Me, pictured center, with just one of six million indigenous Mayans living in the Maya Forest.
Why I didn't know much about Mesoamerica's Maya Forest (or 'Selva Maya' in Spanish), I'm not sure (and yes, am admittedly embarrassed). My guess is that since the Amazon takes the gold for being the largest rainforest, it receives the most attention. (A quick search on TreeHugger results in pages upon pages of Amazon news and you guessed it, close to zilch on the Maya Forest).
Luckily, a pre-arranged meeting with Ann Snook, The Nature Conservancy's (TNC) Mayan Forest Program Manager (a Planet Green non-profit partner) and Victoria Santos Jimenez, the Technical Director of the Organization of Forestry Producer Ejidos (OEPF), during my green get-away in Mexico's Mayan Riviera, would open my eyes to its importance. It also presented me with the perfect opportunity to blog about it--giving it its deserved slice of the TreeHugger limelight.The Maya Forest's Massiveness
As the largest remaining tropical rainforest outside of the Amazon, the Maya Forest is so huge its 13.3 million acres of forest, savanna, mangrove and wetland spill outside of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula borders and into Belize and Guatemala. The large habitat harbors about 400 species of bird, endangered species like the howler monkey, five species of large cats like the jaguar and puma, sea turtles and way too many adored critters to list.
It's hard to imagine that the tourist activities and urban life buzzing within and outside the forest's borders (think cities like Cancun) contain any strand of similarity to the pristine jungle paradise, but this very forest is its lifeline, supplying water to all of the 3.3 million inhabitants of the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Maya Forest's Ejidos (e hÄ“â€²dÅÌ‚): Sustainable Forestry in Action
Co-existing within the forest's grand diversity of ecosystems and species lives a culturally diverse indigenous population (six million from 13 linguistic groups of the Maya people) whose thousands of year old histories can be spotted in archeological remnants.
In the ejido, we enjoy a traditional Mayan lunch of hand made corn tortillas, eggs and chaya--a native shrub to the Yucatan also known as "Tree Spinach."
After a late arrival in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, at no earlier than ten at night, Anne walks us from our motel over to the OEPF building where we discover what any average organization out to help save the world would be doing that late--they are up and hard at work!
In the office, we sit listening to Victoria Santos. Similar to my experience in the Amazon, I'd find out that these ejidos or government sanctioned communal lands contain everything that conservation groups like TNC believe are a crucial keys to forest preservation. In essence, the people who live in them. If the forest natives feel a sense of pride to their homes and villages and are given the tools to soundly manage their forests, and make fair wages, they are less likely to turn their land over to corporate entities wishing to clear-cut and abuse the forest's natural resources. The indigenous are benefited and biodiversity is conserved. A much needed arrangement when only 190,000 square kilometers of the Maya Forest's original cover remains of the 310,000 that once existed. And where alone in Mexico, between 1% and 3% of forest cover is lost each year.
As Victoria Santos reminds us, this is exactly what groups like TNC and the OEPF are assisting with, precisely by keeping the following three goals in mind:
- Establishing and fortifying land rights for the ejidos
- Thinking of easy, low-cost ways for the ejido members to extract lumber
- Finding a viable market for lumber outside of the ejido's three over-extracted species: Mahogany, Cedar and Tsalam
After spending an entire day shadowing ejido members and organization workers, I'd learn about the challenges facing these goals due to monetary costs, market viability, and climate change.
Over-Extracted Mahogany and Other Challenges
A simple lumber mill can cost upward of 20k. The Mexican Madera (wood) market only values over-extracted Mahogany and finds little use for the other more abundant species, therefore making it more difficult for the ejido to sell their more sustainable lumber options. Effects of climate change have reared its ugly head and can be spotted in the dried up Chicozapote trees which once dripped abundantly with chicle (another form of income generation). Two years after Hurricane Dean ripped through (which we can speculate as a side-effect of climate change), the ejido is still left expending energy on reforestation efforts--and the cost of Mahogany has since plummeted due to its fallen trunks scattered over the forest floor.
A dried up Chicozapote tree.
With few answers to the list of challenges it would be delusional to not sense the air of solemnity hovering the ejido. Finding themselves with little work, I spot some ejido members drinking mid-day--a visual reminder that the forest cannot be sustained until poverty levels are decreased and pride-instilling productivity increased.
The Maya Forest's Future--if Not Forgotten...
What I can't fail to notice however, are the open and welcoming arms and enthusiasm the organization directors and employees of TNC and OEPF have for our visit and interest. There may not be any easy answers but they're asking all the right questions and continuously seeking solutions to help diversify the Maya Forest's sustainable sources of income.
Sure, the Amazon faces similar challenges and its incredible importance should never be discounted. But I do believe that the Maya Forest for all of its cultural and biodiversity deserves and needs equal environmental attention. Surely there's enough room for it to share the limelight.