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A Regional Approach to Conservation in the Maya Forest
Chris Rodstrom, Silvio Olivieri, and Laura Tangley
Stretching over southern Mexico, northern Guatemala, and Belize, the Maya Forest, or Selva Maya, constitutes one of the last large blocks of tropical forest remaining in North and Central America. Home to Mayan-speaking people for over 5,000 years, the region is also uncommonly rich in cultural and archaeological resources. Yet the survival of this vast bioregion, which at the peak of Maya civilization supported more than 5 million people, is endangered by fewer than 1 million people today.
Major threats to the Maya Forest include illegal logging, cattle ranching, and unsustainable forms of subsistence agriculture. These destructive practices wreak havoc on natural habitats while bringing little long-term benefit to the region's human inhabitants, many of whom live in poverty. To combat these related problems, several local, national, and international organizations are working to promote conservation and sustainable development in different portions of the Maya Forest. These efforts so far have failed to stem the loss of natural habitat in the region as a whole, in part because the projects do not communicate or coordinate their activities, particularly among different countries. As part of a single ecosystem, the Maya Forest's plant and animal species and biological processes do not recognize national borders. Similarly, threats to species and their habitat in one country are intimately connected with events in others. Yet until now, research and management activities within the region have been restricted to single nations. Unless scientists and conservationists begin sharing information and coordinating efforts across borders, they will be unable to stop the powerful forces of destruction facing the Maya Forest today.
In an effort to overcome obstacles to information sharing and coordination, four organizations currently working in the Maya Forest—the U.S. Man and the Biosphere Program (USMAB), Conservation International (CI), El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—sponsored a workshop in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, in August 1995. The workshop brought together the leading biologists, social scientists, and conservationists working in this region to produce a consensus on conservation priorities and actions; it left behind a database combining relevant information from all three countries. Equally important, the gathering was the start of a process of collaboration among those who, together, have the power to stop the Maya Forest's destruction.
Conservation Priorities: The Need for Consensus
Lack of coordination among conservation professionals in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize has been a problem because there has been no broad consensus on conservation priorities within the region. Why is such consensus important? With limited time and funding, the first logical step in any regional conservation plan is to decide precisely where to work and what to do. Although international funding organizations including USMAB, CI, and USAID have been willing to invest in conservation in the Maya Forest, so far they have had limited guidance from regional experts as to which parts of the region are the most biologically important—and, equally important, which are most threatened.
To achieve this consensus, workshop organizers adapted a methodology developed by CI six years ago (Olivieri et al. 1995). First used to set conservation priorities for the Amazon Basin at a workshop in 1990 (IBAMA/ INPA/CI 1991), this methodology has been employed in Papua New Guinea (Swartzendruber 1993), Madagascar (Hannah and Hough 1995), and the endangered Atlantic Forest of Brazil (Conservation International et al. 1995). The methodology involves bringing together the world's leading experts on a given geographic region's species, ecosystems, and biological and social processes. Each scientist may be an expert only on a few species or a small portion of the entire ecosystem, but the knowledge and experience of these experts taken together provide the best possible understanding of the region as a whole. To quickly capture the information the experts offer, the workshop model focuses their attention on Geographic Information System (GIS) maps, onto which they transmit and synthesize their diverse knowledge. As with the previous exercises, the consensus reached by participants at the Maya Forest workshop has provided a valuable resource for targeting scarce conservation dollars where they are needed most (Johnson 1995).
Information Sharing and Coordination
Fragmented efforts to conserve the Maya Forest also have meant that conservation professionals lack the considerable advantages provided by information sharing. This statement is especially true with respect to information on the rate and type of changes happening to the landscape, such as conversion of forest to agriculture. If organizations in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize want to make a case for conserving their bioregion to attract international funding, they must be able to determine how much forest once existed in the region, how much is left, the condition of the remaining forest, and the current deforestation rate. Thus far, however, conservationists have been unable to make these arguments because they lack comparative data across national boundaries.
Regional information exchange also allows conservation funding agencies to keep track of how well their projects are doing relative to others that are tackling similar problems. Such monitoring and evaluation of ongoing work is essential to continually fine-tune rapidly evolving methodologies. In addition, it ensures that scarce resources go to the projects that are making the greatest contribution to conservation and sustainable development.
At the local level, information sharing allows conservation organizations to build upon the experience of others, avoiding wasteful duplication of effort. Because the cost of building a conservation database from scratch is too high for most groups in developing countries and even for many international organizations, such collaboration is essential for any group to get enough information to launch a successful conservation strategy. Although still at an early stage, the Maya Forest project has launched a process to bring together the vast amount of disparate information housed in the three countries and to build, eventually, a regional conservation database.
The Workshop's Contributions
Preparation for the Maya Forest workshop began many months before its participants convened. One essential step was to compile a "metadatabase" that summarized what relevant data already existed and what institutions and individuals were responsible for collecting them. To do this, the groups sent out information request forms to more than 200 organizations. The results were compiled, published, and distributed through a booklet and electronically on CI's World Wide Web page (http://www.conservation.org).
Another project that helped lay the groundwork for the workshop was creation of the Digital Geographic Database for the Maya Forest Region. Undertaken by the Paseo Pantera Consortium—a collaboration of the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Caribbean Conservation Corporation—and the University of Florida, it is the first standardized GIS database ever put together for the entire Maya Forest region (University of Florida et al. 1995). While its creators hope that the database will be continually updated and augmented by others, it currently consists of more than a dozen data layers, including protected areas, archaeological sites, and population centers. The database is available both on diskette and on the Internet.
Immediate workshop preparations began in March 1995. Organizers convened panels of experts on five topics: (1) biological resources, (2) landscape processes, (3) biological corridors, (4) cultural and economic resources, and (5) conservation law. Made up of approximately equal numbers of experts from Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, each panel was charged with compiling and synthesizing as much information as possible before the August exercise, a step designed to make the workshop itself operate more efficiently.
To integrate the diversity of data provided by the experts on each panel, GIS technology was essential. Because scientists in the three countries had never before worked together, their geographic data sets were all at different scales and projections, which meant they could not be analyzed together or even combined onto a single map. To solve this problem, the GIS stretched or compressed data sets so that they fit together in one projection. This provided one comprehensive picture showing all relevant data and relationships among different data at any given location.
The database was designed to provide representative samples of information for each discussion group. For the Landscape Processes Panel, this included land-use maps from SEGEPLAN (Plan for the Integrated Development of the Petén) of northern Guatemala. The boundaries and names of protected areas were included for the Biological Resources Panel. Maps of linguistic groups provided background to the discussions of the Cultural and Economic Resources Panel. Together this information was stored and documented in a GIS, and presented as hard-copy maps at the workshop. The Corridors Panel also provided comprehensive base maps of the region for each working group that identified protected areas, archaeological sites, population centers, and roads (University of Florida et al. 1995).
At the workshop itself, the 40 panel members were joined by 25 additional invited participants: scientists, conservationists, members of funding organizations, and others who work on projects in the Maya Forest. The newly formed working groups met concurrently during the first two days. Their tasks were to evaluate the data gathered before the workshop, revising these data according to participants' own experiences; to identify gaps and areas of overlap in the type and geographical coverage of the data; and to draw up plans for future data sharing and coordination. In addition, the Biological Resources, Corridors, and Landscape Processes Panels identified and mapped high conservation priorities within the region. The Cultural and Economic Resources Panel and the Conservation Law Panel recommended actions for promoting conservation and sustainable development within these priority areas.
The working group on biological resources pooled diverse information and reached a consensus on priority areas based upon relative biological importance. After considerable debate and negotiation, a list of six criteria for priority status was drawn from an original list of 12: (1) level of threat, (2) distribution /extension, (3) ecological importance, (4) biodiversity, (5) ecological processes/critical habitat, and (6) level of endemism (the number of species found only in that location). The definition for each criterion is shown in Table 1.1. Using these criteria, 20 areas with the highest biological importance in the region were defined, as shown in Figure 1.1. Table 1.2 lists each area by code and name.
High priority areas include lowland tropical moist forests, montane systems, and coastal ecosystems. Area RB3 in Mexico, with palms and flooded riparian zones, ranked high in ecological importance, biodiversity, critical habitat, and endemism. The coastal northern and southern lagoons in Belize, Area RB10, contain red mangrove and a population of West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus). Both the manatee and hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) are believed to rely on these areas for breeding and nesting areas, respectively. Several areas span political or legal boundaries. For instance, Area RB6, Tikal—Southern Calakmul—Río Bravo, covers three types of protected area within three countries. However, the group distinguished areas by the similarity of their biological characteristics rather than by their legal status. Finally, Area RB8, the Maya Mountains, included two separate areas, but only the area located along the Guatemala—Belize border was fully described.
Focusing on deforestation, land-use changes such as agricultural conversion, and degradation of protected areas, the landscape processes working group identified priority areas based upon the extent of threats to these areas compared to others. Making such comparisons is difficult because all prior estimates of forest cover and deforestation rates have generally focused on selected areas within the three countries of the Maya region (Calleros and Brauer 1983; Sader et al. 1994). As a gathering that brought together experts who have contributed to these previous studies along with many others with knowledge of landscape changes occurring throughout the region, the workshop provided the first opportunity to achieve a broad consensus on how different portions of the Maya Forest are faring relative to one another. It was also an opportunity to identify existing information sources and projects mapping land-use change.
The group debated and finally agreed upon a list of 16 criteria for high priority status. Forested areas are considered particularly threatened if, for example, they are currently experiencing colonization, they border populated areas with little available land, they are managed poorly, they are targeted for exploitation for oil and minerals, they are occupied by illegal settlements, they host poorly planned tourism, they have been targeted for hydroelectric projects, or they are located along international borders, which makes them vulnerable to illegal resource exploitation from neighboring countries. Using these criteria, the panel agreed that 61 areas within the Maya Forest are highly threatened: 27 in Mexico, 17 in Guatemala, and 17 in Belize (Figure 1.2 and Table 1.3).
An area experiencing the dramatic landscape changes typical of the Maya Forest is M5, located in the north of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve (Figure 1.3) between 600 and 900 meters (m) above sea level. Rapid colonization and loss of native vegetation from human activities has led to soil erosion and forest fragmentation. Area M5 also overlaps Area RB1, a critical area identified by the biological working group. The landscape group also highlighted those areas likely to experience changes in the near future, but that lacked any definitive studies to assess the impact. One area, B2, located in southwest of Shipstem Nature Reserve in northeastern Belize, is not covered by any legal protected status and is surrounded by sugar cane plantations. This area is an important link between two small reserves, but future land-use plans are unknown, with strong potential for conversion to agriculture.
Past projects have tracked landscape changes over time in each of the three countries. An outgrowth of these projects is an inventory of over 80 data sources, including satellite images (Figure 1.4), aerial photography, digital data, and maps that describe the region. This simple inventory is useful both to understand the region as a whole and to indicate what coordination is needed for similar future projects. These types of data are important not only for answering discrete questions, but also for modeling the interactions between humans and the environment, which is a rapidly growing research field (Groffman and Likens 1994).
Excerpted from Timber, Tourists, and Temples by Richard B. Primack. Copyright © 1998 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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