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Tourism as an ally in the fight to save Peten

Eduardo Cofiño, an enterprising businessman and admirer of the tropical forest, is the government’s adviser for the sustainable development program of Guatemala’s Peten region. For more than 10 years, Cofiño has carried on the struggle to protect the Mayan forest from the dangers of land misuse arising from drug trafficking and poverty, among other sources.

During his presentation at IDB headquarters in Washington, DC, Cofiño laid out a plan for developing the area, which faces serious conservation problems despite its natural and cultural richness.

The combined damage stemming from forest fires, uncontrolled population growth, the expansion of corn crops, and a lack of conservation capacity are transforming the forest into a dry, eroded and sterile land, according to Cofiño.

Peten needs urgent action, not only because it is such an extensive and endangered territory, but also because of the archaeological marvels hidden in its exuberant forest, he added. Several regions of Peten are currently protected as part of The Mayan Biosphere Reservation, which covers more than 50,000 square kilometers of tropical forest.

The Mayan Biosphere Reservation is listed as a natural and cultural world heritage area – there are only 24 such sites worldwide - and yet the region of Peten does not get the local and international attention that could save it from total destruction. According to Cofiño, Peten has more than 380 archaeological sites and about 60 natural areas recognized by the Tourism World Organization, most of which are little known.

Cofiño is among the few people who are intimately familiar with the problems and opportunities of Peten. It concerns him that his proposed solution for protecting and working with the mixed heritage of the Mayan forest has so much room for mishaps. Among them, the lack of economic resources, basic services, highways and general infrastructure; as well as drug and weapons trafficking, clandestine immigration and the theft or destruction of archaeological treasures.

Cofiño  – a man of numbers – pointed out that his calculations and statistics show that the damage committed to this land is irreversible. Year after year, larger areas of high and dense forest have been turned into naked soil. Between 2020-2025, he forecasts that the panoramic view of the region will show three-fourths of Peten destroyed by flames.

But the beauty and value of this natural and cultural patrimony is so great– Cofiño added – that it is worth facing the challenges to try to rescue the best of the Mayan forest while it is still possible.

The plan: use tourist dollars to slow environmental degradation

Cofiño’s plan is really part of a complete sustainable development program that includes four components: legalization of land tenure, protection and restoration of archeological sites and promotion of tourism, natural resources management, and institutional strengthening.

Tourism generates more foreign income for Guatemala than any other economic sector. The plan is to increase tourism activities in protected areas in Northern Peten, restoring archaeological sites and investing in tourist infrastructure. Cofiño noted that a cheap solution to improve the environment is to invest in basic sanitary services, rest areas, staircases, docks, benches, trash dumps, cabins, and other things to make the tourist’s stay more pleasant. Also, such investments would attract more money to increase economic opportunities in the area, and the funds could also help improve the region’s infrastructure.

The famous city of Tikal in Peten currently attracts more than 120,000 tourists per year, with stays averaging 1.5 to 2 days. But the region might attract many more tourists for longer stays if highways were available to reach other archaeological sites located close to the city of Floes and next to Tikal. Only by extending tourist visits to an average of 3.5 days can more resources be generated to help slow the environmental degradation of Peten, Cofiño said.

IDB in action

Promotion of ecosystem management in the Mayan forest in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala

Recently, the Bank approved a $800,000 grant to promote regional public goods associated with environment protection, thus helping preserve the Mayan forest shared by Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.

The areas included in the program are the Mayan Biosphere Reservation (Guatemala), the Biosphere Calakmul Reservation (Mexico), the Montes Azules  Reservation (Mexico), the conservation area of Río BravoI (Belize), and the Mayan Chiquibul-Mountains Complex III Mayan (Guatemala), accounting for 4,6 million hectares of forest with strategic importance for the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.

The project aims to improve management, coordination and cooperation capacities, strengthening the Mayan forest ecosystem’s tri-national management structure. Specifically, the operation will contribute to the improvement of: (a) the tri-national capacities for controlling illegal trafficking of flora and fauna; (b) joint management of environmental risks, particularly forest fires; (c) the ecological connectivity of the Mayan forest through biological corridors; (d) monitoring of and management information systems on biodiversity, and (e) the institutional framework for sharing management of the ecosystem.

Sustainable development project in Peten

Since 1996, the government of Guatemala has been implementing a sustainable development program for Peten, with the help of US$19.8 million in loans from the IDB.

This program supports the land use planning process, which aims to preserve cultural and natural resources in Peten and to improve environmental and living conditions for the people in the area.

The program’s four components, which together aim to slow environmental degradation and reverse existing damage, are:

  • Legalization of land tenure for some 4,500 families in a buffer zone outside of the internationally recognized Mayan Biosphere Reserve.
  • Protection and restoration of archeological sites and promotion of tourism.
  • Small agricultural and forestry projects with resource management components.
  • Strengthening public institutions, including Peten’s municipalities and grassroots organizations that protect and manage natural and cultural resources.
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