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Guatemala makes strides in protecting Maya Biosphere Reserve with IDB support

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is helping Guatemala advance in its efforts to protect and sustainably develop the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Central America’s largest protected area.

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The reserve, home to a complex system of natural forests, magnificent archeological sites and unique biodiversity, has come under pressure from a proliferation of illegal settlements and economic activities, ranging from smuggling of rare woods and wildlife to the exploration of oil fields and unsustainable farming, ranching and logging.

Fires are the single biggest threat to the biosphere since it is often used to clear the forest. About 85,000 people live in the reserve.

The Government of Guatemala, with support from the IDB and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), is working to educate the local population on forest fires, develop sustainable economic activities, identify territory to be protected and build surveillance posts in the forest to slow down deforestation. Moreover, the Bank is also helping improve the technical training of the agency responsible for managing and protecting the reserve.

These projects, coupled with other actions by the Guatemalan government, seek to slow down the number of fires in the Biosphere Reserve, which covers 20 percent of the country’s territory.

The actions financed by both the IDB and the GEF are part of an ongoing plan to strengthen participative conservation and transform the northern department of Petén, where the reserve is located, into a top sustainable tourism destination to reduce the pressure of agricultural expansion and other economic activities in the reserve. About 300,000 tourists visit the reserve every year.

“To succeed we have taken an integrated approach and asked the local communities to work with us,” said Juan de Dios Mattos, a natural resources and environmental specialist at the IDB, who is leading the Bank’s projects in the Biosphere. “We cannot solve the problem of deforestation in the reserve without improving the economic and social conditions of the poor population.”

Both the IDB and the GEF are financing the construction of eight surveillance and control posts in the forest and helping the National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP, after its initials in Spanish), the agency responsible for managing the reserve, to start the physical demarcation of five protected areas in Petén.

The 21,130-square-kilometer  reserve is more than double the size of Yellowstone National Park in the United States. It has three main zones. A core zone is completely protected by national parks. There is a multiple-use zone, where certain regulated economic activities such as sustainable harvesting of wood and traditional forest products and agriculture are allowed, and a buffer zone.

In the multiple-use zone, the IDB has been supporting educational campaigns to teach local communities and farmers on how to best clean the land without the use of fires and utilize the forest resources in a sustainable way.  

For example, one of the campaigns teaches farmers how to harvest Xate, a type of palm leaf used in floral arrangements, without killing the tree.  In another, the IDB has supported the provision of technical training to teach beekeepers how to expand and improve the quality of their honey to boost their incomes and reduce their reliance on farming.

“Last year I sold a barrel of honey and received 5,000 quetzales for that. I said to myself ‘that is good’,” said Omar Cardona García, who learned through the courses financed by the IDB and the GEF how to build better beehives as well as maintain them. “I feel that if I increase the number of bees I will have more production and I will be able to better provide for my family.”

The training offered to CONAP is helping improve the agency’s capacity in controlling forest fires and conserve biodiversity.

In addition, the IDB is supporting the creation of five tourism circuits backed by the Guatemalan Tourism Institute, involving and benefiting local communities. The Bank is financing the construction and equipment of museums and a school of community tourism, the restoration of archeological sites and a road signage plan for highways and tourism circuits in Petén.  The Bank is also supporting measures to reduce pollution in the Lake Petén Itzá watershed in the southern part of the reserve.

The IDB ongoing programs in the Maya Biosphere Reserve are being financed by a $30 million loan approved in 2006 and by a $3.6 million grant from the Global Environment Facility approved in 2008.

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