Forests of Hope site - Selva Maya, Mexico

Making tortillas in local community in Calakmul. Photo by M.Andrade.
Making tortillas in local community in Calakmul. Photo by M.Andrade.

Site name: Selva Maya

Country: Mexico

Location: In the Yucatan Peninsula of SE Mexico: Campeche State, bordering with Guatemala’s Petén Region and Belize.

Site area: 1 million ha




Values of the site

At 2.5 million hectares, the Maya Forest is one of the world’s largest remaining blocks of tropical forest, and the largest in Latin America outside the Amazon Basin. The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve forms the heart of the Maya Forest in Mexico.

The ecological importance of the Reserve is truly astonishing. More than 375 plant species found in the Reserve are found nowhere else on Earth. Its old-growth forests, seasonally inundated lowland forests and wetlands provide refuge for rare and endangered species. More than 350 species of resident and migratory birds have been observed in the Reserve. The Reserve and the broader Maya Forest region are a haven for neotropical migrant birds, with 127 species either resident in or migrating through this region every winter. The Reserve’s forests provide habitat to as many as 1/3 of the three to five billion migratory birds wintering in the Yucatán.

One of the main environmental services provided by the forests is water. As the Yucatan Peninsula has no surface water bodies (rivers or lakes), the only source of water is rainfall. In a flat, karstic environment, Calakmul contains the highest point in the Peninsula, at 350 m. Most of the rainfall percolates through the limestone and provides for water supply for the 5 million inhabitants of Yucatan. Protecting this “water factory” is essential for places as far away as Cancun, Merida or Campeche.

The Reserve’s large forest area makes it a vast carbon storehouse. Preventing the ongoing deforestation and forest degradation would therefore be a source of major carbon emissions reductions.

Land tenure in the Reserve is mostly communal.  The population is around 20,000 located in more than 80 communities. These local communities have a number of land use rights, and strongly depend on the forests for their livelihoods (mainly through agriculture and cattle farming).

The ancient Mayan City of Calakmul, Peninsula de Yucatan, Photo by Pronatura.


Key threats at the site include:

  • Subsistence slash and burn agriculture
  • Subsistence livestock farming (causing introduction of exotic pastures, annual burning, excessive use of agrochemicals, and direct persecution of jaguars and pumas which are considered a threat to livestock)
  • Subsistence hunting
  • Timber extraction (cedar and mahogany)
  • Unplanned development and construction of highways
  • Forest fires
  • Water extraction for human consumption and modification of hydrology
  • Invasive species introduction
  • Population growth (immigration and high birth rates)

Historical conservation approach

Around 90% of the Calakmul region is protected either by a state or federal reserve. Although protected by legal decrees, the region’s natural resources have remained under heavy pressure. Local communities, organized in ejidos, have certain land use rights. For the most part, the ejidos respect the restrictions within the core zones of the reserves, but agriculture and cattle ranching are increasingly entering protected areas.
The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is managed by the National Commission on Natural Protected Areas and has a director and a staff of park rangers. The Secretariat of Ecology manages the state reserves, but has few resources to support the area. There is a strong lack of resources; the reserves have no on-site staff, no infrastructure, with all management being undertaken from their Campeche offices.

White-fronted Parrot. Photo by Paul Wood.


New conservation approach

As 49% of the mature forests are within communal land (ejidos), working in collaboration with local communities is vital for successful viable conservation initiatives to be implemented. In Alliance with The Nature Conservancy, Pronatura developed the Parks in Peril Project (PiP) in Calakmul in 1991. The reserve had no staff, infrastructure or funding for conservation activities. With PiP funding, however, signs and guard stations were soon installed and radio communications and vehicles were provided for newly hired reserve staff.

Working with local stakeholders: PiP revived Calakmul’s Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), an organization designed to bring stakeholders and communities together. Today, the TAC supports community-based projects and ensures on-site management at Calakmul.

Partnerships with governmental institutions:  Both the National Commission on Natural Protected Areas and the Secretariat of Ecology are joining efforts with municipal authorities and NGOs to mitigate or eliminate the causes of deforestation in the region through strategies such as promotion of sustainable resources use and biodiversity conservation, promotion of alternative forestry and agricultural practises. 

Land acquisition and protection initiatives: In 2002, Pronatura, in close alliance with The Nature Conservancy and CONANP, initiated the purchase and long-term protection of 240,000 ha of communally owned, uninhabited lands in and around the reserve. In November 2004, 150,000 ha of threatened tropical forest in Calakmul were permanently protected under a historic land deal between the Mexican federal government, the Campeche state government, Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatán, four local communities and The Nature Conservancy.

Managing Fire: To reduce the threats from uncontrollable fires, and with the guidance of The Nature Conservancy, a Fire Management Plan for the reserve was developed. The plan outlines key activities in fire prevention, fire control, and community outreach and education.

Research alliances: Pronatura has also created research alliances with national and international organizations, universities and other institutions, which now support on-going conservation research and monitoring at the Reserve.

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