La Selva Maya has suffered the loss of over 40% canopy cover over the last 50 years.
The Chiquibul Forest is an intergral part of the wider La Selva Maya (Maya Forest). This important area is a region of tropical forest covering a vast area of Belize, Guatemala and south-eastern Mexico. After the Amazon forest, it is the second largest tropical forest of the Americas and shelters an extraordinary diversity of endemic and endangered species.
However, the Selva Maya has come under increasing pressures as human populations have increased over the last 40 years, with a subsequent decline in forest cover due to forest fires, illegal logging, poaching of flora and fauna, gold mining and the advancing agricultural frontiers of both slash and burn and cattle ranching. Since 2001, the Chiquibul Forest specifically has come under increasing attack from slash and burn agriculture, illegal logging, illegal gold panning and wildlife poaching from sources outside of the protected area.
SLASH & BURN AGRICULTURE
Slash and Burn Agriculture is a form of shifting cultivation where the natural vegetation is cut down and burned as a way of clearing the land. The cleared land is then planted with subsistence crops such as maize, corn and beans. After a few years when the soil has become infertile, the landless farmer moves onto a new plot, cutting down more trees and repeating the process. In earlier times when population densities were lower, slash and burn worked reasonably well. However, with increasing human population the practice is now putting the forest under greater stress as local communities enter further into the protected area, leaving a swath of destruction in their wake.
Estimated to be worth up to $150 billion per year, the global illegal logging industry is controlled by organised crime and elicit trading systems that evade national law enforcement & international regulations. The ecological and economic impact caused by illegal logging in the Chiquibul Forest has been progressively increasing since 2009. And by 2014 it was estimated that over 5 million board feet of lumber primarily Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) and Cedar (Cedrela odorata), with an aggregated value of US$9.5million, had been extracted illegally over a five-year period from the forest. The extraction methods used are very crude and extremely wasteful with approximately 30% of the commercial value of every tree felled left to rot on the forest floor.
Illegal poaching was initially undertaken by perpetrators of other activities, such as logging or mining, on an ad hoc opportunity basis. However, poachers now plan and coordinate activities to specifically target high value species, including Scarlet Macaw chicks and Yellow Headed Parrots. This is often to supply the local pet trade but increasingly for illegal export. The practice of raiding nests and taking chicks from parents to be transported in terrible conditions is extremely wasteful with approximately only 30% of stolen chicks surviving into adulthood.
ILLEGAL GOLD PANNING
Illegal gold panners have been active in the Ceibo Chico area of the Chiquibul Forest since 2013 but have been moving further south into more remote, rugged and exposed areas recently. Studies of nearby streams clearly demonstrate that the ecological impacts of the illegal activity have become significant and in many cases irreversible. The headwaters of the Chiquibul river shows increased turbidity due to sediment loading and increased contamination from pollution due to chemical, waste and faecal contaminates. In 2015 detained gold panners claimed to be selling the gold at US$22 per gram in Guatemalan border towns such as Poptun and Flores from gold flecks panned from streams. However, by mid-2016 it was evident that the gold panners no longer used the streams to pan for gold but instead were digging deep trenches away from the streams and into the bedrock that contained the gold, with rock then being transported back to border villages and crushed to release the gold.