Student Resource Page: Maya Biosphere Reserve

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Sweat rolls off your brow as you carefully make your way along a narrow path. The enormous trees towering above you form a dense canopy of shade, but it is still very humid. On either side of the path, a tangle of vines and other plants hum with insect life, while in the distance a howler monkey wards off danger with its startling roar. Suddenly, a flock of red-headed green parrots swoops by, causing you to almost trip on a tree root. An iguana catches your eye and scurries away. Everywhere you look is jungle -- noisy, warm, and so very much alive.

The path in front of you gradually widens and you notice slumping piles of stacked stones covered with creeping vines and ferns. As your eyes adjust to the light, you see that the stones are actually buildings and pyramids, and that many of them have intricate carvings all over their surfaces. These stunning structures are the ruins of an ancient Maya city abandoned hundreds of years ago and all but swallowed up by the jungle.

Welcome to the Petén! This rugged, densely forested region of northern Guatemala is home to an astounding diversity of plant and animal life, including 54 species of mammals, 333 species of birds, and thousands of different insects. The Petén is also the birthplace of the Maya civilization, which flourished for more than 1,000 years throughout what is now Central America. As an advanced civilization, the Maya developed a system of writing, had a deep understanding of mathematics and astronomy, erected massive stone pyramids and sculptures, and built impressive cities. Today, the region is mostly rural, and its residents make their living off the land -- through agriculture and logging, and by collecting and selling goods from the forest.

Although parts of it appear timeless, the Petén has changed a lot in the last 70 years. In 1941 there were only 11,000 people living in the region, most of them small farmers using traditional methods to grow their crops. Some of the people also worked for international companies that harvested forest products, including chicle (CHEE-cleh) for gum, rubber, and cedar and mahogany woods.

In the 1950s, the Guatemalan government began to encourage people to move to the Petén, hoping that more people would mean a more secure border with Mexico. New settlers were offered parcels of land for agriculture, raising cattle, and logging. With this enticement, many people did move to the Petén from other parts of Guatemala and by 1990 nearly 500,000 people lived there.

As you might imagine, this change in population -- from 11,000 to almost half a million -- also had a big impact on the land. People cut down trees to create ranch land and corn fields. They built roads into the jungle, making it possible for loggers to clear large areas of forest. They hunted wildlife for food and to sell as pets and fur.

As more and more of the forest and its resources disappeared, it became clear that steps needed to be taken to protect it. So, in 1990 the Guatemalan government established the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the northern part of the Petén. The Reserve has special rules meant to keep people and companies from completely clearing the forest. And, because so many people in the Petén depend on the land, the Reserve also allows farming, ranching, and logging in certain areas.

As you can see in the map below, the Maya Biosphere Reserve is made up of three different zones to meet these different needs. The first zone is called the "national park zone" and all human activities are illegal here except for research and some tourism. The second zone, the "multiple-use zone," allows people to live and to harvest wood and other forest products, as long as they do so in a way that preserves the forest; farming and ranching are not allowed in this zone. The third zone, the "buffer zone," allows individuals and companies to own land and to live, farm, have cattle, or log on that land.

Creating the Maya Biosphere Reserve has slowed change to the Petén forest. But, the Reserve covers a large area that is difficult to patrol everywhere; in some remote areas of the national park, people have cut the forest illegally. You may be surprised that the multiple-use zone has been the most successful part of the Reserve. Since local communities must rely on the forest for survival, they have a strong reason to protect it.

One such community is Uaxactún (Wash-ahk-TUN), a small village of about 140 families located within the multiple-use zone. The villagers do not own the forest land they oversee, but have permission from the government to harvest products from it. They collect allspice and xate palm leaves (used by florists in the United States); cut vines and weave them into wicker furniture; and selectively log mahogany trees, selling the lumber and keeping the twigs and leaves to fertilize the forest floor. The Rainforest Alliance has helped the community to find sustainable products and markets for these products. The community is doing so well that is has been able to open a high school and start a new plant nursery.

When local people see value in the forest, they do everything in their power to protect it. With the Maya Biosphere Reserve, and help from local communities like Uaxactún, there is hope that the Petén forest will continue to thrive for future generations.

Sources: Call, Wendy. "Seeing the Forest, Not Just the Trees: A Guatemalan Village and Conservation." No. 14. (accessed September 8, 2008).

Herron, Scott. "The Economic Botany of Manilkara zapota (L.) Van Royen," Ethnobotanical Leaflets International Web Journal. (accessed September 8, 2008).

"The Maya Biosphere Reserve." Global Perspectives: A Remote Sensing and World Issues Web site. (accessed September 8, 2008).