THE VISUAL RECORD: Disappearing Forests; Disappearing Peoples


Central America, the 200,000-square-mile land bridge connecting North and South America and separating the Pacific from the Caribbean, is an extremely heterogeneous mosaic of climate, soils, vegetation, and animal life. Species from both North and South American intermingle along this isthmus, making it one of the richest zones of biological diversity in the world. Its tropical forests, in particular, are repositories of a multitude of species of flora and fauna. More than 850 species of birds have been recorded for Costa Rica and Panama alone, and some 225 types of birds migrate across Central America with the change of the seasons.

Most of the natural areas that have been singled out for conservation efforts in Central American are also the ancient homes of indigenous peoples. Inhabiting mainly the tropical rain forests, these groups are struggling to survive under increasingly difficult circumstances. As the demolition of their habitat spreads like a stain, their means of livelihood disappears and their unique culture are torn to pieces and lost. Before this tragedy becomes inevitable, conservation groups would do well to form alliances between themselves and these local people so that they all might work together in the search for strategies to save the tropical rain forests.

Yet, as this series of maps shows, the threat to both peoples and forests in relatively recent. For millennia, the forests remained intact. Only since 1940 has the most severe damage occurred.


Central America's rain forests, as we know them today, appeared relatively recently (see map at left). During the Late Pleistocene Era (20,000 to 11,000 years ago), the region's climate was cooler and drier than it is today. The vegetation was a complex combination of scrub-savannah and forest, with each dominating in certain regions according to rainfall patterns and the altitude. The composition of the fauna also varied, and mastodons, bison, giant ground sloths, horses and camelids, oversized jaguars and saber-toothed cats roamed the landscape together with some present-day species.

Around 11,000 years ago, the ice sheets to the north retreated, and the climate of the isthmus turned warmer and wetter. The tropical broadleaf forests rapidly expanded into open areas such as the savannahs of the Petén region in present-day Guatemala, while conifers held on in the higher altitudes of the north. At the same time, the larger mammals disappeared, probably due to human predators and climate changes.

Although controversy surrounds the date of the entrance of humans into the Central America, by the ninth millennium B.C. small bands of hunters and gatherers were filtering through the region toward the Southern continent. Because they were few in number and had not yet begun to farm, they modified the forests only slightly. Mo more than scattered clearing of the vegetation, through occasional burnings and localized utilization of resources, is evident in the paleoecological record.

Micro-fossils of plants indicate that by 8,000 B.C. forest covered virtually the entire surface of Central America. Probably the only open landscape was the savannah-pine area of present-day northeast Honduras and Nicaragua, a region underlain with poorly drained soils. As human beings infiltrated the area, this situation would change drastically.

After they learned to practice agriculture, about 9,000 years ago, the Amerindian peoples began to modify the forest, but they traditionally left extensive areas of natural vegetation near their settlements for hunting and gathering food and materials. Thus, after the Spanish conquest and subsequent disease decimated up to 80 percent of the indigenous population, the forested areas rapidly reclaimed a good portion of their former territory. The extensive human-made savannahs of the Darién in Panama were transformed into dense tropical forest. A thick mantle of rain forest similarly re-covered the Petén region of Guatemala, large stretches of which had been shaved clean of natural vegetation by Mayan slash-and-burn farmers before the Spaniards arrived.

Slowly and steadily, the population of Central America recovered along a parallel course. By 1900, 3,750,000 people lived in the region. Most people lived along the Pacific Slope, where soils were more favorable for agriculture and the climate more agreeable. The Caribbean coastal strip, with its high rainfall and luxuriant vegetative cover, remained largely isolated from the political and economic life of the new republics. It became a "region of refuge" for surviving indigenous tribes, escaped black slaves, and mixtures of the two groups.

This situation did not change much until the 1940s. As the map from that decade shows, the region was still quite biologically diverse (see map above). But with new technologies - chain saws, tractors, bulldozers, heavy-duty trucks, and other motorized machines - the construction of roads and the clearing of land advanced at an unprecedented rate. Moreover, the region's overall population had doubled since 1900, to 7.2 million people. The expanding population sought land, while public-health advances that brought malaria and other endemic diseases under control made settlement of the humid lowlands not just possible but attractive. Central American governments launched plans to colonize these areas with rallying cries such as "the conquest of the Atlantic coast" and "the expansion of the agricultural frontier." Waves of landless peasants from the overcrowded Pacific slope and interior provinces set out along newly cut roads into the forests of the Caribbean coastal plains.

Once the colonists reached the Caribbean coast, their dreams of prosperity rapidly turned into nightmares.

The lush greenery of the tropical rain forest is misleading. Most of the soil in the humid tropics is acid and infertile. Almost all the nutrients are locked up in the standing vegetation rather than the underlying earth. Thus, when the forest cover is cleared for subsistence crops or pasture, nutrients rapidly leach from the soil amidst the region's high temperature and heavy rainfall. Within a few years, the land becomes unproductive.

Agriculture in areas that were once tropical rain forest often amounts to little more than an intermediate step in the transformation of forest into pasture land. The final stage in this destructive process is frequently what geographer James Parsons has dubbed "an inexorable trend towards the conversion of tropical forest into one great cattle ranch." But, due to the soil's inevitable loss of nutrients, even cattle ranching is doomed. In the end, the flora and fauna of the rain forest disappear, indigenous peoples lose their land and resources, and the colonists find themselves mired in poverty.

Multinational companies compound this destruction, extending their tentacles into the last remaining hinterlands in minerals. As these forces advance, the forests are cut down and burned off at a steadily accelerating pace. These activities spell disaster for the forests' native inhabitants, as they are deprived of their resources, displaced from their homelands, and driven to cultural extinction.

From 1940 to 1990, the population of Central America more than tripled, reaching 25 million. After millennia of little change, an estimated two-thirds of the tropical rain forests disappeared during these 50 years, and today the pace of deforestation continues on an upward curve (see map above). Only in El Salvador, where less than 2 percent of the original forest cover remains, and Belize, still relatively unpopulated, is the rate of deforestation negligible. The 1987-1992 map illustrates the extent of Central America's deforestation.


The remaining peoples and forests of Central America are not doomed. The continent continues to host considerable cultural diversity, with between four and five and a half million indigenous people speaking over 43 distinct languages.

In response to the rapid destruction of their forests, Central American indigenous groups have begun to organise themselves to protect and manage their land and natural resources. They are, in essence, waging in the field a parallel battle to the one that conservationists are fighting through the media and with financial campaigns. The main difference, of course, is that the original inhabitants of the region are struggling for their survival as a people.

The indigenous people of Central America have lived in the forests for centuries and evolved production systems and ways of life that serve to maintain the integrity of the natural environment. Moreover, they are committed to the cause of conservation over the long haul, for their lives depend on it. In the face of current pressures, they need our help. And we need their help. For the truth of the matter is that only if we work together do we have a chance of salvaging what remains of the earth's precious biological and cultural diversity.


Central America's largest concentration of indigenous peoples is in Guatemala, where from three to four and a half million Indians belonging to 23 different ethnic/linguistic groups comprise from 35 to 50 percent of the population. Most of these are Mayan speakers in the Central and Western Highlands, where Guatemala's largest upland pine and oak hardwood forests survive. The Q'eqchi' (Kekchí), numbering more than 350,000, live largely in the central highlands region but have in recent decades spilled over into the lowlands to the north. Small numbers of Mop n live in the forests near the southern border with Belize. The Itz , once dominant in the northern Peté region, have been reduced to a fragmentary population on the northern bank of Lake Petén Itz . The Garífuna, the only non-Mayans among Guatemala's major indigenous groups, occupy the coastal stretch surrounding the Caribbean port of Livingston.

El Salvador's Indian population numbers more than half a million yet is little known; the government and others often flatly deny its existence. The Indians have been stripped of most of their traditional culture, including their native language, and now eke out a meager living from seasonal wage labor on coffee or sugarcane estates and farming subsistence crops on tiny rented parcels of land.

In pre-Hispanic times, Belize was a center of Mayan civilization, but the population was decimated following Spanish contact. Today, Belize's major Indian population consists of more recent arrivals. The first of these, the Garífuna, are a racial and cultural fusion of blacks and Carib and Arawak Indians, who arrived from the island of St. Vincent by way of Honduras in the early nineteenth century. They live in small villages and one major city, Dangriga, along the southern coast. The second group, the Yucatec Maya, began slipping across the northern border from Mexico during that country's Caste WArs of the 1840s and 1850s. The Mop n and the Kekchí Maya crossed over from Guatemala during the late nineteenth century, settling in the southern district of Toledo.

Most of the indigenous people of Honduras live in the northeast. Following the pattern set in Belize and Guatemala, some 80,000 Honduran Garífuna live dispersed along the Caribbean littoral. Miskito, Tawahka Sumu, Pesch, and some Garífuna make their home in the northeastern region called the Mosquitia, which also contains the largest and most remote aggregate of intact natural vegetation left in Central America. Each group occupies its own discrete territory.

Honduras's northwestern groups include two branches of the Xicaque (Tol) tribe, who occupy the hilly uplands of the Department of Yoro and the more isolated Montaña de la Flor region, and the Chorití, a heavily acculturated group near the Guatemalan border. To the south near El Salvador, the dispersed Lenca have lost their language but maintain many of their cultural traditions.

Nicaragua's Caribbean coastal plain is home to three indigenous groups. The Miskito control most of the land near the coast, including resource-rich lagoons and mangrove forests, and the Miskito Keys seaward. The Sumu live inland among the dense forests south of the Río Coco. The Rama's dwindling numbers hold on to several small settlements in the southeast. These areas of Indian habitation are the only natural areas left in Nicaragua.

The indigenous people of Costa Rica make up under 1 percent of the total population. Eight different ethnic groups are spread out among 21 officially recognized "indigenous reserves," but approximately 85 percent of the indigenous population is concentrated in the densely forested region that spans the Caribbean and Pacific slopes. Nearly all the inhabitants of the recently created La Amistad Biosphere Reserve, a bi-national park straddling Costa Rica and Panama, are Indian. The Bribri and the Cabécar are on the Costa Rican side, while more Bribri and the Teribe live in forested isolation in Panama.

Three of Panama's indigenous groups live on comarca homelands, autonomous areas granted by the government. They are the Kuna, whose Comarca de San Blas, granted in 1938, spans the coastal waters and the Caribbean slope in the east, and the closely-related Ember Drua Comarca since 1983. The Bayano Kuna, who inhabit the Pacific Slope, are still seeking comarca status for their lands. Panama's other major indigenous group, the Guaymí, live in dispersed settlements spread throughout the Caribbean slope.

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