At the heart of the Mayan Biosphere in Petén, northern Guatemala, the Sierra Lacandón National Park harbors immense biodiversity and invaluable ecosystems, such as pristine rainforests and the Usumacinta river basin. Established in 1990, it’s the second largest national park in Guatemala, covering 501,300 acres (2,028 km2). Since 1999, FDN manages the park jointly with the National Council for Protected Areas – CONAP. Private donors as well as the Guatemalan government contribute with funding.
Since half of the park’s boundaries makes up the border between Mexico and Guatemala, Sierra del Lacandón serves as a biological corridor between the protected areas in both countries. Thanks to seven types of ecosystems, the park boasts the greatest biodiversity in the entire Petén department. Although the low mountain range has given the Sierra its name, the park is relatively flat and even includes some savannas. However, the lush rainforest dominates the scenery. A unique feature found in the park is the “cenotes,” a type of karstic sinkholes, often filled with turquoise water that reflects the canopy above.
Besides a large population of Moreletti crocodiles, the Usumacinta River is also home to unique aquatic species and bird populations. The river has been an important travel route since Pre-Columbian times and more than 30 archeological sites have been found in the area. The most famous reminiscence of the past is Piedras Negras, the moss-covered ruins of a Mayan city dating back to the 7th century BC. Nearby, the well-excavated ruins of Yaxchilán (Piedras Negras’ arch-enemy of antiquity) tower over the river on the Mexican side.
Many endangered animals, such as jaguars, pumas, and scarlet macaws, seek refuge in Sierra del Lacandón. In addition, over 300 bird species, including migrating populations, color the trees and skies of this spectacular lowland rainforest. This abundance of wildlife has allowed us to conduct research that has become the main scientific reference for various species. We keep consistent track of the ecosystems and carry out scientific investigations in the park. Also, we investigate and manage carbon sinks in the park.
The people currently living in the park’s southeastern part are predominantly ladinos (of mixed race) from Guatemala’s southern and eastern regions, though some Q'eqchi' Indians are from the departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz and the south of Petén. The people in the cooperatives in the park’s southern area, on the other hand, have been living in the Sierra Lacandón since before it was declared a national park. As a result, we work closely with the communities, teaching relevant skills and topics for example on sustainable development, climate change, and community formation. To create alternatives to extracting natural resources from the National Park we run sustainable forestry projects to help local people grow the native Ramón and pepper trees, as well as agroforestry projects that include native fruit trees. Moreover, our microcredit program helps individuals access funds to start small-scale businesses.
The location along an international border poses several challenges that the park rangers have to tackle on a daily basis, such as illegal squatting and extraction of natural resources (mainly wood, Xate plants, and poaching), human trafficking, and drug smuggling. During the dry season, wildfires are another major challenge to the park management.
In the future, we will strengthen the sustainable forestry and production programs and explore potential activities that can be carried out in the park, such as ecotourism and regional collaboration in terms of ecology and biodiversity.
Our impact in Sierra del Lacandón:
We have protected the park’s core zone by preventing and mitigating the main threats: wildfires, squatting, and illegal extraction of natural resources.
In agreement with several settlements bordering the National Park we have helped the communities resettle in areas further away from the park, in order to protect some of the areas crucial to conservation and to provide better conditions for human development outside the protected area.
We have developed good relationships with the people living in and around the park by keeping an open dialogue.
To create alternatives to extracting natural resources from the National Park we run sustainable forestry projects to help local people grow the native Ramón and pepper trees, as well as agroforestry projects that include native fruit trees.
We conduct research on endangered wildlife, particularly scarlet macaws and jaguars, and we consistently monitor the wildlife and water quality of the Usumacinta River.
We have established the locations of the Mayan ruins in the National Park and are now focusing our efforts on the conservation of the most significant sites: Piedras Negras, La Pasadita and El Tecolote.
© Roberto Quesada