The reserve has generally succeeded in providing sustainable livelihoods but deforestation, oil developments and drug trafficking remain a huge problem.
The Maya Biosphere Reserve was set up in 1990. With 2.1 million hectares it is considered as a grand experiment in forest management. It covers one fifth of Guatemala and is one of the most important tropical forest areas north of the Amazon.
The reserve, located in the northernmost part of the country is home to more than 500 bird species like the red-throated ant tanager, the barred antshrike, grey-throated chat, brown jays and the Montezuma oropendola.
The National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP) was also established in 1990. It is the institution responsible for managing the reserve and the rest of the country's protected areas.
The reserve protects endangered wildlife species suffering from habitat destruction and contains dozens of Mayan cities and archaeological sites like Tikal.
“There are only 300 scarlet macaws left in Guatemala and they’re all in the Maya Biosphere Reserve,” told Roan Balas McNab, Wildlife Conservation Society Guatemala program Director, to Mongabay. It is also the home for the jaguar, Baird's tapir, and the white-lipped peccary.
The reserve has also helped local developments. The Association of Forest Communities of Petén includes more than 20 cooperatives communities and groups, like a local women's group that makes and sells aloe vera shampoo. It is important as the Maya Biosphere is home to an estimated 180,000 people.
The Maya Biosphere is divided in three zones. The core zone, comprising just over one third of the total area; the multiple-use zone which includes community and industrial forest concessions and biological corridors covering 40% of the reserve and the remaining buffer zone that stretches in the southernmost part of the reserve. In the buffer zones land sales, cattle ranching and agriculture are permitted.
One of the successes of the reserve are the multiple-use zones. There is tightly regulations for extraction and between 1994-2002 the government signed 25 year contracts with companies and community groups for forest concessions.
Deforestation rate in the forest concessions is lower here than in national parks elsewhere in the reserve. Also, socio-economic benefits for local residents and forestry practices have been improved.
“All the theory of broadleaf forest management was basically set in motion here. This is where it was put into practice. So when all of this began to be implemented, it gradually became the standard,” said Fernando Baldizón, CONAP's director od forest management for the Petén region.
The Maya Biosphere has succeeded in reducing deforestation and providing sustainable livelihoods to local communities, but it faces threats from oil developments, illegal logging and settlers, as well as drug trafficking and cattle ranchers. Forest fires and internal migration face more threats to the reserve.
These factors are interconnected, but explanations often focus only on a single element and not the larger picture.
“It’s just a real cauldron of a number of factors and any one seen in isolation doesn’t tell the whole story. It really makes for difficult interpretation and it doesn’t lend itself for a nice easy story,” said Balas McNab.
Deforestation is at a 1.2% annually, but it isn't uniform. Deforestation rate in the core zone is 1%, 0.4% in the multiple-use zone and 5.5% in the buffer zone, according to a Rainforest Alliance report.
Buffer zones have little to no proper management or protection, this is why there is massive unregulated deforestation. According to Baldizón, the zone has been so neglected it might only exist in theory. Balas McNab says buffer zones were an afterthought.
“When the reserve was created, the concept of the buffer zone was sort of tacked on at the end,” he said. “It’s had essentially no investment and has had almost no CONAP presence at any time, and by default really no conservation focus or ability to enforce conservation as such.”
The lack of government support represents another challenge. The agency that manages the reserve has received in the last 2 fiscal years between 13 and 14 million dollars, just around 0.15% of the national budget.
Protected areas don't usually figure in government objectives. According to Erick Cuellar, program director for a Petén based NGO, there is a lack of vision and long-term planning.
“One of the main threats to the processes of natural resource management in Guatemala is the State’s lack of policies with regard to resource management. Usually what exists are government policies that are very short-term,” he told to Mongabay.
Despite the challenges faced, the Maya Biosphere Reserve has demonstrated great promise in a short period of time. “I think there’s a really remarkable conservation story in the Maya Biosphere Reserve,” said Balas McNab.
“We’re fighting for the future. Even though the present trends may be somewhat astounding and depressing, we have to keep that in mind. This is for future generations,” he said. “If we can reach the social, political, and economic arrangements that are necessary, we can recuperate huge areas of the reserve,” he concluded.