Illicit cattle ranching drives 23% decline in Central America’s three biggest forest blocks


The five forest blocks analysed in the Wildlife Conservation Society's forthcoming study Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society

The three largest forest blocks in Central America have shrunk by 23% in the past 15 years, almost entirely due to illegal cattle ranching, according to a forthcoming study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

The study, titled Human Footprint and Cow’s Hoofprint, used satellite imagery, census data, interviews and plane-based surveys to analyse deforestation in Central America’s five largest forest blocks:

  • The Maya forest in Guatemala, Mexico and Belize;
  • The Moskitia forest in Honduras and Nicaragua;
  • The Indio-Maiz Tortoguero forest in Nicaragua and Costa Rica;
  • La Amistad forest in Costa Rica and Panama;
  • The Darien forest in Panama

The central role of illegal cattle ranching in the Maya, Moskitia and Indio-Maiz forests was determined through a series of systematic aerial surveys with small, low flying aircraft to identify land use in each cleared area.

“The disappearance of huge swaths of forests over such a short time period has grave implications for the indigenous peoples in the region and the natural resources on which they depend,” said Victor Hugo Ramos, Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist for the WCS Mesoamerica program.

The study also found that the expansion of legal palm oil plantations is playing an important role in catalysing illegal deforestation, by displacing ranchers, who subsequently look for land in protected areas.

About 70 percent of Central America’s forests are managed by the indigenous communities that rely on them for their livelihoods. Activists and community members who resist the advance of illegal cattle ranching have been assassinated and sent repeated death threats. According to Global Witness, Central America has the highest per capita murder rate of environmental defenders in the world.

The clearances also imperil species such as jaguars, tapirs and scarlet macaws. A recent study highlighted the plight of the white-lipped peccary, a keystone species for Central American forests. herds of white-lipped peccaries roam large swathes of forest in search of fruit and food, providing a vital prey species for jaguars. As such, their presence serves as an indicator of forest health and connectivity. The study found that they have been eradicated from 87 percent of their historical range in Central America, surviving only in a few of the region’s largest remaining forests.

In advance of its publication, Human Footprint and Cow’s Hoofprint was presented to indigenous groups, protected area agencies and civil society organisations from nine countries in the region. In response, the groups drew up a joint commitment which they named the ‘Petén declaration’. Signed by 25 organisations, the declaration recognises the causes of forest loss and commits to five concrete actions aimed at recovering the region’s forests:

  • Supporting local forests and indigenous communities to obtain land management;
  • Strengthening the conservation of protected areas;
  • Supporting the prosecution of environmental crimes;
  • Focusing on illegal livestock as the main driver of deforestation;
  • Protecting environmental champions who risk their lives to protect Central America’s large forests.

Human Footprint and Cow’s Hoofprint was conducted by WCS in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Organization of American States. A final report will be published in the next two months.

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