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A Talk on the Wild Side.

Protecting Central America’s Five Largest Wild Places: The Maya Forest

ruins
Yaxha Ruins in the Maya Forest of Guatemala. Credit: Christopher William Adach/cc license

This week we are excited to feature a series of articles about some of the most important landscapes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helps to protect in Central America, that are home to an incredibly biodiverse array of wildlife. As part of “Central America Week,” we invite you to learn more about our cornerstone strategy with Wildlife Conservation Society to protect Central America’s five largest remaining wild places. We will also be spotlighting some of the charismatic species that live in these critical habitats. All of our Central America Week stories can be found here.

Located within parts of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, the Maya Forest is the single largest tract of forest in Central America. It is an area bigger in size than the state of Massachusetts and is only second in size in the Americas to the Amazon Rainforest. It is home to charismatic species like jaguars, monkeys, tree frogs, toucans and scarlet macaws.

People also live throughout the Maya Forest. The ruins left behind by the ancient Mayan civilization sit amid the lush, green rainforest. The rich past and the mysteries they invoke capture our imaginations when we think about this landscape. For other people, the Maya Forest and its human artifacts have provided an exciting backdrop for visions of the future in movies like Star Wars.

But, of course, in present day, people continue to influence the landscape and live here. Many of those who live nearby are impoverished, and the forest provides a bountiful means for them to get the resources they need to support their families. Many of these activities, including timber harvesting, hunting, mining, agriculture, and illegal take of animals and plants for sale are destructive as currently conducted. They may ultimately lead to the demise of the Maya Forest and threaten numerous species of wildlife with local or globalized extinction, which in the long-term would only exacerbate the economic circumstances for people living in the forest.

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to work with a variety of partners and communities in the Maya Forest to create the means and infrastructure to help conserve the Forest while also providing alternative means for people to earn income and take care of their families. Some of these projects involve helping park rangers get the tools they need to better enforce laws and educate the public about protected areas, and others involve providing a means for communities to develop alternative types of agricultural activities that are sustainable.

For instance, in Guatemala, where the nation manages its part of the forest as a system of parks and protected areas known as the “Maya Biosphere Reserve,” the Service is working with its partner, the Forest Communities of Petén Association (Asociación de Comunidades Forestales del Petén), to engage six women’s groups who live in the Reserve. The aim is to identify best practices for sustainably harvesting Maya nuts from the Ramon tree, and help the women and their families earn more money through this sustainable form of agriculture. Elsewhere in the Maya Forest, we are working in the Maya Mountains of Belize with Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD) to reduce the expansion of the agricultural frontier into Chiquibul National Park. In this case, FCD provides park rangers with the training and technology they need to conduct more effective patrols and enforce laws. A variety of additional projects funded by the Service attempt to accomplish similar objectives (e.g., developing sustainable livelihood pilot projects in hotspot border communities in Guatemala with Asociación Balam), while protecting charismatic species like jaguars and providing economic benefits for local communities.

It is ultimately through a variety of partnerships and strategies that the Maya Forest will be protected. But it will all start with people and awareness, just as most successful conservation initiatives have. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proud to be part of this effort!

By Levi Novey, International Affairs. For more stories from Central America week, please click here.

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