Forest fires set by drug traffickers threaten Guatemala’s virgin forest and archaeological wonders

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Forest fires devastated at least 80 square kilometers of preserved forest in Petén before the rains of June 4th and 5th put most of them out. The Guatemalan government declared a state of emergency to battle the fires.

Guatemala’s Minister of Environment and Natural Resources said, “the hand of man caused” the fires and blamed “encroaching groups” for the disaster in the protected Maya Biosphere Reserve.

Alma Polanco, the head of the National Council for Protected Areas of Petén, blamed drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) for the fires. She explained that “narco-farmers” (“narcoganaderos”) set fires to clear land in protected areas to create landing strips for drug shipments, pastureland for cattle, and cleared land for African palm plantations, which are increasingly popular and profitable ways for DTOs to launder money.

Polanco added, “If we don’t stop this in the next few years, there will be nothing left of the Reserve.”

Livestock, especially cattle, is at once a key driver of rising food prices, climate change, and deforestation in Guatemala and globally. It is also increasingly raised by DTOs.

The six million-acre Maya Biosphere Reserve is full of ancient cities. Until recently, an anthropological consensus held that Tikal-area cities that date to around 600 AD were founded around then by migrants from central Mexico, given the lack of previous major settlements in the area. Then, excavation at the El Mirador site near Guatemala’s northern border with Mexico uncovered an even bigger Maya city with a temple several times bigger than Tikal’s largest structure. The city dates to before 500 BCE, when as many as a million people may have inhabited the area.

To get there, most visitors hike for two to three days from one of Petén’s northernmost towns. Each night, they camp next to one of dozens of different ancient Maya cities in the Mirador Basin area of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which boasts an area of over 2,000 square kilometers. The basin is home to five different kinds of tropical forest, while the Tikal area has just two.

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Many of these ancient cities yet to be excavated are in danger of being damaged by fires. Despite the basin’ status as the last large intact forest in Central America, its incredible biodiversity that includes over 180 species of birds, its endangered species like jaguars, and its archaeological marvels, man-made fires are common there as they are throughout Petén. Richard Hansen, the lead archaeologist at El Mirador, says that satellite data show that the Yucatan peninsula is losing 500 square kilometers of “virgin forest” every year and that the Mirador Basin is in jeopardy.

In the first five months of 2016 alone, Guatemala’s Forest Fire Control and Prevention System registered 116 forest fires in Petén.

Tomas Barrientos, an archaeologist excavating at a site in southwest Petén called “La Corona,” explained that “people are taking advantage” of this year’s extended dry season, a likely symptom of climate change, “to burn the forest and then invade it… These are methods of intimidation by illegal invaders.”

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On Facebook, the La Corona Regional Archaeological Project published a heartfelt plea in response to the recent fires:

In lowland Maya archaeology, we are privileged to work in one of the most amazing and fantastical places in the world. The northern jungles of Peten Guatemala are full of surprise, beauty, and wonder. Every year, I relish working here despite the many inconveniences and difficulties.

 However, this privilege comes at a great cost. Working here, we are, in some way or another, implicated and responsible for its preservation. Perhaps among the hardest things I have ever done (physically, mentally, and even emotionally) has been to work and monitor our fire-break lines to the west of La Corona. These are “brechas” that hard working and caring people of WCS, CONAP, the Guatemalan army, and our small archaeological project have made, maintained, or re-done in response to annual out-of-control fires that are often set deliberately to the west of us. These defensive efforts are extraordinary, and those who coordinate and go out in the jungle to cut these brechas a eco-heroes. We owe these folks our forests.

 Yesterday, I went and inspected one of these fire lines and, as always, my heart groaned and strained under the weight of what devastation these needless fires have wrought to pristine jungle. In my 10 years of working at Corona, almost every year we have beaten back encroaching flames. And every year, it hurts to see the ash, feel the heat, and smell the charred forest. It feels like what I imagine hell would be.

 We do many important things as archaeologists; but I consider our collaboration with all these dedicated folks from WCS, CONAP, and the Guatemalan military to make a stand and “hold the line” against these fires to be one of our most important responsibilities here. I am glad I can be a small part of it.

 My excursion yesterday out to the front lines serves a grim reminder that if we want to have a Peten for our children, our students, our climate, this effort cannot fail.

The 2014 article “Drug Policy as Conservation Policy” in the journal Science explains that Mexican cartels increasingly receive “primary” (direct) shipments of cocaine in Guatemala and Honduras due to their “porous borders, corruption, and weak public institutions.” In eastern Honduras and Guatemala’s Petén, “an unprecedented number of primary cocaine flows into the region coincided with a period of extensive forest loss.” In parts of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, increased DTO activity has led to annual forest loss as high as 10%.

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Local “ranchers, oil-palm growers, land speculators, and timber traffickers become involved in drug trafficking, they are narco-capitalized and emboldened and so greatly expand their activities.” Indigenous and peasant groups with legitimate claims to land in protected areas “report being powerless against the bribes, property fraud, and brutality dispossessing them of their lands.” Meanwhile, DTOs have “powerful new incentives” to try to clear and occupy as much strategic land as possible: they can launder money through cattle and palm oil operations and keep valuable real estate from competitors.

The article uses research from the Organization of American States’ 2013 report “The Drug Problem in the Americas.”