

In addition to complete deforestation, forest degradation also contributes to carbon emissions. Forest degradation occurs when forest cover decreases by any amount up to 90%

In order to avoid deforestation and forest degradation, it is helpful to understand what causes these things in the first place. The causes or “drivers” of deforestation are different depending on the region. In mainland Asia, for example, commercial timber is the dominant driver of deforestation and degradation. But, in Africa, the collecting of fuel wood, increased human populations, and unclear land rights are dominant factors.

The primary drivers of deforestation and degradation in the Petén of Guatemala are (1) migration of new people into the area, (2) farming and cattle ranching, (3) drug trafficking, and (4) oil and gas exploration. It is important to keep in mind that these factors are not isolated, but are related to one another. For example, migration means more people needing to farm or ranch; and access roads for oil and gas exploration allow more agriculture, ranching, and drug farming within the forest.



  • Rope
  • Measuring tape
  • Tape
  • Copies of student pages:
    • Maya Biosphere Reserve Maps:
      • Forest Cover for Carmelita [PDF]
      • Buffer Zone Forest Cover [PDF]
    • Square Dot Matrix [PDF]
  • Overhead transparencies
  • Student notebooks
  • Graph paper (optional)

Time Considerations

Preparation: 30 minutes
Activity: One to two 50-minute periods

Getting Ready

  • Cut rope into the following lengths, labeling each with a piece of tape that has the name of the continent written on it:
    • Africa--7.5 meters (25 feet)
    • Australia--2.1 meters (7 feet)
    • Eurasia--14.4 meters (48 feet)
      • Central and South America--4.8 meters (16 feet)
    • North America--6.3 meters (21 feet)
    Have available a globe, a world map, or a copy of the world map from the Introduction.
  • Have copies of the “Maya Biosphere Reserve Maps,” Forest Cover for Carmelita [PDF] and Buffer Zone Forest Cover [PDF] student pages. Also have copies of the “Square Dot Matrix” [PDF] student page copied on overhead transparencies.
  • Read over the “History of the Maya Biosphere Reserve” [PDF] teacher page, and be prepared to convey some of the information to your students during the activity.

Doing the Activity

  1. Divide the class into six groups and give each group a piece of cut rope (see Getting Ready). In an open floor area in the classroom or on the ground outside, have the groups use the ropes to lay out an outline of their continent. They may look at a globe or world map as guide. (Note that Russia should be included within Asia.) Help students orient the different continents as they appear on a world map.
  2. Ask students which continent they think has the most forest land and which has the least. Using the chart below, have the given number of students stand within each continent’s outline to represent the distribution of forest in the different continents. (If you have fewer than 25 students in the class, you will need to adjust the numbers proportionately.)
    Location Percentage of World’s Forest Cover Number of Students to Represent Forest Cover Distribution (See Note A Below) Percentage of World’s Human Population Number of Students to Represent Population Distribution (See Note B Below)
    Africa 13% 3 14% 4
    Australia 5% 1 1% 0
    Eurasia 47% 12 71% 18
    Central and South America 20% 5 9% 2
    North America 15% 4 5% 1
    Note A: Each student represents approximately 16 million hectares (40 million acres) of forest.
    Note B: Each student represents approximately 265 million people.
  3. Ask the students which continent they think has the most people and which the least people. Using the chart above, move students among the continents so that they represent the population distribution within the different continents.
  4. Ask students: How does the distribution of forests compare to the distribution of people around the world? (Students may notice that the forests and the people are not equally distributed, and that the forests are not always located where the people are.) What challenges or issues might these differences present? (Students may have different ideas, but might suggest that places with high populations might experience more clearing of forests or that people must find a way to move forest products from one place to another.)
  5. Explain to students that they will look at maps of the Maya Biosphere Reserve to learn about possible changes in the forest there. Ask students what they know about the history of the Petén and the Maya Biosphere Reserve. How has the Petén changed in the last 70 years? What is the Maya Biosphere Reserve? Why was it created? How has the forest area changed since it was created? Use information from the History of the Maya Biosphere Reserve teacher page to clarify any questions.
  6. Divide the class into groups, and give each group a set of maps and a square dot matrix transparency. Explain to students that the maps are of two different sections within the Maya Biosphere Reserve between 1986 to 2007. One section is the area around Carmelita and the other section is the land north of Lake Petén-Itzá.
  7. Point out that the green on the maps shows forested areas and the red shows non-forested areas. Using the dot matrix and the maps, students will see whether the amount of forest in each section changed from 1986 to 2007.
  8. To estimate the percentage of forested area on each map, students should place the square dot matrix over the map, line up the corners of the dot matrix with the marks on the map, and count the number of dots that fall within the green forested areas. They then should divide that number by 3 to calculate the percentage. (Each dot represents 1/3 of a percent of the entire area shown on the map.)
  9. Have students repeat this procedure for each map, recording their findings in their notebooks. To check their work, they should then count the dots that partially or completely fall within the red non-forested areas on each map and calculate the percentage of non-forested area. (The two percentages for a given map should add up to close to 100 percent.)
  10. Have each group make a graph showing the change in forested area over time around Carmelita and around Lake Petén-Itzá.
  11. Ask students to compare and contrast the maps for each area. Is more forest being lost in one area than in another? What do you think might be going on? If they don’t already know, explain to students that the Maya Biosphere Reserve is split into different zones (described in the zones (described in the teacher page History of the Maya Biosphere Reserve [PDF]), in which the Guatemalan government allows different types of activities. Explain that the community and surrounding area of Carmelita is in the “multiple use zone,” and the land surrounding Lake Petén-Itzá is in the “buffer zone.”


    • How does this information help you understand what is shown on the maps?
    • From these maps, what might you infer are the causes of deforestation in the Petén?
    • What else would you want to know to determine the causes of deforestation?

The Rainforest Alliance curricula is unique in that it teaches language arts, math, science, social studies and the arts while addressing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English language arts and mathematics, and the Next Generation Science Standards. Our multidisciplinary curricula present information on forests, biodiversity, local communities and sustainable practices. Lessons provide a global perspective on the importance of protecting the world's natural resources, locally and globally, while giving students opportunities for direct action.

To help teachers seamlessly integrate our resources into their lesson plans, we have correlated our kindergarten through 8th grade and climate curriculum guides to the Common Core State Standards for both English language arts and mathematics, as well as the Next Generation Science Standards. Please feel free to use these correlations to help guide you through these lessons, as well to help you identify extensions and adaptations to advance your work.

The Rainforest Alliance can help your school district incorporate local standards and closely align our curricula with the educational mandates in your region.

In addition to the above standards, the education program seeks to advance alignment opportunities with the US Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development; National Education for Sustainability (K-12) Student Learning Standards.

For any further inquiries, please contact us at

Have students list three conclusions they can reach from the graphs of forest change they created in the activity.

Student Pages

  • Maya Biosphere Reserve Maps:
    • Forest Cover for Carmelita [PDF]
    • Buffer Zone Forest Cover [PDF]
  • Square Dot Matrix [PDF]

Teacher Page

  • History of the Maya Biosphere Reserve [PDF]

Additional Resource

Slide show about Guatemala developed by the Rainforest Alliance.

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