Guatemala, like many developing countries in the tropics, continues to destroy pristine, old growth forests in exchange for opening up more land for cattle and agriculture. With an exploding population, high rates of poverty, lack of access to secondary education, and antiquated agricultural practices, Guatemala is facing all of the conditions for a “perfect storm” of deforestation and land degradation in the coming ten years.
In the country as a whole, Guatemala continues to see rapid and increasing deforestation. The following statistics from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization: Global Forest Resources Assessment (2005 & 2010) portray a shocking reality.
Deforestation in Guatemala: tracking by decade
Primary Forest (old growth forest) (in increments of 1000 hectares)
Annual rate of change (loss of old growth in hectares)
Annual rate of change (percent)
Deforestation threatens most of the cloud forests of Guatemala. The conservation priority of these areas is sky high. As John Roach writes in his National Geographic article on cloud forests:
“Now, cloud forests are rising to the top of the world’s scientific and conservation agenda. But will scientists learn enough about these important ecosystems to be able to convince the world to conserve them before they are gone forever?”*1
CCFC is working to bring attention to the plight of these endangered forests and forest fragments before it is too late.
Map delineating deforestation in CCFC’s work area from 1986 to 2009 Map made by Ian Pope. Ian researched deforestation and cloud forest loss in the areas above 2,000 meters between the years 1986 and 2009. His results found that the rate of deforestation accelerated by the decade.
The map: area of light green represents the area above 2,000m. The area of dark green represents presence of cloud forest in 2009. The area of red represents deforested cloud forest area lost between 1986 and 2009.
Three Big Problems Caused By the Deforestation of Cloud Forests
It’s not just about trees. It’s about so much more than that. Here are three of the most obvious:
Carbon and Climate Change
Tropical forests cover less than 2% of the earth’s surface and yet are home to between 50% and 80% of the total species of the earth’s plants and animals. The vast majority of forest loss on earth over the last 50 years has been in the tropics. This means between 50% to 80% of the earth’s total biodiversity has been losing its home as the destruction of tropical forests continues apace.
Cloud forests, a subset of tropical forests, like lowland tropical forests have very high levels of biodiversity. But cloud forests have a special status. While cloud forests are not quit as biologically diverse as low land tropical forests, they are much, much higher in the occurrence rates of endemic species. Endemism rates in cloud forests are higher than in any other forest type.*2 In other words, any given cloud forest, is very likely to be home to a plant or animal species that doesn’t live anywhere else on the planet except in that specific zone, region or area. Because Guatemala is a country rich in cloud forests, Guatemala is also a country rich in endemic species. In fact, “Guatemala has the highest rate of species endemism in Central America” and of all of Guatemala’s endemic species, 8.1% are threatened according to Convention on Biological Diversity.
Within CCFC’s focus area, there are several species of tree frogs that have only ever been found in the cloud forest of one specific mountain. When these forests are lost, so are the species that live in them, forever. Deforestation in Guatemala threatens the treasure of our global biological heritage.
This is where cloud forests really stand out in the grand scheme of things. Cloud forests are like natural water towers. When deforestation occurs in a cloud forest, the amount of precipitation is decreased, springs dry up and the climate is locally dryer and hotter. Deforestation also affects run off. A cloud forest functions like an enormous sponge. When there is a hard rain, very little water runs off. When the forest is removed and replaced by a cattle pasture or a corn field, the water runs off directly. Studies have been conducted on the absorption value of different kinds of forest types and land cover. Cloud forests have a much higher absorption capacity than other types of forest. That water is what percolates down to recharge springs. When the forest is lost, the absorption capacity is also lost. Hard rains create rapid runoff, flash flooding*3 and landslides*4 That means less water percolating down to recharge the springs. Cloud forests catch the rain and release it slowly.*4 To learn more about cloud forests and water see above.
Carbon and Climate Change
The United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs report from Cancun, Mexico (2010) states:
Deforestation causes 12-18 percent of the world’s carbon emission, almost equal to all the CO2 emissions from the global transport sector. Our forests are home to 80% of all terrestrial biodiversity. However, we are losing our forests at an incredibly high rate. Each year more than 13 million hectares (32 million acres) of forests are lost, an area roughly the size of England.*5
Forests are like enormous vaults of biomass-stored carbon. Slash and burn agriculture turns biomass-stored carbon into atmospheric carbon, exacerbating the problem of global climate change.*6 It is estimated that today Guatemala’s forests cover 32% of the country and contain 281 million metric tons of carbon in living forest biomass. That is 281,000,000 metric tons of carbon locked up in Guatemala’s forests.*7
Photo by Rob Cahill, San Antonio Las Puertas, Sierra Yalijux, Alta Verapaz
Aerial view, San Antonio Las Puertas / Chelemha’, Sierra Yalijux, Alta Verapaz
Burning degrades organic matter in the soil and worsens nutrient runoff and erosion. Sierra Yalijux, Alta Verapaz
Photo by David Unger, Sierra Yalijux, Alta Verapaz
3 Houghton R (2012) Carbon emissions and the drivers of deforestation and forest degradation in the tropics. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 4:597–603
4 Köhler L., Hölscher D., and Leuschner C. (2006) “Above-ground Water and Nutrient Fluxes in Three Successional Stages of Costa Rican Montaine Oak Forest with Contrasting Epiphyte Abundance” in Ecology and Conservation of Neotropical Montane Oak Forests M. Kappella (ed.) Ecology Studies 185 pp. 271-282
5Robledo C, Fischler M, Patino A (2004) Increasing the resilience of hillside
communities. Mountain Research and Development 24:14–18
6 (foot note: Bradshaw CJA, Sodhi NS, Peh KSH, Brook BW (2007) Global evidence that deforestation amplifies flood risk and severity in the developing world. Global Change Biology 13:2379–2395)
7 United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization: Global Forest Resources Assessment (2005 & 2010)