Criminal gangs threaten Maya Biosphere Reserve

An Oct. 8 report on Yale University's Environment 360 website, "In the Land of the Maya, A Battle for a Vital Forest" by William Allen, states that "In Guatemala's vast Maya Biosphere Reserve, conservation groups are battling to preserve a unique rainforest now under threat from Mexican drug cartels, Salvadoran drug gangs, and Chinese-backed groups illegally logging prime tropical hardwoods." The Maya Biosphere Reserve covers approximately the northern third of what Allen calls the "Selva Maya," Central America's largest remaining expanse of rainforest, which stretches across the northern half of Guatemala and also extends into the Mexican state of Chiapas to the west and the country of Belize to the east. More taditionally, the forest is called El Petén within Guatemala and the Selva Lacandona on the Mexican side of the border. Allen cites Guatemala's National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP) to the effect that international criminal networks are now the biggest threat to the Selva Maya. Cattle ranching and logging have long been eating into rainforest—but now in a convergence with organized crime:

Criminal activity in the area began to intensify a decade ago, further accelerating the destruction of the western half of the reserve. An important factor is that northern Guatemala is ideally situated to refuel drug aircraft flying from South America and transfer narcotics to trucks for the easy drive to Mexico. The cartels operated in a "climate of impunity" since the army and police lacked the power to take them on, McNab says. The ranchers built dozens of airstrips, including one dubbed the "international airport," which had three runways and more than a dozen abandoned aircraft. The result was a loss of 40,000 hectares of forest.

Guatemalans have developed a new term for what’s happening in the region: narcoganaderia, a combination of the Spanish words for drugs and cattle ranching. The cartels launder drug money by investing in cattle production and reaping profits from cattle sales in Mexican markets.

CONAP officials say evidence of the work of Chinese-backed criminal groups lies in the yard behind the agency’s Petén headquarters, in San Benito. The yard is crowded with timber and confiscated vehicles. Victor Penados, CONAP's coordinator of control and vigilance for the reserve, points to a pile of rosewood confiscated from suppliers to Chinese criminal groups. The wood comes from one of several recent timber-smuggling busts by the government reported in national news media. This pile, confiscated from a truck delivering the wood to the Caribbean seaport of Puerto San Tomas de Castillo for shipment to China, has a market value of $125,000, Penados estimates.

Operatives with Chinese criminal cartels have been conducting illegal logging just south of the reserve, according to CONAP. McNab fears it won’t be long before the Chinese-backed groups start cutting inside the reserve itself and then turn to intensive jaguar poaching for body parts to serve a Chinese market that is already driving Asian big cats toward extinction.

Resistance to REDD in Chiapas
On Sept. 26, the Chiapas colonial city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas hosted an international meeting of the Governors' Climate and Forests Task Force (GCF), made up of governors of states and provinces in six countries—Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia and the United States—to promote the UN-backed climate change mitigation program known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD). The program has recently been rechristened "REDD+," to incorporate other strategies, but it remains based on the notion of preserving rainforests to offset carbon emissions in the industrialized world, through a complicated mechanism of trading "carbon credits." 

"Our earth is calling us to action, calling us to shift our awareness," Chiapas Gov. Juan Sabines Guerrero said in his keynote address, Ecosystem Marketplace reports. "We must conserve our forests and replant."

But Chris Lang on the watchdog website REDD Monitor informs us that indigenous Maya communities within the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, which covers much of the Selva Lacandona, were not invited to the meeting—and their representatives were barred from entering when they tried to attend. A protest was held outside the meeting, where the indigenous representatives expressed harsh dissent from REDD's market-based approach:

Good afternoon. We are representatives of various communities, regions, and indigenous and campesino municipalities of the state of Chiapas, and we have entered this forum to take the floor of our own initiative, because the government chose not to give it to us.

From the Lacandon Jungle, commissions have come from the communities from the region of Amador Hernández, which is in the very heart of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, as have community groups from the municipalities of Las Margaritas and Marques de Comillas…

We have come before you today to denounce the programs and projects that threaten to dispossess us of our territories and our resources; programs which bad governments have attempted to impose for a long time; now they have a new pretext: climate change and the project they call REDD+.

Transnational businesses have had plans for the rural areas of Chiapas for some time now. The natural wealth of biodiversity and water, of mines, of biofuels, and of course of petroleum, have led to the displacement of people, the poisoning of the earth, and have made the peasant farmer into a serf on his own land. And in every case they blame us and criminalize us. Our supposed crime today is that we are responsible for global warming.

Therefore, they tell us, we need to stop producing our food and buy cornmeal with the money they pay us to conserve the forests and jungles, or join in the so-called "productive reconversion of agriculture," which consists of abandoning our cornfields to plant fruit trees where birds and other animals can eat abundantly so that biodiversity will grow. The intention is to offer biodiversity up to business as patents for medicines and foods that the governments call by the foreign name biogenetics.

With REDD+, the businessmen and their government lackeys have one more business—the trading of carbon in its most polluting form—and the peasant farmers have one more thing to fear: that the jungles and forests of Chiapas will be used for absorbing their CO2…

We disagree with the REDD+ program—it is not true that by reforesting what is now our farmland, global carbon pollution will go down. It is not part of our culture to put a price on the land or the mountains or the rivers or the other gifts that Mother Nature by God's generosity gave to the people. We also disagree with being made accomplices so you can continue polluting and bring on the destruction of the world…

Why don’t they consult us? Why do the wealthy want to impose their will by force? The jungles are sacred, and they exist to serve the people, as God gave them to us. We do not go to your countries and tell you what to do with your lives and your lands. We ask that you respect our lives and our lands, and go back where you came from, merchants of life.

Amador Hernández and other communities within the Montes Azules reserve have long been threatened with eviction in the supposed name of protecting the rainforest, as we have noted. Meanwhile, the government proposes to open the reserve to corporate "bio-prospectors" to patent and privatize its genetic wealth—which will supposedly save the Selva by giving it a niche in the capitalist system. "Eco-tourism" development is also part of the scheme.

The REDD Monitor website features an insightful quote on the program from Bram Büscher of the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University in the Netherlands: "Making money will always trump the ecological benefits of forests in a capitalistic economic system. It's simplistic to say everyone wins with REDD. There is nothing win-win under capitalism. It's all about winners and losers. Capitalism is inherently unecological. We're trying to rig the system to make it work for the green economy. It's a sham."

Compared to the technocrats who push schemes like REDD while consciously excluding the voices of the rainforests' actual indigenous inhabitants, the drug cartels and timber mafias almost seem refreshingly honest.


  1. Maya pyramid bulldozed in Belize
    The bulldozing and destruction of the ancient Maya site at Nohmul, in the Orange Walk district of northern Belize, has recently received widespread international attention. The largest structure of the ancient ceremonial center was reduced to rubble for use as road-fill by a local contracting company, a widely condemned act that will likely result in minimal consequences for the perpetrators.  The site was on private property, and no criminal charges have been filed, although police say an investigation is open. The Belize community-action group Citizens Organized for Liberty Through Action called the destruction of the archaeological site “an obscene example of disrespect for the environment and history.” (Anthropology News, May 21; AP, May 13)