• Lack of coordination between the administrative agencies
• Lack of vigilance and budget
• Illegal drug cultivation and illegal immigrants using the park as a travel route
• Looting of the archeological sites
• Illegal extraction of forest products
• Illegal fishing and hunting
• Logging activity in the surrounding areas, outside the park
• Proposed oil exploration projects in surrounding areas
• Proposed highway construction in the park
• Proposed large-scale tourism in the park
Lack of coordination
One characteristic of the park administration that stands out is the lack of coordination between IDAEH and CONAP, which has resulted in a lack of clear and consistent short-term and long-term objectives for the park. By examining the park plans of each agency, the lack of agency coordination becomes evident. IDAEH is supporting a proposal to develop large-scale tourism, but it appears that they have not considered the effect this development will have on the park's biological integrity. They propose investments for large-scale infrastructure (like roads) (IDAEH, 1999), which without a doubt will negatively affect the conservation status of the park. CONAP, on the other hand, works to maintain the conservation status and biodiversity of the park (CONAP, 1999a). Despite the lack of coordination at the agency level, thanks to the efforts of the park directors, the employees in the park do coordinate their activities.
Lack of vigilance and budget
Although the Maya Biosphere Reserve receives more financial support for control and vigilance than any other protected area in Guatemala (APESA, 1999), El Mirador-Río Azul National Park lacks necessary personnel and financial support. There are a total of 37 employees working in El Mirador-Río Azul, which theoretically means that they are each responsible to care for 3,000 ha. In reality, the situation is much worse since the 37 employees are not full-time, and 21 of them are dedicated to protecting the archeological sites. Not only is there a lack of human capacity, the infrastructure and financial resources for this park are scarce.
Illegal drug cultivation and illegal immigrants using the park as a travel route
The lack of vigilance and the remote location of the park have made it possible for illegal activities to take place. Satellite images and field observations demonstrate that inside the protected area limits, drug cultivation exists. According to the employees of IDAEH and CONAP, drug cultivation puts them at risk and it is a serious security problem. But, drug cultivation is not necessarily a risk to the forest, because the forest provides the coverage needed to hide the cultivation. The drug cultivators therefore have incentive to protect the forest.
Another illegal activity that threatens the park is the illegal immigrants passing through the zone. Traditionally, the route is to the west of El Mirador, but occasionally the immigrants use alternative routes that pass through the park. These illegal activities set uneasy conditions and serious threats in the future administration of the park.
Looting of the archeological sites
Looting of the archeological sites has been occurring for many years and is common throughout the park. Despite IDAEH's efforts to control the looting, it continues to be a serious problem. During the visits to the park in February 2001, ParksWatch verified that the majority of archeological sites (both large and small) have suffered from severe looting. ParksWatch identified an illegal excavation close to the principal plaza of El Mirador. The looters even have the audacity to rob pieces that are located only several meters from the watchmen's living quarters in the park.
The market for the Mayan pieces encourages this looting in the park. Pieces from the Classic Period of the Mayan civilization reap high prices. A looter can make up to 70,000 quetzales for an intact vase that is decorated with human figures. To put this in perspective, in the community of Carmelita, a person making a decent salary must work four years to earn as much as a looter makes from one such vase (Trujillo, 2001, com. pers.).
Paintings inside one of the tombs, Rio Azul
Illegal extraction of forest products
Logging, of mostly mahogany, began years ago in the Río Azul section of the park. The route most widely used to extract the mahogany came from Río Bravo National Park in Belize. Currently, logging in the park seems to have stopped. There are many factors that could have changed the logging trend. Among those factors are the forestry law that permits logging in areas that are not protected and the community and industrial concessions that have been granted in the Multiple Use Zone of the MBR.
The Protected Areas Law (1989) prohibits the extraction of non-timber products from the national parks. Nevertheless, temporary encampments exist in El Mirador and are used by extractors of chicle (Manilkara spp) and xate palm (Chamaedorea spp).
Chicle is the latex of the "chicozapote" or sapodilla tree (Manilkara zapota) that is used as the natural base for chewing gum. Chicle is collected by chopping a herringbone pattern of shallow cuts down to the tree's cambium. A collecting bag is fastened to the tree's base to collect the latex that flows from the cuts. Xate is an ornamental palm leaf collected from three understorey palms of the genus chaemadorea. The leaves can be harvested sustainably with no harm to the plant if only few leaves are removed from each palm.
During visits to the park, ParksWatch verified that some of the trees used for chicle extraction had died. ParksWatch estimates that this activity does not pose a significant threat to the forest because there is not a large market for the chicle resin. However, since no scientific studies have been done on this subject, it is impossible to calculate the true impact that chicle extraction has on the forest.
Measuring the impacts of the xate extraction is even more difficult because the damages are less evident. The commercialization of the palm is on the increase and there is growing scarcity of the species in the south because of over harvest (Balas, 2000, com. pers). This activity probably occurs frequently and the rate of extraction seems to be rising.
Illegal fishing and hunting
The Protected Areas Law prohibits fishing and hunting inside of national parks. In El Mirador-Río Azul these activities only occur sporadically and are small-scale when they do occur. This is due to the fact that El Mirador-Río Azul is an isolated, distant place and there are no permanent residents inside the park. Fishing and hunting occurs when the extractors of non-timber products are in the park. During ParksWatch visit in February, we saw one person fishing. Although there is proof that these activities occur, they are not among the biggest threats to the park.
Logging activity in surrounding areas
Forestry concessions in the Multiple Use Zones of the MBR were developed with the goals of conserving biological and cultural resources, preventing deforestation and promoting the economic and social development of the communities located in the zone (CONAP, 1999d). With these concessions, the state assigned community and industrial groups the right to use forest products from predetermined areas.
Fundamentally, the concessions are supposed to be a "sustainable" way to use and manage the renewable natural resources of the area while at the same time conserving and protecting the forest and improving the quality of life for the local people (Carrera et al, 2000). In this way, the Multiple Use Zone serves its purpose to absorb human impacts and to preserve the Core Zones of MBR. From 1994 to 2001, fifteen concessions (13 communal and two industrial) have been legalized and extend 560,000 ha.
There are four concessions (three community and one industrial) located near the southern and western borders of El Mirador-Río Azul. The total area of these concessions is 222,499 ha. Of that, more than 170,000 ha are dedicated to the extraction of timber and non-timber products (CATIE/CONAP, 2000a). In addition, another community concession is planned.
According to the organizations that promote concessions, this mechanism has been successful. Some successes they highlight include stopping the advancement of the agricultural frontier, controlling immigrants, protecting the integrity of the ecosystem and certification of timber products (Carrera et al, op.cit.). Unfortunately, our analysis suggests otherwise.
First of all, there are no data showing the relationship between concessions and rate of deforestation. Secondly, although certification implies that the forest is being harvested in a "sustainable" way, it does not guarantee that the biology and the forest dynamics will remain intact. In only a few of the forestry concessions have serious monitoring efforts been implemented to assess the concessions impacts on biodiversity. Currently, it is not clear if these concessions are helping the conservation of the Maya Biosphere Reserve or if they are harming it. If, in the future, the community and industrial concessions do not achieve the anticipated results, and the forestry activities in these areas prove to be unsustainable, it is possible that logging could return to the protected areas of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. This poses a threat to Mirador-Río Azul National Park.
Proposed oil exploration projects in surrounding areas
In 1997, the Guatemalan Government, through the Ministry of Energy and Mining, received permission to explore for oil in three areas of the Multiple Use Zone of MBR. These areas contain more than 252 thousand ha (which is one sixth of the total area of the Reserve). Two of the regions, designated A-1 97 and A-2 97 by the Ministry, were located near the southern boundary of El Mirador-Río Azul, north of Carmelita and Uaxactún (Albacete, 1999).
Strong local and national opposition helped create an unprecedented public campaign against the project. In response to this strong opposition, the Guatemalan Government and the Ministry of Energy and Mining actually backed off and did not proceed with the project. Yet, the plans still do exist, and legally oil exploration in the A-2 97 region could begin at any moment. This is a dangerous threat to El Mirador-Río Azul National Park. Based on the public's rejection of the original oil exploration plans, it does not seem likely that this activity will be implemented anytime in the foreseeable future.
Highway construction project
Over the last nine years, several highway projects have been proposed in the Maya Biosphere Reserve that would directly and negatively affect El Miradro-Río Azul. In 1992, the General Secretary of Economic Planning prepared a development plan for Petén, which included provisions to promote tourism in El Mirador (SEGEPLAN, 1992). In 1999, IDAEH continued with this same plan and designed a tourism strategy for Petén through the year 2015. The strategy includes the construction of a highway that reaches Río Azul and a proposal to complete a highway that would unite Mexico's Calakmul Biosphere with El Mirador (IDAEH, 1999). The objective of the project is to create better access to the currently isolated archeological sites and encourage tourists to stay in Petén for several days. This project, and others like it in Petén, is intended to stimulate economic development.
In June 2001, yet another highway project was proposed. The Inter-American Development Bank and Mundo Maya's Sustainable Development Program funded a study to identify the priority corridors for tourist investment in Mundo Maya (Godoy, 2001). This study recommends constructing two highways that cross El Mirador-Río Azul National Park. Almost immediately after the study's publication, the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism adhered to the proposal in a document that detailed their strategy to promote the proposal (Inguat, 2001).
The risks of constructing highways through tropical forests are evident. In 1988, research by Janvry demonstrated that the primary cause of tropical deforestation in Latin America was highway construction (Janvry, 1988 cited by Beavers, 1992). Studies of satellite images have demonstrated that, in the MBR, deforestation and highway construction are directly related. One investigation by Sader (1994) demonstrated that the relationship between the rate of deforestation in MBR and highways was particularly strong during 1986-1990. In his case study, Sader found that 96% of the deforestation was located within 2 kilometers surrounding the highway built through the forest. More recently, CONAP has shown that the deforestation has expanded out 5 km on each side of that highway (CONAP, 2001b). See the news from August 2001.
In addition, constructing infrastructure inside of national parks is a violation of the Protected Areas Law of Guatemala (1989). The law limits any human activity that could damage the essential ecological processes of a protected area. CONAP opposes the highway project proposed by Mundo Maya. Despite these laws and agency opposition, highway construction has become a permanent threat.
Large-scale tourism projects
The national park has been viewed for several years as a potential tourist destination. The state projects have suggested that highway construction will encourage the development of tourism. In addition to the highway threat, large-scale tourism poses other threats to El Mirador-Río Azul.
One project, presented by PRIANPEG in January 2001, illustrates the additional potential threats of tourism. Richard Hansen, an archeologist with PRIANPEG, proposed creating Mirador Watershed National Park, which would modify the current limits of El Mirador-Río Azul. This park would be larger than the current park, but Río Azul would not be included in the new limits. That means that Río Azul would completely lose its national park status and it would instead become part of the Multiple Use Zone of MBR. After the new park is established, infrastructure would be built in order to attract the 120,000 Tikal tourists to this park. The tourism development project would establish eco-tourism centers and a runway for airplanes (or a landing pad for helicopters) close to El Mirador archeological site, inside of the national park. In addition to increasing tourism, the project includes an ambitious multidisciplinary investigation program, and would create jobs for locals and incentives for local people to reduce deforestation (Hanson, 2000).
This project presented by PRIANPEG did not include any studies regarding the park's capacity to sustain this number of tourists. There were no biological or ecological studies completed that would justify changing the park limits. The proposal ignored the activities that are already occurring in the zone, such as the forest management and the extraction of the non-timber products. Additionally, the proposal ignored the protected areas legislation. Yet, the Executive Secretary of the Presidency, the Guatemalan Institute for Tourism and IDAEH decided to support the project. CONAP opposed changing the park limits (CONAP, 2001c) and distanced itself from the project. The local communities also objected and felt that the plan was not feasible since it did not consider their rights to use the forest nor did it include precise information (ACOFOP, 2001). The plans for creating this new park have stopped. But like highway construction projects, grand-scale tourism is an eminent threat.