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CENTRAL AMERICA
Losing more than trees
Jill Replogle
11/26/2002
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Development-driven deforestation also leads to soil erosion and loss of biological diversity.

The tropical forests of northern Guatemala, Belize and southern Mexico once posed a daunting challenge to missionaries, logging entrepreneurs and explorers. Since the mid-1800s, however, deforestation has been taking a heavy toll on the jungle, not only in lumber, but also in biological diversity, oxygen and soil.

The narrow land corridor connecting the northern and southern halves of the American continent is a region of diverse, species-rich ecosystems.

According to a United Nations’ report, Global Environmental Outlook 3 (GEO-3): Past, Present and Future Perspectives, there were 73 million hectares of forest in Mesoamerica in 2000. While it represents only about 7.5 percent of the total forest in Latin America and the Caribbean, the area holds a wealth of biological diversity and is vulnerable because of its location.

According to the UN report, Latin America has one of the world’s highest average deforestation rates — 0.48 percent annually. In Central America and Mexico, however, the rate is 1.2 percent a year. About 9.7 million hectares in Central America and southern Mexico were deforested between 1990 and 2000, according to the report. The 30.2 percent of Mesoamerica that is still covered by forest is now threatened by changes in land use, poor management, and political and economic exploitation.

Other causes of deforestation are fires, which burned more than 2.5 million hectares in 1998 alone, and the destruction of mangrove forests to make room for coastal industries such as shrimp farming.

Trópico Verde, a Guatemala-based environmental monitoring group, is calling attention to the major threats to Central America’s forests and the impact of deforestation on the region’s ecosystem. According to a report by the group, based on data from the United Nations, World Bank and World Resources Institute, Central America has nearly 4,000 endemic species, mainly in Panama, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Most of the region’s threatened species are in Panama.

Although 19 percent of Panama’s land, 17 percent of Guatemala’s and 14 percent of Costa Rica’s is under protection, Carlos Albacete of Trópico Verde said that protected areas are often poorly designed and do not include the largest concentrations of species.

In addition, he said, "The areas are protected only on paper."

While the main causes of forest destruction in protected areas are hunting, logging and agriculture, the politics of "sustainable development" also contribute to deforestation.

"The word ‘sustainable’ has been manipulated to make everything within protected areas available for use," Albacete said.

Certification that mahogany comes from sustainably managed areas "takes into account the number of new mahogany trees growing, but does not take biodiversity into consideration," he said. While seedlings are planted to replace trees that have been cut down, biodiversity may still be lost as forests are turned into single-species farms.

Central America’s ecosystem faces encroachment from both the north and the south. Mexican President Vicente Fox’s proposed Plan Puebla-Panama includes massive development projects (LP, July 29, 2002), while threats from Colombia include both infrastructure projects and the ongoing civil war.

Plan Puebla-Panama includes projects slated to be in or near some of the region’s most sensitive areas. Three proposed highways would cross Guatemala’s largest protected area, the Maya Biosphere, and hydroelectric plants planned for the Usumacinta River, on the Guatemalan-Mexican border, could flood a number of Maya archeological sites. New jobs would bring in an influx of people, putting a strain on water and forest resources and opening up new areas to human settlement, Albacete said.

Ecotourism and archeological tourism, often touted as a key sustainable development alternative, also threaten to open up pristine areas. The Mundo Maya Project promoted by regional tourism ministries plans to develop Guatemala’s last remaining primary forest.

Panama’s Darién ecosystem, one of the most biologically rich tropical forests on earth, is in danger from refugees fleeing increasing violence in neighboring Colombia, as well as from drug and arms traffickers (LP, May 29 and Nov. 13, 2000). Panama has more than 9,900 plant species, the second-highest number in Central America, after Costa Rica. Of these, 1,222 are endemic species.

According to the World Resources Institute, a plan to expand the Pan-American Highway through the region is the biggest threat (LP, July 3, 2000), followed by logging and coca cultivation if US-backed coca eradication programs push Colombian coca growers into the Darién jungle.

Threats to Central American forests are rousing strong protest from civil society organizations and local communities. Over the past year, various regional fora have been held to discuss ways to combat the problems. Participants at the Third Mesoamerican Forum held in Managua, Nicaragua, from July 16-18 rejected Plan Puebla-Panama and other large-scale development plans on the grounds that they exclude local participation, benefit foreign and corporate interests, and threaten environmental and cultural resources.

Albacete said that the better alternative is to help local communities become self-sustaining by developing economies of scale, strengthening local participation in development schemes, and including human and biological factors in value systems. He also called for strong government policies to protect forests, backed up by funds to carry out the policies and monitor infringements.

"Civil society plays an important role in pushing and monitoring regional governments," Albacete said, "but it’s the responsibility of those governments to protect the region’s forests."


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