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Our Tree Neighbours


The municipal administration of Quetzaltenango ordered the felling of trees at the city’s Benito Juárez Park. Neighbors, merchants and experts speak out against the decision.

Each city is an urban ecosystem of its own. You might think that within the ecosystem of a city, humans represent the dominant species, since they are its main actors and the builders of the urban landscape. However, this anthropocentric logic carries with it the problem of denying and subjugating other inhabitants of the ecosystem — trees and other natural elements, which are routinely subjected to systemic violence. 

When these natural elements disappear due to the lack of planning and vision, their absence not only represents a loss for the city’s landscape, but also a deterioration in its quality of life.

According to historian Raúl Izás, Benito Juárez Park in Quetzaltenango was named in

recognition of the Mexican diaspora that resided in the city around 1930. Today, park monuments such as the Aztec Calendar and bust of Benito Juárez, celebrate brotherhood between Mexico and Guatemala.

Located between 15 and 16 Avenues of Zone 3 in La Democracia, the park was born as a small forest in the middle of an expanding city.  Its trees stood for nearly 100 years before being removed. 

Importance in urban life

The landscape architect Luis Monterroso maintains that the trees of Benito Juárez Park were felled under restrictive and outdated technical criteria. Rather than carrying out risk management with proper ecological criterion, in order to evaluate those trees in danger of falling due to their age or conditions, he said, they opted for the violent felling of an entire park.

Ecosystem valuation is important. It helps us to understand not only the environmental value of urban trees, but also their social, cultural and economic contributions, from an increase in property value to health by improving air quality.  “All these natural assets are favorable capital that, in the end, politicians can use for good, but throw away,” said Monterroso.

Green spaces are key in mitigating the effects produced by urbanization. They even affect the physical and mental health of people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for open spaces and ‘green lungs’ near our neighborhoods was clear. During that time, many people established new rituals and personal habits in relation to their local environment, using green areas as a kind of relief valve for the stress of urban life.

Engineer Juan Carlos Díaz is the designer of the park remodeling project “Revitalization of Benito Juárez Park.” Together with the city’s department of risk management, it was ruled that the trees represented a risk due to their height and must be replaced by a palette of ornamental plants. Those proposed species include 160 jacarandas as well as Roman hedges with a single entrance. Technical criteria for selecting these plants included ornamentation, CO2 mitigation and height. The city also plans to incorporate new water sources. 

But in the face of the climate crisis, are mature trees a true risk? Or are those making decisions on their behalf an even greater risk? Is the possible danger posed by some trees reason enough to cut down an entire park? 

Díaz questioned whether risk management in a park woodland is one that is based, above all, on ornamental criteria and leaves out a socio-environmental criterion to manage the little forest cover of a city that urgently needs it. Quetzaltenango is far from a green city. 

Green cities

Today, we recognize the great urban forests of many of the world’s cities, and the benefits that trees bring to their inhabitants, beyond simply their decorative appeal. Cities like Paris are planning to remove

 up to 40% of the asphalt from the streets and plant 170,000 trees to combat high temperatures. Experts warn that if that city is not transformed, the heat there will be unsustainable. Meanwhile, in Berlin, about 30% of the city is made up of public green spaces. 

Today, cities with a vision of the future talk about green infrastructure, conceiving and managing it as interconnected networks that regulate the natural functions of the ecosystem. The prominence of trees in the city must be recognized, well managed and financed, so that the community gains resilience and a greater capacity to face global changes and growth in human density.

Our municipality does not appear to share that vision. Monterroso points out that a study carried out by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) had already detected the low deficit in tree planting in Quetzaltenango: barely 2.5 square meters per person, when the recommendation is 10 to 15 meters, per inhabitant. According to Monterroso, Quetzaltenango needs changes to support the amount of people and the traffic it receives, but the solutions must be integrated on a human scale and an environmental one. Examples from urban areas around the world demonstrate that interventions focused on vehicles and gray infrastructure do not solve these challenges. 

We are making the same mistakes that car-centric cities make, ignoring their inhabitants and quality of life. Benito Juárez Park was in terrible condition and renovating it is a necessity. However, the lack of information and communication left the community in a state of surprise after the violent and sudden removal of trees.  

“It seems that the authorities consider the park their property and they can do with it whatever they want,” said Izás. “The population must be informed and consulted about the plans and proposals.”


Planning and changes

The disorderly growth of the commercial area of ​​La Democracia is a complex factor which affects the area’s public spaces. But that’s not a problem that can be solved by cutting down trees. 

We need decisive plans and action to reimagine Quetzaltenango for the year 2050. What kind of city do we want to live in? How are we going to ensure water resources for the growth of the population? How are we going to solve our mobility needs with a reliable public transportation system? How are we going to manage waste, have decent commercial areas, and expand green coverage? 

Instead, we have authorities stuck on regrettable practices, whose idea of “planning” is more gray development.

As inhabitants, urban trees have needs. They are not disposable subjects. And how we treat our trees defines our collective personality. The selection, sowing and caring for existing trees reflects the work of people seeking a kinder urban life. Trees are not simply infrastructure. They are linked to the community and people have the right to know about projects related to them. This municipality did not communicate, and instead insisted on a violent procedure, both from an environmental and a social perspective, by imposing actions without consensus or consultation.

From the perspective of Monterroso and many others, Benito Juárez Park is a

historic garden, a conservation landscape and a part of our natural heritage. In such a landscape you recognize the social, cultural and economic valuation of trees. 

A tree performs regulatory functions from heat displacement to water filtration, and the more diversity of trees there is, the greater their contributions will be. 

It is not enough to fill the city ​with jacarandas or lemon cypresses.

Trees have evolved over millions of years to achieve the appearance and function that we know today. Trees do not fight with the city. The city should not fight with the trees. The biodiversity of a city, the colors, movements, textures and shapes of its natural inhabitants, not only beautify our lives, they give us the space and the quality of life we ​​deserve. A society that recognizes and protects its natural common goods in the present is deciding its future, Monterroso said. That is why we must promote their care and protection.

Valeria Leiva is a designer, photographer and visual artist. Fotomaiz has been promoting fotomaiz since 2017 and is currently collaborating with 01320 through curating, managing and setting up exhibitions.