Other Environmental Themes

Saving the Maya Forest

Revered by the ancient Maya as representatives of the divine, scarlet macaws are truly extraordinary creatures. Nearly three feet long and adorned with bright red, blue, and yellow plumage, the scarlet macaw is one of the world’s largest parrots and has also been called “the world’s most beautiful bird.” But the animals once deemed the most important to Mayan civilization are now on the brink of extinction—victims of encroaching development—with perhaps a few hundred left in all of Central America.

Last year, in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and other institutions succeeded for the first time in placing satellite collars on the wild birds. The studies will allow scientists to track the movements of this endangered parrot in the hopes of affording better protection. While the information so gained will be of immense value, the best and perhaps only way to save the Central American population of scarlet macaws is to save their dwindling habitat, which encompasses much of the Maya Forest itself.

Stretching from southern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula through much of Guatemala and Belize, the Maya Forest is the second largest rainforest in the western hemisphere, the largest being the Amazon itself. And like its southern counterpart, the Maya Forest is shrinking fast, losing 200,000 acres a year to forest fires, agriculture, cattle ranching, and illegal logging. A land of great beauty and the site of spectacular Mayan ruins, the forest is a treasure trove of biodiversity and home to numerous endangered species, including the howler monkey, jaguar, tapir, ocelot, giant anteater, and the aforementioned macaw.

The Nature Conservancy—in concert with other environmental organizations and government agencies throughout the tri-country region—has developed a plan for expanding protected areas, establishing biological corridors, and promoting sustainable agriculture, ranching, and logging. For example, in Carmelita, a community within Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, profits from sustainable forestry practices have grown steadily, and part of the proceeds have been used to promote the implementation of such practices. “I used to think that the way to protect the forest was to say, ‘stop, don’t touch,’” notes Carmelita cooperative head, Carlos Crasborn. “We put people in jail and confiscated illegal firewood. But the forest just kept getting smaller and smaller. I realize now that a more effective way to conserve the rainforest is to show the people who live there that they can make a better living by managing the forest sustainably than they would if they cut it down.”

Given the success of these methods in Guatemala, leaders like Crasborn hope to see the approach spread throughout the Maya Forest to enhance the survival of the region’s threatened wilderness.” If they are successful, bellwether species like the scarlet macaw will not only be of historical significance, but can also be appreciated by generations to come.