As I flew into the airport outside of Flores, Guatemala, in a propeller plane filled with colleagues from CI and the Wildlife Conservation Society, I was looking forward to see the impressive expanse of northern Guatemalan rainforests that I remembered as a child.
The rain forests in the state of Petén are the largest unbroken forests between Brazil and Canada. In addition, the Petén is home to countless species of exotic birds, plants and mammals, as well as the site of wondrous Mayan archaeological sites, such as Tikal. By the way, if you’ve ever seen the original “Star Wars,” remember the massive rainforests that are the rebel base at the end of the movie? That’s Tikal.
I was excited to have a window seat, as this would be my first look at this forest from the air. My parents always chose to drive us here instead of fly – maybe they figured a good seven hour drive would be good for us?
Expecting to see the lake of Petén Itzá surrounded by green lush forests on all sides, what I saw instead was striking. The lake stood out, but so did the smoke from nearby fires. Instead of lush forests everywhere, I saw forests competing with ever-growing pasture land and large excavation sites for oil or minerals. Rather than an encompassing green blanket, the forests are only patches in a quilt.
The government of Guatemala is currently putting together climate change legislation that hopes to address this critical deforestation issue. I’m here to meet with government officials, NGOs and local communities to learn how these groups are working together to craft this ambitious road map, which could very well lead the way to Guatemala becoming an international leader in demonstrating the potential of initiatives for REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, “plus” conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks).
The challenges are severe – including economic pressure to exploit the country’s natural resources, illegal logging, and surging population trends – but the opportunities are great. Guatemala is taking significant and ambitious first steps, but the long-term plan must include international help – especially from the United States, a long time regional ally.
In the next few days, my colleagues and I will be walking these jungles and meeting with local communities and indigenous peoples. We’ll be experiencing firsthand how deforestation is being addressed by Guatemala. From my window seat, it’s clear there’s a lot of work to be done.
Manuel Oliva is CI’s Director of U.S. Climate Policy.