Controlling Forest Fires in the Maya Biosphere Reserve

Tikal Guatemala Photo
©John Polisar

The Maya Biosphere Reserve, spanning Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, is one of Latin America’s last remaining rainforest strongholds. Jaguars, pumas, scarlet macaws, and many other iconic and wide-ranging species make their home here, along with some that exist nowhere else: Guatemalan black howler monkeys, Morelet’s crocodiles, and ocellated turkeys, to name a few. Millions of migratory birds from the U.S. and Canada also depend on these forests during the northern winter. At more than 8,000 square miles, the reserve anchors the largest block of broadleaf forest north of the Amazon, and serves as one of the planet’s major carbon sinks.


Illegal settlements, unsustainable rural land use, uncontrolled hunting of wildlife, and annual burning have severely degraded the western reaches of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. As natural resources diminish, local economic opportunities vanish with them.

Fire is the principal agent of forest degradation. Colonists clear small patches of trees, then burn off the organic debris and create nutrient rich ash. During El Niño years, the fires spread into the surrounding forest, furthering and widening the destruction. In 2002, the dense fumes carried all the way up to Houston, where the airport had to be closed. Climate change studies predict that dry years will become increasingly common—exacerbating the threat of slash-and-burn agriculture.


  • Ensure government and NGO partners can adequately oversee protected areas of the eastern part of the reserve, an area of more than 3,300 square miles.
  • Provide training and support for local communities, so they can sustainably manage their forest concessions, and reduce fires and illegal settlements.
  • Maintain intact habitat for jaguars and scarlet macaws. Protecting these keystone species would ensure the conservation of many other forest-dependent species.

What WCS is Doing

WCS is partnering with local organizations and government to integrate conservation and development within the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Over the last 20 years, we have supported various efforts towards this goal. Currently, we support and nurture a local, consensus-building network, the Mirador-Rio Azul Roundtable, which comprises more than 30 government, community, NGO, and private sector institutions, all working together to develop and conserve the ancient Maya site known as El Mirador. This area is poised to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the next great archaeological tourist attraction in the region. It will provide both intact habitat for the region’s wildlife, as well as new local livelihoods.
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