Disasters & Accidents

Guatemalan firefighters battling to prevent blazes in Maya Biosphere Reserve

Peten department, Guatemala, Feb 2 (EFE).- Firefighting brigades are mapping out a line of defense in northern Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve to protect wildlife from blazes set by farmers and ranchers.

“We’re making a firebreak … to prevent the blazes from spreading to the forest,” Julio Pineda, head of the firefighting unit of the National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP) in San Miguel La Palotada El Zotz, a protected area of that reserve located in the country’s remote, northernmost department of Peten.

The firebreak, a three-meter-wide (10-foot-wide) barrier of cleared land that divides the forest from livestock pasture land, is aimed at mitigating the damage caused by uncontrolled blazes and is built every year between September and February by a brigade of 30 CONAP firefighters, with support from area residents.

Agricultural burning to renew pasture land for cattle ranching kicks off in February and poses a threat to the Maya Biosphere Reserve (part of the Maya Forest spanning Belize, northern Guatemala and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula), wiping out swaths of woodlands and killing numerous animals every year, Pineda said.

The forest firefighters are carrying out their work in San Miguel La Palotada El Zotz, a protected biotope within the Maya Biosphere Reserve that borders Tikal National Park and spans an area of 34,934 hectares (135 square miles).

“The species most harmed by the fires are reptiles like turtles, crocodiles and some snakes,” Dr. Miriam Quiñones, CONAP’s head of wildlife and water resources in Peten, told Efe.

And young boars, jaguars and other mammals also are frequently injured or killed in the fires, according to Quiñones.

CONAP runs a rehabilitation center for animals that sustain injuries during the January-May wildfire season, later relocating them to safe areas of the forest.

In 2020, the Washington DC-based non-profit journalism and investigative organization InSight Crime said the fires in Peten are mainly started by organized crime groups that remove forest cover to build clandestine drug-trafficking airstrips deep inside national parks.

Guatemala has lost 22 percent of its tree cover over the past two decades, a period of time in which the Central American country’s forested area fell from 4.5 million hectares to 3.5 million hectares, according to the country’s National Forest Information System. EFE


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