On Yucatán Peninsula, slash and burn endangering forests

HICHIMILA, Yuc. – Since time immemorial, the Maya have inhabited the northern lowlands of what is now the state of Yucatán, a sun-drenched place where pre-Hispanic wooden shacks and dirt roads serve as a reminder of how little life has changed.

The local ecosystem, however, has changed considerably, and not much for the better. The dry tropical woodland has suffered widespread deforestation due to ranching and slash and burn, a nomadic farming practice the Maya have used for ages to sustain their families. Thousands of trees have been burned down to clear the way for cornfields or sacrificed for firewood and building material, threatening to irreversibly alter the area’s unique biodiversity.

In a painful irony, as slash-and-burn agriculture has intensified under pressure from the growing farming community, the resulting erosion and desertification have reduced crop yields. Now hundreds of hectares have been reduced to wasteland.

Photos special to the News/Diodora Bucur

Photos special to the News/Diodora Bucur

Three decades ago, forests accounted for 74 percent of Yucatán’s territory, or 3.2 million hectares, a number that dropped to 52 percent, or 2.2 million hectares by 2000, according to figures from the Yucatán Urban Development and Environment Secretariat. The state lost more than one million hectares of forestland between 1976 and 2000. Meanwhile, agricultural projects gained ground, increasing from 900,000 hectares to 1.8 million hectares over the same period of time.

“While slash and burn agriculture is part of the story, large government colonization projects in the 1970s and subsequent large agricultural projects, such as rice and cattle production, are a big factor in deforestation,” said Peter Klepeis, a professor of geography at Colgate University in New York who has investigated deforestation patterns in southern Mexico .

The Maya benefit from forest clearing in the short term because it provides a form of livelihood, Klepeis said. But over time, the process degrades natural resources, and that makes the Maya more vulnerable to ecological and social shocks such as hurricanes, weeds, soil fertility decline and market changes.

“Helping the Maya communities requires empowering them and expanding their range of choice for livelihood,” Klepeis said.

“In other words, part of the problem is poverty.”

Magdalena Matú Canul and her husband Agustin Kantun get by on only $100 per month. The young family lives in a modest one-room hut off the main road into the village of Chichimila, a one-hour drive from the Maya ruins of Chichén Itza.

“We learned how to use organic fertilizers to enrich the soil and grow fruit and vegetables,” said Matú Canul, a 28-year-old mother of two, while giving a tour of the garden where she grows potatoes, tomatoes, and “flor de jamaica,” or roselle, the plant used to make Mexico’s famous “agua de jamaica” drink.

Still, most farmers in this rural part of Yucatán believe that burning vegetation provides the best way of enriching the soil and controlling pests. That may be true if practiced on a small scale with enough time between burn-and-slash cycles for fields to recover, experts say. But slash and burn is generally carried out every year during the springtime dry season, resulting in soil erosion and desertification.

Italian-born Sigismundo Lucidi made his first trip to Yucatán during the month of April, when slash and burn occurs.

“I felt like I was going from wildfire to wildfire, the heat was infernal,” said Lucidi, who later set up a non-governmental organization with his wife, Angela Petruso Barreta, to combat the problem. They have now helped reforest 5,000 hectares of land around Valladolid in northern Yucatán.

“The villages had 15 to 20 families 50 years ago. Now each village holds up to 100 families, with many going into the fields and destroying the vegetation in order to plant corn,” Lucidi said. “It is their traditional way of working the land which will irreversibly lead to the destruction of forests and the entire flora and fauna.”

Lucidi saw the devastating effects of slash and burn during a flight over the Yucatán Peninsula three years ago.

“It was May 1, and when we landed in Mérida at 6 p.m. it was 42 degrees [Celcius] outside,” he said. “It wasn’t the sun, it was the thousands of hectares they were burning and the millions of cubic meters of carbon dioxide released into the air.”


Environmentalists argue that extensive tree cutting and burning contribute not only to soil erosion and desertification, but also to the increase of greenhouse gas emissions since forests are natural absorbers of carbon dioxide. Forests take decades, even generations, to recover.

According to Greenpeace Mexico , forest clearing is one of the main causes of deforestation in Mexico, along with illegal logging. The international environmental advocacy group places Mexico fifth among nations with the biggest deforestation rate. At 600,000 hectares of woodland lost every year, Mexico ‘s forests could disappear in the next six decades, the group warns.

“The most important cause [of deforestation] is a public policy that has been promoting for decades unrestricted logging and the expansion of agricultural boundaries, in different words, the destruction of forests with the purpose of turning them into crop fields and cattle ranches,” Greenpeace Mexico’s Web site states.

Meanwhile, Héctor Ruiz Barranco, head of the biodiversity conservation department at the Yucatán Urban Development and Environment Secretariat, says a state law protecting forests is currently under review. The law provides for preventive measures against forest fires, but offenders can only be prosecuted under federal law by PROFEPA, the law-enforcement wing of the federal Environment Secretariat, or SEMARNAT.

The Yucatán government has also undertaken a number of reforestation projects, including tree planting. But some critics are not impressed.

“Overall, my view of rehabilitation programs is somewhat cynical,” said Billie L. Turner, professor of environment and society at Arizona State University. “They mean well, but they are often implemented with the green belief that they work, with virtually no science on which the belief is based.”

Recently, Deputy Health Secretary Mauricio Hernández talked about the success of a Calderón administration plan to fight global warming by accelerating tree growth. His comments came during a forum in Mérida in December, only weeks before the project known as ProArbol was slammed by critics, who claimed that nearly half of the millions of trees planted in 2008 had already died.

“I support tree planting because it builds community and helps stabilize soils,” Klepeis said. “However, tree planting is a band-aid approach to the problem. What is needed is the kind of integrative approach that links poverty alleviation with selective use of nature reserves.”

Back at Matú Canul’s home, life changed for the better five years ago when her family stopped burning trees and began living off the parcel of land in their backyard.

“We didn’t know anything about organic farming before,” she said.