This year, when several tropical storms and hurricanes hit the southeast of Mexico, the vulnerability of a territory losing its forest reserves became evident.
CAMPECHE Mexico (Animal Político) – A little over ten years ago, Leidy Pech and her Mayan companions gave the warning. In the municipality of Hopelchén, in Campeche, in the south of Mexico, deforestation was advancing unprecedented, large extensions of the Mayan Forest were being transformed into big crops. Agro-industry, they said, was changing the face of their communities and of the land too. What they denounced then, has been going on for a decade now, and the damage is overwhelming.
Leidy Pech, her Mayan companions, and about 16,000 families from all over the Yucatan Peninsula are dedicated to beekeeping, an activity that depends on the forest being standing and in a good state of conservation.
Most honey producers have hives of the best-known bee, the Apis mellifera, but Leidy Pech and her companions were determined to rescue the traditional practices of honey production and conserve a native bee, which has no sting and makes its hives inside hollow trunks. Science calls this bee Melipona beecheii. For the Mayans, it is the Xunáan Kab, “the lady of the 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 the jungle, how their bees were dying from pesticides, how they were losing endemic flowers that are the food of the nearly 200 species of native bees that scientists have identified in the Yucatan Peninsula alone, and how by opening large fields of crops the hydrological systems of the region were also being modified.
This is why, together with other initiatives – the Muuch Kambal Organization and the Chenes Mayan Community Collective – have not ceased to denounce the advance of deforestation in the Yucatan Peninsula, its consequences, and the impunity that has allowed land use to be changed.
According to data from the Global Forest Watch platform, between 2001 and 2019, the municipality of Hopelchén alone lost 186,000 hectares of tree cover, the equivalent of a 20% decrease from what it had in 2000.
Dr. Edward Allan Ellis of the Tropical Research Center of the Universidad Veracruzana, who has conducted several studies on deforestation in the Yucatan Peninsula, says that in Hopelchén, the deforestation rate is five times higher than the national average.
Vulnerable to storms and hurricanes
In the first weeks of November, the media showed images of the flooding and destruction caused by Hurricane Eta in places such as Tabasco and Chiapas in southeast Mexico and Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras. Territories where the jungle and mangroves have also lost ground.
Months before, at the beginning of June, it rained in the state of Campeche as it was unheard of years ago. For five days, half of the rain that falls on average during a year in the region was recorded, according to the National Water Commission (Conagua). It was not a hurricane, but two tropical storms with low-intensity winds – Amanda and Cristobal – that caused a whole schism and showed the vulnerability of a territory losing its forest cover.
Leidy Pech tells 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 not stopping. Since Hurricanes Opal and Roxana (Category 4 in 1995), we have not had flooding of this magnitude.
According to a damage assessment conducted by civil organizations and collectives of beekeepers and agroecological farmers, the storms caused 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% were lost. The most affected territory was the municipality of Hopelchén, where 22 villages were severely flooded, and at least 3500 families were affected.
The roads became rivers, something unusual in the Yucatan Peninsula, a territory that only has subway water currents due to its geological formation. Communities like San Juan Bautista Sahcabchén, 19 kilometers from the municipal capital, were cut off for more than eight days. In the area, animal corpses were seen, also the remains of the wooden crates that had functioned as beehives.
Sahcabchén is a community that is surrounded by land that has been deforested to make way for farming. Around it, for example, is the Santa Fe Mennonite camp. The storm transformed that place into a large lake; it remained that way for more than three months.
Like Sahcabchén, the town of Xcalot Akal is surrounded by deforested land, with the Santa Rosa Mennonite camp as its neighbor. “The water came from the Mennonite camp. The water began to rise, and we were barely able to take shelter in the highest parts of the town,” remembers Adriana Cauich, who lives in Xcalot Akal.
Alvaro Mena is a member of the indigenous and campesino organization Ka Kuxtal Much’ Meyaj. During the emergency days, he and other residents of Hopelchén toured the region and reviewed satellite images to document the damage. They identified that the places where deforestation took place, which is now monoculture fields or cattle areas, were more intensely flooded. Among these areas are the Mennonite fields of Santa Fe, Nuevo Progreso, and Nuevo Durango, and the Paal Pool Valley in the community of Chunchintok.
“The great deforestation of the jungle and the coastal areas has generated a great impact on the entire territory of the Yucatan Peninsula: soil and water contamination, loss of biodiversity… As we do not have healthy ecosystems, we do not have the natural barriers to the impacts of storms and hurricanes,” explains Yameli Aguilar Duarte, Ph.D. in geography and master’s degree in environmental engineering from the National Institute of Agricultural and Livestock Forensic Research (INIFAP).
Knocking down the forest for the agro-industry
The municipality of Hopelchén -as well as the entire Yucatán 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 on the continent.
Losing forest cover in the Selva Maya is no small matter: the territory where species considered at risk of extinction such as jaguars or tapirs live is reduced; species diversity is affected – for example, pollinators such as bees – and forest reserves that contribute to mitigating climate change are lost. In Hopelchén, forest loss has a long history but has intensified in the last decade.
For almost ten years (1972-1983), Mexico had a National Forest Removal Program whose objective was to cut down the forest to promote agriculture. It was also through a government program -the inhabitants of Chunchintok- that the Paal Pool Valley was deforested.
Guillermo León, who lives in Chunchintok, mentions that in the seventies, a change was made in the use of ejido land -at least 12,500 hectares- to plant rice; “although it gave production, those who managed it said that they could not afford to pay back the credit.”
Indalecio Canul Uc, from the same community, comments that the government program that promoted the Paal Pool Valley transformation lasted three years, and only 5,000 hectares of the more than 12,500 deforested were used. Today those lands are used as cattle ranching areas, and in each rainy season, they are filled with water.
Starting in the 1980s, new areas began to be deforested in the area. This occurred with the arrival of Mennonite communities – dedicated to large-scale agriculture – from Durango and Chihuahua that settled, above all, in Campeche and, especially, in the municipalities Hopelchén and Hecelchakán.
In the study “Drivers of deforestation and perception of land-use changes in cattle-raising 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 noted that “the removal of (forest) cover with mechanization is usually permanent, extensive and the soils are worked to the point of degradation.
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