Ecology Watch

The following 2 mini-reports underline the continued urgency of the Brundtland Commission's 1987 UN report which warned that poverty was a major cause of environmental degradation:

Guatemala North American and European experts have warned that the Peten forest in Northern Guatemala will disappear in 25 years. The forest is larger than El Salvador, and is the lushest rain forest in the region, but illegal logging for its rich cedar and mahogany is reaping irreparable destruction.

Even though past-President Vinicio Cerezo outlawed shipping Peten wood to Mexico, the law is flagrantly ignored by the dozens of large trucks that can be seen on any given day transporting their illegal cargo across the border into Mexico. The trade is lucrative indeed: the average price for a single large tree is US$2000 much more than the average Guatemalan makes for a whole year! And in a land of increasingly dire poverty the allure of fast money has created something of a stampede to the region.

Until last year, logging permits were issued by the Federation for Peten Development, a military-run agency, which everyone knew was receiving kickbacks from lumber concerns. Then-President Cerezo disbanded the group, but as a result, anarchy reigned. With long delays in receiving logging permits, the number of illegal operators increased, with an almost total collapse of tree-planting and other environmental protection measures.

In an initially promising move in Feb. 1990, Cerezo created the Maya Biosphere National Reserve in Northern Guatemala, receiving US$26 million to do so from the US and Germany. Several hundred forest rangers were hired, but the guards were not allowed to arm themselves, nor were they allowed to seize smuggled lumber,. The only measure open to them was to call in the military. But the military largely has ignored their requests.

The Miami Herald (6 Jan 91) reported that the army was recently called in to seize seven truckloads of illegal timber, but they handed over only three of the trucks: the other four were owned and operated by an army colonel. The Herald also notes that Cerezo was well aware of the problem, although he insisted that such incidents are “less usual than before.”

Panama The overthrow of Noriega has affected even the trees. According to Juan Carlos Navarro, director of a Panamanian environmental group, the level of deforestation last year was the worst since Panama became independent in 1903.

There are several reasons for the increase. First, the economic collapse of Panama since the US embargo and invasion have forced people into rural areas to eke out some form of livelihood. Rain forest trees have been cut to build houses and to clear land for crops. Given the lack of alternatives, it is difficult to see what else the poor could do. Second, the breakdown of police functions since the invasion has left the rain forests unprotected from settlers. Third, though there was illegal lumbering during Noriega's time it was tightly controlled through a small but effective ring. As in Guatemala, there is now lumber anarchy in Panama.

In addition to the rain forests' importance to the ecosystem, the lakes and rivers of the region feed into the Panama canal. The water is necessary to maintain the system of locks. Already, deforestation has increased erosion (and decreased water retention) to such an extent that it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the canal deep enough during the dry seasons.

The canal is, of course, political dynamite. But all the politicking and strategic studies are rendered moot if there is no canal to speak of.

From Central America Update for Jan/Feb/91, Vol.xii, No.4, Ecology Watch, P. 47



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