Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala special feature: why the UNICEF Maya Biosphere Reserve is vital

Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala Maya Biosphere Reserve

Climate change is now affecting all of us around the world in one way or another. From the vast Australian bushfires at the start of the year to the Californian bushfires happening now, it’s no longer possible to look away. Guatemala is home to huge swathes of vital rainforest and precious resources. The need to protect this as much as possible was behind the formation of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Here’s why it’s so important.


Jürg Widmer Probst Guatemala special feature: the Maya Biosphere Reserve


The Maya Biosphere Reserve has a key part in protecting Guatemalan rainforest and surrounding environment. Located in the Peten region to the north of the country, the UNESCO site is part of one of the biggest areas of tropical forest north of the Amazon.


Together with the Maya Forest of Belize and Mexico, the Maya Biosphere Reserve is the most northerly tropical forest in the Western Hemisphere. Designated a formal Reserve in 1990, the Maya Biosphere Reserve comprises seven core areas. These include three wildlife reserves and four national parks.

The parks and wildlife reserves contain medium and high lowland forest, small pine fields, rocky habitats, caves, lagoons, lakes, rivers, mangrove forests and wetlands. Managed by the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), the Maya Biosphere Reserve covers an area equivalent to one fifth of the country’s total land area.


Home to a vast amount of flora and fauna, including the Mexican crocodile. Also known as Morelet’s crocodile, this species is only found in Guatemala, Belize and Mexico and grows up to about 10 feet in length. The Reserve was created to protect this part of the country as part of the UNESCO biosphere reserve model. This is designed specifically to promote a balance between the biosphere and human activity, which is why it includes conservation planning and sustainable economic development plans.


Different zones within the Reserve


As mentioned earlier, the Reserve is split into a number of zones. Each of these has its own protected status, allowing different activities. The main part of the Reserve consists of the national parks and biotopes, which are completely protected from any human settlement or extraction of materials. The core zones cover more than a third of the Maya Biosphere Reserve and include:


  • Laguna del Tigre National Park.
  • Sierra del Lacandon National Park.
  • Mirador-Rio Azul National Park.
  • Tikal National park.
  • El Zotz Biotope.
  • Naachtun-Dos Lagunas Biotope.
  • Cerro Cahui Biotope.
  • Laguna del Tigre Biotope.
  • El Pilar Natural Monument.

In the southern chunk of the Reserve, various regulated economic activities are permitted. These range from sustainably harvesting wood to traditional products such as xate dates and pemnta (allspice). In other parts of the multiple use zones, local communities can still farm in the regulated agricultural sections.


Discovering and preserving ancient Mayan ruins


There are lots of ancient Maya cities within the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Many of these cities are still being excavated an the most famous is probably Tikal. In years unaffected by global pandemics, around 180,000 visitors make their way to Tikal every year. The Northern area of the Reserve is home to a number of ancient cities that are all connected to each other. The biggest is El Mirador, with others in the region including Wakna, Nakbe and El Tintal.


Just two years ago in 2018, cutting edge laser technology revealed around 60,000 structures that were completely unknown and uncharted. These new findings lead experts to estimate that between seven and 11 million Maya people lived in Northern Guatemala in what’s known as the late classical period (650 to 800 AD).


Despite the regulatory control over the Reserve, ecosystems within it are still facing threats from illegal human activities. These include ranching, logging and farming in protected areas, in addition to looting of Mayan sites and drug trafficking. THE Rainforest Alliance says that the forest area within the Reserve has decreased by 13% over the last two decades.


Efforts to save this area of Guatemala will, of course, continue. And while there are other sites in the country that boast more biodiversity per unit area, the Maya Biosphere Reserve is one of the most important places in the country dedicated to conserving species of both flora and fauna. It’s home to five species of tarantula, seven of scorpions, 112 of ants and 535 of butterflies. There are also 33 amphibian species, 106 reptile species, 41 fish species, 513 bird species and 122 mammal species in the Reserve.