is a small country, with an area of only 108,899 km2. It is crossed by a moutain
range that spans the territory from the west to the southeast, where it drops
abruptly to sea level. This is how, in a little more than 60 kilometers in a
straight line, you can move from one protected area, Tajumulco Volcano, at 4220
meters in elevation, to another, Manchón Guamuchal, at sea level. The
north of the country is predominantly low plains, with hills that rarely surpass
500 meters in elevation. In the highlands the landscape is typical of more temperate
regions, with the presence of conifers and oak trees (Quercus sp.), while in
the low areas the vegetation is thick and abundant, as is characteristic of
more tropical zones. The Mayan Forest is found in the north, shared with Mexico
and Belize, encompassing the largest area of tropical forest in the world outside
of the Amazon.
The geographic differences and the variety
of climate are what give the country seven distinct ecoregions. In the south,
the Pacific Ocean gives rise to the mangrove forests, which occupy the entire
coast line and even a little ways inland, slowly mixing with the temporal and
permanent humid forests. The Pacific dry forest begins to appear further inland,
although it has been driven nearly extinct by pressure from humans. As the altitude
increases toward the mountains, another type of forest occurs, the Sierra Madre
humid forest, an oak-pine forest found in the mountainous regions of Central
America. The Sierra Madre accounts for most of the vegetation in the high altitudes.
On the Atlantic side, the humid forests almost reach the sea. The Sierra de
las Minas, the most well conserved cloud forest in Central America, impedes
the passage of the humid winds from the south, where a very rare and threatened
ecoregion, the thorny thicket of the Valley of the Motagua, grows. The humid
forest of Tehuantepec flourishes in the north, a place of virgin forests where
buried traces of the old Mayan Civilization still remain.
Guatemala has a remarkable level of biological
diversity, with 250 species of mammals, 463 of birds and 342 species of reptiles
and amphibians registered. Of the 8681 species of well known plants, slightly
more than 13% are locally endemic. In the central mountains, 70% of the vascular
plants are endemic. The tropical forest is also very rich in species exclusive
to the Mayan Forest.
Human activities are putting this amazing
biological wealth in grave danger. Nearly 1.7% of forest was lost annually between
1990 and 2000, which has been explained by a sharp increase in population and,
above all, by a very unstable sociopolitical climate. Currently, only 30% of
the protected area in the national parks have a sufficient level of long-term
stability. The management of the protected areas is still incipient, having
few resources and scarce personnel. Some of the areas do not even have any type
of border demarcation or measurements, as has happened with some 25 zones created
in 1955. Official statistics show 99 areas in the country if buffer zones and
multiple use zones are included as separate units. However, it is difficult
to establish the exact number of protected areas in Guatemala due to the lack
of any real criteria on how to count them.
National System of Protected Areas
The regulation of protected areas is
recognized under Decree 4-89, which creates the Guatemalan National Park System,
and designates 17 different categories of management. The National Council of
Protected Areas is the agency responsible for the management of the park system.
It is under the direction of the Minister of the Environment, and coordinated
by an executive office of the secretary. The Council has the ability to operate
autonomously and is allocated yearly funds by the national budget.