Clear cutting of Yucatan’s peninsula Maya Jungle has led to massive flooding

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This year, in which several tropical storms and hurricanes hit southeastern Mexico, the vulnerability of a territory that loses its forest reserves became evident.

A little over ten years ago, Leidy Pech and her Mayan companions were already warning him. In the municipality of Hopelchén, in Campeche, in southern Mexico, deforestation was progressing uncontrollably, large tracts of the Maya Forest were transformed into immense fields of cultivation. Agribusiness, they said, was changing the face of their communities and the mountains. What they denounced a decade ago still continues.

Leidy Pech, her Mayan companions, and around  16,000 families from all over the Yucatan Peninsula, are dedicated to beekeeping; an activity that depends on the forest being standing and in good condition.

Most honey producers have hives of the best-known bee,  Apis mellifera , but Leidy Pech and her companions were determined to rescue the ancient practices of honey production and to conserve a native bee, which has no sting and that makes its hives inside hollow logs. Science calls this bee  Melipona beecheii,  for the Mayans, it is the Xunáan Kab, “the lady of honey.”

A little more than ten years ago, Leidy Pech and the Mayan women of the communities of the Hopelchén municipality began to see how they were running out of pieces of forest, how their bees died from pesticides,  how when “throwing the mountain” they lost flowers endemic that are the food of the nearly  200 native bees that scientists have identified only in the Yucatan Peninsula and how opening large fields of cultivation also modified the hydrological systems of the region.

It was for this reason that, along with other initiatives – the  Muuch Kambal Organization and the  Collective of Mayan Communities of the Chenes – have not ceased to denounce the advance of deforestation in the Yucatan Peninsula, its consequences, and the impunity that has allowed land use is changed.

According to data from the Global Forest Watch platform, between 2001 and 2019, only the municipality of Hopelchén lost 186,000 hectares of tree cover, which is equivalent to a 20% decrease from what was had in 2000.

Dr. Edward Allan Ellis, from the  Centro de Investigaciones Tropicales at the Universidad Veracruzana and who has conducted several studies on deforestation in the Yucatán Peninsula, points out that in Hopelchén,  the deforestation rate is five times higher than the national average.

Mennonite field Santa Fe, Hopelchén, Campeche, remained flooded for more than three months. Significant flooding still persisted in November. 

Vulnerable to storms and hurricanes

In the first weeks of November, the media showed images of the floods and damage caused by  Hurricane Eta in places like Tabasco and Chiapas, in southeastern Mexico; as well as in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Territories where the jungle and mangroves have also lost ground.

Months before, at the beginning of June, in the state of Campeche, it rained as it had not been remembered years ago. During five days, half of the rains were registered, which, on average, falls during a year in the region, according to the National Water Commission (Conagua). It was not a hurricane, but two tropical storms with low-intensity winds – Amanda and Cristóbal – that caused a whole schism and showed the vulnerability of a territory that loses its forest cover.

Leidy Pech recounts how the rain stopped for five days: “On June 4 my community Ich Ek and almost all the communities of Hopelchén were flooded. We saw how the water level was rising and did not stop. Since hurricanes Opal and Roxana (which were category 4 and occurred in 1995) we have not had floods of this magnitude ”.

According to a damage assessment carried out by civil organizations and groups of beekeepers and agroecological farmers, the storms caused damage to more than 120 communities in the Yucatan Peninsula. In Campeche, where honey production is one of the main economic activities, 93% of the hives were affected, 28% of them were lost. The territory hardest hit was the municipality of Hopelchén, where 22 villages suffered severe flooding and at least  3,500 families were affected.

The roads became rivers; something unusual in the Yucatan Peninsula, a territory that, due to its geological formation, only has underground water currents. Communities such as  San Juan Bautista Sahcabchén, 19 kilometers from the municipal seat, were cut off for more than eight days. In the area they looked at the corpses of animals; also the remains of the wooden boxes that had functioned as beehives.

Sahcabchén is a community that is surrounded by deforested lands to transform them into farming areas. Around it, for example, is the Santa Fe Mennonite field. The storm transformed that place into a large lake; it remained so for more than three months.

Like Sahcabchén, the town of Xcalot Akal is surrounded by deforested land, its neighbor is the Santa Rosa Mennonite field. “The water came from the Mennonite field. The water began to rise and we were barely able to take shelter in the highest places in the town ”, recalls Adriana Cauich, who lives in Xcalot Akal.

Álvaro Mena is a member of the indigenous and peasant organization  Ka Kuxtal Much ‘Meyaj. During the days of the emergency, he and other residents of Hopelchén toured the region and reviewed satellite images to document the damage. It was thus that they identified that in the places where it was deforested, and which are now monoculture fields or cattle areas, the floods were more intense. Among these areas, the Mennonite fields of Santa Fe, Nuevo Progreso, and Nuevo Durango stand out; as well as the Paal Pool Valley, in the community of Chunchintok.

“The great deforestation of the jungle and coastal areas has generated a great impact on the entire territory of the Yucatan Peninsula: contamination of soils, water, loss of biodiversity …  By not having healthy ecosystems, we do not have natural barriers to impacts of storms and hurricanes ”, explains the doctor in geography and master in environmental engineering Yameli Aguilar Duarte, from the National Institute of Agricultural and Livestock Forensic Research (INIFAP).

Deforestation of jungle for agribusiness

The municipality of Hopelchén —as well as the entire Yucatan Peninsula— is home to part of the  Maya Forest, which extends from southeastern Mexico to Belize and northern Guatemala and is considered the second-largest massif of tropical forest in the continent.

Losing forest cover in the Mayan Jungle is not something minor: the territory where species considered at risk of extinction such as the jaguar or the tapir lives; the diversity of species is affected —for example, of pollinators such as bees—, forest reserves are lost that contribute to mitigating climate change.

In Hopelchén, forest loss has a long history, but it has intensified in the last decade.

For almost ten years (1972-1983), Mexico had a  National Clearing Program whose objective was to cut down the forest to promote agriculture. It was also through a government program – Chunchintok residents recall – that the Paal Pool Valley was deforested.

Guillermo León, who lives in Chunchintok, mentions that in the 1970s the land-use change of ejido lands —at least 12,500 hectares— was made to plant rice; “Although it produced the production, those who handled it said that it was not enough to pay the loan.”

Indalecio Canul Uc, from the same community, comments that the government program that promoted the transformation of the Paal Pool Valley lasted three years and only 5,000 hectares of the more than 12,500 deforested were used. Today these lands are used as livestock areas and in each rainy season, they are filled with water.

Starting in the eighties, new areas began to be deforested in the area. This came about with the arrival of Mennonite communities – dedicated to large-scale agriculture – from Durango and Chihuahua who settled, above all, in Campeche and, especially, in the municipalities of Hopelchén and Hecelchakán.

In the study  “Drivers of deforestation and perception of changes in land use in livestock landscapes in three municipalities of Campeche, Mexico”, researcher Hanna Rae Warren points out that “Mennonites can be seen as important agents of deforestation; highly effective in changing land use to mechanized uses ”.

For her study, Rae Warren interviewed forestry researchers who highlighted that “the elimination of (forest) cover with mechanization is usually permanent, extensive and the soils are worked to the point of degradation”.

Read the full report on Mongabay Latam 

The Yucatan Post