The Guardians of the Maya Forest

Lukuaika: 23 min.

The original research article can be accessed here. Hanna Laako, Esmeralda Pliego Alvarado, Dora Ramos Muñoz & Beula Marquez (2022) Transboundary conservation and nature states in the Maya Forest: International Relations, challenged. Globalizations.

Transboundary Conservation is a strategy that promotes biodiversity conservation along and across borders. Such is the case of Maya Forest, created by conservationists and scientists to safeguard biodiversity in the rainforest borderlands of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, and inherited from the ancient Mayans. Currently composed of heritage sites and biosphere reserves, the Maya Forest contains many paradoxes and challenges. Yet, it reinforces nature states and builds subtle environmental international relations.

Transboundary Conservation and its challenges

Transboundary conservation refers to an area that straddles international boundaries and is managed cooperatively for conservation purposes. To be sure, such activity is not new in the history of conservation. Currently, the international conservation organizations (ICOs) account for over 200 transboundary conservation cases worldwide.

In the 1990s, the ICOs fostered the strategy of transboundary conservation, which had two aims: First, to safeguard biodiversity along and across international borders, and secondly, to enhance peace-building between countries.

This positioned nature conservation in the sphere of international conflict resolution both as a source of contention and collaboration. Critical literature has emanated to debate the ways in which transboundary conservation is involved with militarization, wars and conflicts in different borderlands, particularly in Global South.

In our article “Transboundary Conservation and Nature States in the Maya Forest: International Relations, Challenged”, we approached the issue from a more subtle angle of international relations building by asking: What is at stake with transboundary conservation beyond the overriding war/peace axis? What are these supposed 200 cases, and where are they actually located?

To this end, we researched and mapped transboundary conservation cases, and as a result, identified two sets of environmental international relations in building: Those of conservation, and those of interstate relations. We then explored these in the case of the Maya Forest, located in the borderlands of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.

Internationally Adjoining Strategic Conservation Complexes

Transboundary conservation has been predominantly researched in the form of transboundary protected areas (TBPAs), which have also been interchangeably called peace parks or transfrontier conservation areas. However, in this frame, the notion of “transboundary” is ambiguous: Protected areas rarely cross the borders in real life.

However, protected areas are certainly easier to map. Thus, we firstly mapped the TBPAs (see figure 1 below). We defined these as transboundary protected areas that had a UNESCO-based recognition, i.e. they are based on bi- or multilateral agreements between countries. We found that around 80% of the TBPAs were located in Europe.

We then mapped what we called strategic transboundary complexes formed of internationally adjoining protected areas (IAPAs). These are complexes that have been built and targeted by ICOs as border-aligned networks of protected areas, corridors, and different forms of transboundary collaboration. We found that around 80% of these are located in Global South, particularly in tropical areas. Most of them are also biodiversity hotspots, i.e. of global conservation priority.

Map of strategic transboundary complexes
Figure 1: Strategic Transboundary Complexes. Source: Pavel Popoca-Cruz, published in Laako et al (2022).

What lies in the interests of states to create protected areas along their borders (IAPAs), particularly in Latin America? In our analysis, this tendency reinforces nature states: The ways in which nation-states enhance their role in environmental issues in global arena while projecting their interest in building shared biocultural landscapes that also serves for regional identity and eco-tourism.

Simultaneously, however, the IAPA-based transboundary conservation suggests the benefit of maintaining the status quo in international borders and the stakes of involvement are relatively low.

Building Nature States in the Maya Forest

The Maya Forest (see figure 2 below) illuminates such a case of IAPA-based strategic complex and the building of nature states. The concept of Maya Forest was created in the 1990s by scientists and conservationists in order to conserve the humid tropical rainforest of Mesoamerica, which also consisted of the ancient Mayan civilization.

Databases recovered from the research institute El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) show that the term was developed in a workshop in 1995, organized, among others, by the Man and Biosphere Programme, Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society, the NASA, and various other research institutions and regional and local conservation organizations.

The Maya Forest was defined as the humid, tropical rainforest, which included the southern Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche and Quintana Roo, the Department of Petén in Guatemala, and all of Belize. The Maya Forest “Arch” included five main biosphere reserves: Montes Azules in Chiapas, Pantanos de Centla in Tabasco, Calakmul in Campeche, Montañas Maya and Chiquibuil in the borderlands of Guatemala and Belize, and the Maya in Petén.

It is noteworthy that the Maya Forest was sustained by biosphere reserves. The UNESCO-based model emphases environmental collaboration and has been an important part of tropical ecology in Mesoamerica. It took critical distance to North-American national park-model.

The collaboration based on IAPAs, biosphere reserves and heritage sites allowed subtly to balance border tensions

The databases also stated that the ongoing attempts to slow down the expanding agriculture, timber harvesting and cattle ranching were hampered by the fact that the region was divided into three independent nations. Thus, the creation of Maya Forest was to enable collaboration between a range of institutions across boundaries to coordinate forest management.

The collaboration based on IAPAs, biosphere reserves and heritage sites allowed subtly to balance border tensions. While international wars have been avoided in these borderlands, border relations have been tense. Especially Guatemala and Belize continue to have disagreements concerning their border. Hence, in terms of the shared natural resources, few multilateral agreements have been achieved.

Additionally, the region has been subject to internal conflicts, such as the Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996), and the Zapatista uprising (1994), which drew international attention to Indigenous rights in the region.

Towards Biocultural Conservation in the Maya Forest?

Currently, the concept of Maya Forest continues in active use by governmental institutions, conservationists and scholars although rarely defined. It’s geographical extension and meanings continue to be subject to debate, too.

For example, some authors have referred to the Maya Forest as the Maya biosphere reserve in Guatemala, and as the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The latter was not originally included in the humid tropical rainforest definition, because the Yucatán Peninsula vegetation is mostly composed of dry forests albeit containing Mayan roots.

Again, if we take the original definition of the Maya Forest – humid tropical rainforest of Mesoamerica, which includes the classic Mayan civilization – the concept should extend at least to states of Veracruz and Oaxaca in Mexico, and up to Honduras in Central America.

It was understood that the Mesoamerican humid, tropical rainforest has been inherited from the ancient Mayans

The original databases mainly make reference to the classic Mayan civilization as the “Maya” in the Maya Forest. It was understood that the Mesoamerican humid, tropical rainforest has been inherited from the ancient Mayans. Active rewriting of Mayan history in Mesoamerican Anthropology and Archaeology has been taking place, which emphasizes the Mayans as guardians of their forests.

Yet, the Maya Forest can also be considered as a secondary forest that was rewilded during colonization. Currently, there are few people who continue to identify as Mayan in the region. Since the 1960s, the borderlands have been colonized by different settlers, both Indigenous and others, and most of the conservation collaboration takes place with these settlers.

The original databases also mapped the old Mayan ruins and touristic sites. Indeed, the Maya Forest has also been connected to several touristic mega-projects, among others, Riviera Maya, Ríos Mayas, Tren Maya, and Mundo Maya. Conservationists currently involved in different Maya Forest conservation projects were divided about this tourist connection and the appropriation of the Maya.

Map of Contemporary Maya Forest
Figure 2: Contemporary Maya Forest. (Source: Pavel Popoca-Cruz, published in Laako et al. 2022).

The contemporary Maya Forest conservation projects emphasize corridors. We identified four main transboundary collaborations: The Jungle Jaguar Corridor, the Selva Maya project, Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, and the Maya Forest Corridor in Belize.

The updated map of the Maya Forest, which we decided to extend to Yucatán, shows that the network of protected areas along the borders have considerably extended, and reached the sea. While none of these protected areas is formally a TBPA, considerably many of them are UNESCO-recognized biosphere reserves, heritage sites and Ramsar-wetland sites.

These developments suggest that the Maya Forest continues to build on notions of biocultural conservation and eco-regional identity albeit firmly maintaining its border status quo.




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Hanna Laakon kuva

Hanna Laako

Hanna Laako is a senior researcher in the Department of Geographical and Historical Studies, University of Eastern Finland. She is currently conducting research on political forests—the Maya Forest— financed by the Kone Foundation (2020–2024) and the Mexican Council of Science and Technology (2019-2020). Her research interests include conservation politics, borderlands studies, international relations, and Mesoamerica.

Esmeralda Pliego Alvarado

Esmeralda Pliego Alvarado

Esmeralda Pliego Alvarado is a postdoctoral researcher in Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS, Mexico), and in the postdoctoral programme of the Mexican Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT). Her research interests include water management, climate change, and civil society.

Dora Ramos Muñoz

Dora Ramos Muñoz

Dora Ramos Muñoz is a senior researcher at the Department of Society and Culture in El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR, Mexico). She currently researches social implications of science and information technology, disasters and social construction of risks, heritage sites, feminine workforce, oil industry, and Mesoamerica.

Beula Marquez

Beula Marquez

Beula Marquez holds a B.A degree in Biology from Universidad Autónoma de Tabasco, Mexico. She carried out research on the Maya Forest in El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), Mexico, within the programme of Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro, funded by the Mexican government between 2019 and 2020. Her research interests include conservation and genetic diversity.

Emily Wakild

Emily Wakild

Emily Wakild is the Cecil D. Andrus Endowed Chair for the Environment and Public Lands at Boise State University. She is the author of Revolutionary Parks: Conservation, Social Justice, and Mexico’s National Parks (Arizona, 2011; Spanish translation La Cigarra, Mexico 2021) and co-editor of The Nature State: Rethinking the History of Conservation, (London: Routledge Press, 2017).

Conservation as Coming Together

Nature conservation is always incomplete and under negotiation. Ecological and cultural communities dynamically evolve and change in response to new economic incentives, tourism, and climate change. Researchers from Guardians of the Maya Forest demonstrate some of the far-reaching effects of this process in the Maya Forest. Using the lens of transboundary conservation in the UNESCO biosphere reserve system, the researchers have demonstrated the ways a transboundary conservation reserve provides a political and cultural alternative to a national park or a fortress model of conservation.

These findings are in conversation with research on transboundary areas within the larger American hemisphere. In particular, cultural-ecological regions including tropical Amazonia, across the widest breast of South America encompassing nine separate nations and Patagonia, the temperate region at the tip of the continent across the much-contested borderland between Argentina and Chile.

The major distinction between the Maya Forest and the Amazonian and Patagonian ecological regions is the scale. The smaller footprint of the Maya Forest, while still allowing for conservation dialogue across communities, allows a novel setting for understanding how communities can transcend the nations to which they belong for larger goals. It also helps demonstrate the potential benefits of habitat continuity across political jurisdictions. The transnational and translocal dynamics of communities entangled within a designated nature reserve provide mechanisms and incentives for communities to hold together across otherwise divisive political arrangements.

One useful lens with which to view Biosphere Reserves is through the idea of a Nature State. A concept developed by a collective of historians and geographers that appeared in The Nature State: Rethinking the History of Conservation edited by Wilko Graf von Hardenberg, Matthew Kelly, Claudia Leal, and Emily Wakild. We argued that across time and states, many nations found it compelling for a variety of reasons to not just claim nature to extract resources but to claim nature for the state to protect it. Laako and her multidisciplinary team of colleagues take this concept into the recent past and demonstrate the enduring relevance of nature protection and its potential to unify, not just divide, communities.

Biosphere reserves as such provide a mechanism for local communities to bridge national and political boundaries for their own sovereignty and the integrity of nonhuman species as well.

Although it is not often recognized as so, Latin American countries have promoted conservation as a viable model to bring communities together in respect for nature for over one hundred years. These early innovations have not served as models stuck in time, such as the supposed Yellowstone fortress model, but loose and dynamic strategies that have responded to critique and evolved in communication with communities in various settings. The ecological cycles of neo-tropical forests in particular can prove to be responsive and radical places to understand conservation as a way to resist extractive and destructive resource use. Biosphere reserves as such provide a mechanism for local communities to bridge national and political boundaries for their own sovereignty and the integrity of nonhuman species as well.

Transboundary conservation has been interpreted as a top-down movement led by international organizations. One associated development has been the militarization of linked conservation areas but little attention has been paid to the opportunities for solidarity in non-military forms. Laako et al. nicely demonstrated the important work on the ground of landscape governance as an end in itself and a critical demonstration of local-to-local relations since the 1990s.

Map of protected areas in South America
Figure: Map of protected areas in South America (Source: Map courtesy of Benjamin Sweet)

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Ari Lehtinen

Ari Lehtinen is Professor of Geography at the University of Eastern Finland. He has specialised in Arctic and Boreal development issues, notably in industrial extraction, socio-environmental injustices and politics of degrowth. His research work has evolved in the form of collective civic action projects linked, for example, to urban renewal, forest-based development, wilderness conservation, Biosphere cooperation and Greenbelt promotion.

Embryos of the Fennoscandian Greenbelt

The transboundary agreements for the Maya Forest conservation have UNESCO’s recognition and the forest is also sustained by biosphere reserves assembled by the same United Nations’ organisation. These reserves are founded and maintained by multiscale co-associations aiming at advancing local compounds of conservation and development efforts. The biosphere reserve-model has in practice, as the authors of The Guardians of the Maya Forest argue, become a viable alternative to the North-American national park-model – which has been criticised for its imperial motives and tendency to see nature as an aesthetic landscape viewed from a distance.

The UNESCO-model has also stimulated the regional biosphere reserve process in North Karelia, Eastern Finland. The Reserve, founded in 1992, has become an integral part of the Fennoscandian Greenbelt stretching from the banks of the Barents Sea to the shores of the Gulf of Finland along the border zone between Finland, Norway and Russia. The geopolitical turbulence due to Russian military aggressions in Ukraine has currently frozen the transborder cooperation but, however, lessons and conclusions can be drawn from the decades of Biosphere and Greenbelt activities by the border. Below, thus, a few key remarks on the ‘Belt politics’ will be presented, tracing and highlighting the embryos of post-imperial conservation.

In general, and foremostly, the Greenbelt experiences do guide toward a conservation approach that serves the protection of both ecological and cultural values in a multiscale setting. First, as was learned in the Belt promotion, this kind of approach needs to calibrate the planetary concerns with the rights of local and Indigenous communities struggling for existence under the domination of leading imperial regimes. In this respect, by the Greenbelt, the lands-and-lives of the Sámi peoples, as the one and only Indigenous group in the European Union, deserve a particular attention. This type of multiscale conservation approach could result in a network of protected homelands that would allow local communities (of humans and non-humans) to develop endemic life-modes of their own.

Second, the Greenbelt lessons underline that conservation decisions have to respond to ongoing ecosystem changes due to shifts in climate conditions. The protected Greenbelt optionally serves as a guarantee for the species to adjust to socioenvironmental changes in their surroundings. The ecological corridor would let the species move northwards under the influence of warming climate. Hence, the corridor strategy could function as an extension and correction to the old in-situ conservation of strictly-defined areas. Moreover, the Greenbelt has also served as an ecological link between the extensive old growth forests in Russia and the more fragmented ones at the western side of the Belt. The maintenance of the highly-threatened bear and wolf populations in Finland are, for example, much dependent on the ecological permeability of the border. In this respects, rising and expanding border fences at the Russian border, suggested in Finland due to Russian war activities in Ukraine, would dramatically affect the Belt ecologies and conservation strains.

Third, the degraded lands, mires, waterways and forests by the yet fragmented Belt could be returned into carbon sinks. Today, the Belt is practically set up by isolated nature conservation areas surrounded by landscapes of intense extraction. The rewilded Belt areas could serve as effective carbon sinks and, in addition, they would definitely benefit several species of flora and fauna, birds in particular. Under feasible climate conditions, the boreal forest as a rule recovers relatively fast when freed from extractive exploitation. Bird paradises could be re-established by rewetting the drained mires back to carbon sinks as, for example, the successful restoration of Linnunsuo in North Karelia shows. In addition, abolition of water-power stations from salmon rivers would bring along important ecological and social gains. This has been clearly witnessed during the removal of water-power stations by the River Hiitolanjoki at the southern part of the Fennoscandian Greenbelt.

The appreciation of Mayan roots by the border between Mexico, Guatemala and Belize could be taken as a reminder of the Karelian and Sámi histories of the Belt and its surroundings in Northern Europe.

To conclude, and to draw lessons from the Maya Forest conservation: The appreciation of Mayan roots by the border between Mexico, Guatemala and Belize could be taken as a reminder of the Karelian and Sámi histories of the Belt and its surroundings in Northern Europe. In fact, the post-imperial status of the boreal Greenbelt could be significantly solidified by enriching the future Belt-proposals by measures of ethno-ecological correction. Consequently, Greenbelt could become a prime means of corrective justice for the Indigenous and local communities (of humans and non-humans) strained by centuries of imperial displacement and extraction. The Greenbelt could accordingly be developed into a Peace Belt, if not a Sámi-Ugric Belt: paving the way from current geopolitical turbulences toward pluriversal planetary recoveries based on multiscale equity and rewilding.

Map of Greenbelt
Map of Fennoscandian Greenbelt (Source: Lehtinen, Ari 2018).

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Elisa Castro Tovar

Elisa Castro Tovar is a biologist with a master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies in Environmental, Economic and Social Sustainability, with a specialty in Ecological Economics. She has worked in the Mexican civil association Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos since 2011, particularly in the development of territorial planning instruments for sustainable management of the territory in local communities of the Lacandona Rainforest, Chiapas, Mexico.

Safeguarding ecosystem connectivity along and across borders

As shown by Laako et al., the Maya Forest is an area shared by three countries (Mexico, Guatemala and Belize) with their common history and rich, complex territorial dynamics. From an ecological viewpoint, it is important to recognize that this eco-region, as many others, is not restricted to international limits. The biological and ecological processes that sustain the ecosystems do not obey political borders and thus, require landscape connectivity between countries in order to carry on. The strategies implemented in each country to conserve their forest coverage and biodiversity that inhabits there, critically impact the mentioned connectivity. In this sense, I refer to the transboundary conservation aim mentioned by Laako et al. that is crucial here: Generating connectivity between protected areas along and across international borders.

The non-profit civil association Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos (NEM), founded in 2005, has focused its efforts in conserving protected areas within the Lacandon Rainforest (Selva Lacandona SL) and the remains of the forest pertaining to the communal lands (ejidos) adjoining these protected areas in the municipality of Marqués de Comillas (MdC) in Chiapas, Mexico. The Lacandon Rainforest is a strategically important for Mexico as the most biodiverse humid, tropical rainforest that is also critical for freshwater refill and many other ecosystem services. Together with the rainforests of Tabasco, Campeche and Quintana Roo, as well as the Department of Petén in Guatemala and Belize, it forms the greatest humid, tropical forest range in Mesoamerica, known as the Maya Forest (Selva Maya). The Lacandon rainforest is also the territory of the Lacandon Mayan Indigenous people.

Despite its cultural and environmental importance, the disorganized territorial occupation of the Lacandon rainforest during the past 70 years has provoked the loss of three-quarters of the forest coverage due to deforestation that paved the way for agriculture and livestock activities, and recently also agro-industrial farming, particularly the African palm oil plantations. The most important part of the natural ecosystems that remain conserved in the Lacandon Rainforest are located within its seven protected areas, from which the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve (RBMA) is the most important one for its extension (331 200 ha).

Nevertheless, the surrounding areas of the protected areas count for the highest rates of the country’s deforestation, leaving the biodiversity within the protected areas isolated. This is also the case of the surrounding territories in the south of the RBMA, where the communal lands of the MdC-municipality are located, established forty years ago by peasants originating from different parts of Mexico. The remaining forests in this area play an important role in the biodiversity conservation of the humid, tropical rainforest and in the ecological connectivity between the protected areas towards Central American rainforests.

The interventions by NEM are divided in four broad fields:
1) Biodiversity conservation by means of consolidating the protected areas and the evaluation of the
state of wildlife populations by means of participative monitoring;
2) The sustainable management of natural ecosystems in MdC by means of the development of productive
activities that generate employment and additional income for social welfare, and that simultaneously
diminish deforestation, such as eco-tourism;
3) The restoration of ecosystems and the recovery of highly endangered species; and
4) The strengthening of local capabilities and environmental awareness, both individual and collective.

NEM has created various collaborative agreements with many civil society organizations, academic institutions and the government

To efficiently implement these activities, NEM has created various collaborative agreements with many civil society organizations, academic institutions and the government. The latest include collaboration with the Commission of Protected Areas (CONANP), the Ministry of Environment and Natural History of Chiapas (SEMAHN), and the Biodiversity Commission (CONABIO) in Mexico.

One important alliance related to connectivity took place with the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, as described by Laako et al. This initiative had the objective of improving landscape and ecosystem connectivity, and to promote sustainable productive processes that improve the quality of lives of the local human populations that use, manage and conserve biological diversity. This alliance allowed promoting productive crop reconversion in MdC with positive results. Unfortunately, in 2018 the project was ended. It would be desirable that the Mexican government would recover these efforts such as the one mentioned here that privilege the attention to social and economic processes that cause deterioration, and that have a broad, territorial focus that succeed in the articulation of public policies and of different sectors, and that motivate the political and institutional coordination between countries to achieve a consolidated, effective environmental management at regional scale.

Jaguar in trap camera (NEM)

Independently of the efforts of transboundary conservation driven by the Mexican state, we consider indispensable the collaborative work between civil society organizations of the three countries that share the Maya Forest. Considering the above, in our fields of work related to conservation and recuperation of endangered species, NEM has generated international alliances focused on the protection of scarlet macaw (Ara macao) and the jaguar (Panthera onca). These alliances are of utmost importance because the countries, on the one hand, share the same species’ populations (scarlet macaw between Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, and the jaguar between Mexico and Guatemala), and on the other, they face similar threats that put at risk these species.

The Conservation Alliance for Scarlet Macaw of the Maya Forest, formed of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Guatemala, Friends for Conservation and Development (FDC) in Belize and NEM in Mexico, carry out activities to coordinate the conservation and recuperation of the species’ metapopulation. By now we have managed to create protocols for the management and rescue of young pigeons (illegally trafficked in the black market) and to implement artificial nests, in addition to the elaboration of a strategy to study the migratory movement of the scarlet macaw in the region of the three countries.

Furthermore, the jaguar monitoring carried out by NEM has achieved in several shared efforts, such as the creation of a national census of the jaguar. Moreover, we have an alliance with the civil organization Bioconciencia in a program “the jaguars of the Maya Forest” to conserve the jaguar populations and their habitat in the region long term. The collaboration with the given organizations has allowed sharing relevant information concerning the state of the species and their conservation in each place; exchanging experiences and developing common strategies for their protection. These projects have permitted to catalyze the improvement of transboundary and integral projects implemented by NEM, and to achieve broader scale effects in the employed strategies, in this case, in the Maya Forest.

It is critical that the governments promote shared environmental agendas

The examples of transboundary conservation efforts commented here, as well as those described by Laako et al., represent real progress in achieving ecosystem connectivity between countries. However, there are still many important challenges. It is critical that the governments promote shared environmental agendas that would have as central axis a broader, regional, territorial vision and that would truly prioritize in “safeguarding biodiversity along and across the borders” (Laako et al., 2022).

Salvaguardar la conectividad ecosistémica a lo largo y más allá de las fronteras

Como señala Laako et. al., la Selva Maya es un área compartida entre tres países (México, Guatemala y Belice) con una historia y dinámica territorial rica y compleja. Desde una perspectiva ecológica, resulta importante reconocer que esta eco-región, como todas, no está restringida a los límites internacionales. Los procesos biológicos y ecológicos que sustentan a los ecosistemas no acatan fronteras y requieren de la presencia de conectividad del paisaje, aún entre países, para poder llevarse a cabo. Las estrategias que implementa cada país para conservar la cobertura forestal y la biodiversidad que ahí habita, tienen un efecto crítico en lograr dicha conectividad. En este sentido, hago referencia a una de las metas de la conservación transfronteriza que plantean Laako et. al., que resulta crucial: generar conectividad entre las áreas protegidas a lo largo y a través de las fronteras internacionales.

Natura y Ecosistemas Mexicanos (NEM), asociación civil sin fines de lucro fundada en 2005, ha enfocado sus esfuerzos a la conservación de las áreas naturales protegidas (ANP) de la Selva Lacandona (SL) y de los remanentes de selva de los ejidos colindantes a ellas en municipio Marqués de Comillas (MdC), Chiapas, México. La SL es una región estratégica para México al ser la selva tropical húmeda más biodiversa del país, constituir una zona prioritaria de recarga de agua dulce y proveer muchos otros servicios ecosistémicos. En conjunto con las selvas de Tabasco, Campeche y Quintana Roo, y el Petén en Guatemala y Belice, forman el macizo forestal de bosque tropical húmedo de mayor tamaño en Mesoamérica, conocido como la Selva Maya. Además, la SL constituye el territorio del pueblo originario maya lacandón.

A pesar de su importancia ambiental y cultural, la desordenada ocupación territorial en la SL en los últimos 70 años provocó la pérdida de tres cuartas partes de la cobertura forestal a causa de la deforestación para el establecimiento de actividades agropecuarias de subsistencia y, recientemente, para cultivos agroindustriales, particularmente las plantaciones de palma africana. La mayor parte de los ecosistemas naturales que aún se mantienen conservados en la SL se encuentran dentro de siete ANP, siendo la Reserva de la Biosfera Montes Azules (RBMA) la más importante por su extensión (331,200 ha).

Sin embargo, las áreas circundantes a las ANP presentan de las más altas tasas de deforestación del país, dejando aislada la biodiversidad dentro de las ANP. Este es el caso de los territorios colindantes al sur con la RBMA, en donde se encuentran los ejidos del municipio MdC, fundados hace cuarenta años por campesinos provenientes de diferentes partes de México. Las selvas remanentes de esta área juegan un papel muy importante en la conservación de la biodiversidad de la selva tropical húmeda y en la conectividad ecológica entre las ANP y con las selvas centroamericanas.

Las intervenciones de NEM se dividen en cuatro grandes líneas de trabajo:
1) Conservación de la biodiversidad mediante la consolidación de las ANP y la evaluación del estado de poblaciones de vida silvestre por medio de monitoreo participativo;
2) Manejo sustentable de los ecosistemas naturales en MdC mediante el desarrollo de actividades productivas que generen empleos e ingresos adicionales para el bienestar social, y que, a su vez, disminuyen la deforestación como es el ecoturismo;
3) Restauración de ecosistemas y recuperación de especies en peligro de extinción;
4) Fortalecimiento de las capacidades locales, individuales y organizativas, y sensibilización ambiental.

NEM ha establecido a lo largo de su historia acuerdos de colaboración con diversas organizaciones de la sociedad civil, instituciones académicas y de gobierno

Para implementar de manera efectiva varias de sus acciones, NEM ha establecido a lo largo de su historia acuerdos de colaboración con diversas organizaciones de la sociedad civil, instituciones académicas y de gobierno. En el caso de las últimas, NEM colabora con la Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (Conanp), Secretaría de Medio Ambiente e Historia Natural del gobierno del Estado de Chiapas (Semahn) y la Comisión Nacional de Biodiversidad (Conabio), entre otras.

Una alianza muy relevante en cuanto a los aspectos de conectividad se llevó a cabo con el Corredor Biológico Mesoamericano, descrito por Laako et. al. Esta iniciativa tuvo como objetivo mejorar la conectividad del paisaje y los ecosistemas, y promover procesos productivos sustentables que mejoren la calidad de vida de las poblaciones humanas locales que usan, manejan y conservan la diversidad biológica. Dicha alianza permitió promover acciones de reconversión productiva en MdC con resultados positivos. Desafortunadamente, en 2018 el proyecto concluyó. Sería deseable que desde el gobierno mexicano se recuperen esfuerzos como éste, que privilegien la atención a procesos económicos y sociales que son factores de deterioro, que tienen un enfoque territorial amplio, que logren la articulación de políticas públicas y de los diversos sectores, y que impulsen la coordinación política e institucional entre los países para lograr una gestión ambiental consolidada y efectiva a escala regional.

Scarlet macaws
Scarlet Macaws (Picture: JavierDeLaMaza)

Independientemente de los esfuerzos de conservación transfronteriza impulsados por el Estado mexicano, consideramos indispensable el trabajo colaborativo entre organizaciones de la sociedad civil de los tres países que comparten la Selva Maya. Considerando lo anterior, desde las líneas de trabajo para la conservación y recuperación de especies amenazadas, NEM ha generado alianzas internacionales enfocadas en la protección de la guacamaya roja (Ara macao) y el jaguar (Panthera onca). Estas alianzas resultan muy relevantes, ya que, por un lado, las poblaciones de ambas especies son compartidas entre países (la de guacamaya roja entre México, Guatemala y Belice, y la de jaguar entre México y Guatemala) y por otro, los tres países se enfrentan a las mismas amenazas que ponen en riesgo a dichas especies.

Por una parte, la Alianza por la Conservación de la Guacamaya Roja en la Selva Maya, conformada por Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) en Guatemala, Friends for Conservation and Developement (FCD) en Belice y NEM en México, ejecuta acciones coordinadas de conservación y recuperación de la metapoblación de la especie. Hasta el momento se han logrado estandarizar protocolos de manejo y rescate de pichones (que son traficados de manera ilegal en el mercado negro) y para la implementación de nidos artificiales; además de la elaboración de una estrategia para el estudio del movimiento migratorio de la especie a lo largo de los tres países.

Por otra parte, el monitoreo de jaguar que realiza NEM ha formado parte de esfuerzos conjuntos con otras organizaciones como, por ejemplo, el censo nacional del jaguar. Asimismo, se cuenta con una alianza con Bioconciencia A.C., con la cual se consolidó el programa Jaguares de la Selva Maya, que cuenta con un plan de acción para conservar las poblaciones de jaguar y su hábitat en la región a largo plazo. La colaboración entre dichas organizaciones ha permitido compartir información relevante de las especies en cuanto a su estado de conservación en cada sitio, intercambiar experiencias y desarrollar estrategias comunes de conservación. Con ellos se ha catalizado el mejoramiento de los proyectos de conservación transfronterizos e integrales como el que NEM implementa, logrando que el efecto de sus estrategias sean a una escala mayor, en este caso, la Selva Maya.

Resulta prioritario que desde los gobiernos se promueva una agenda ambiental compartida

Los ejemplos de esfuerzos de conservación transfronteriza aquí narrados, así como los descritos por Laako et al., representan un avance acertado para lograr la conectividad de los ecosistemas entre países. Sin embargo, aún quedan desafíos importantes que superar. Resulta prioritario que desde los gobiernos se promueva una agenda ambiental compartida que tenga como eje central una visión territorial regional y que realmente priorice “salvaguardar la biodiversidad a lo largo y más allá de las fronteras” (Laako et al., 2022).

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