Guatemala is a land of wonder and possibility. The more than 720 species of birds living in Guatemala interweave in beauty and grace with the natural and cultural history of this land. The ancient peoples of Guatemala, the Maya, revered the scarlet macaw (Ara macao cyanoptera) that represented the sun and daylight, as well as the quetzal (Pharomachrus spp.), that represented freedom and wealth, and is now on the national currency (Fig. 1). Be it the mountains, the rain forests, the pacific plains, or the arid valleys of Guatemala, one encounters wonder in the birds and people.
Unfortunately, the future for the parrots and people remains uncertain. A complex interaction of neocolonialism, extraction economies, corruption, extreme income gap between the wealthiest and the poor, widespread poverty, and racism has led to widespread and continuous human right violations, genocide in the 1980’s, rampant poaching, and tremendous habitat loss and degradation. To combat this, conservation efforts need tremendous support to secure sustainable efforts and favorable outcomes. In order to obtain more support for the birds and people, I returned to Guatemala with a twenty-two year span of experience to explore the status of the people and parrots and to contribute directly to ongoing conservation efforts as both an avian veterinarian and a researcher in socioscience and ethno-ornithology. Besides visiting multiple conservation groups, I participated in a yellow-naped Amazon (Amazona auropalliata) roost census, and consulted with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s biologists and veterinarians during a three-week study of wild Scarlet macaw chick health (Fig. 2). (For more information see Lafeber Conservation, Liberating Wings, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Despite the Peace Accords in 1996 and the US Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992, poaching, violence, economic oppression, poverty and habitat destruction continue. Nearly 50% of Guatemalan’s children under 5 years of age suffer from malnutrition and are stunted, and poverty strikes up to 75% of the indigenous population. A recent overlay includes the increasing power of the drug cartels, which results in killings, disappearances, corruption, colonization, road and air strip building, and slash and burn techniques, especially in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, the second largest tropical forest after the Amazon.
This Maya Biosphere Reserve (15,000-16,000 km²) occupies the northern 40% of the Petén forest, encompassing nearly 10% of Guatemala’s land area. In the last 10-15 years, the human population in the Petén has increased dramatically and the forested areas reduced substantially, threatening the remaining population of less than 200 Central American Scarlet macaws that used to fly over most of Guatemala. In April 2009, limiting factors for these macaws included poaching, fires, habitat loss, predation, inadequate government control, and external parasites and malnutrition for chicks. Initial impressions of fledge rates for chicks indicate that without focused and sustained intervention, these populations face a significant probability of extinction.
In the rich agricultural areas of the Pacific Plains for the last 10-15 years the expansion of monoculture sugar cane plantations has led to massive ecosystem destruction. A return to the site of the Guatemala Psittacine Research Project (Proyecto de Loros) southeast of Escuintla in March 2009 revealed that much of the habitat had been converted to sugar cane production. One yellow-naped Amazon roost site, once surrounded by pastures and thick fence lines of large trees, now experiences a constant roar of sugar cane trucks that travel through fields leveled down to dust and debris, and coated with the ashes that come from the burning of the sugar cane for harvest. Only 12 adults roosted in this area, representing 5% of previous counts for this time of year 14 years earlier.
There is much work to be done under difficult situations. Though no one can discern exact outcomes, hope arises as many groups continue to work with humans and non-humans for a better future for all.
Many organizations are involved with avian conservation in Guatemala. Only a fraction were visited in 2009. Below is a brief summary of the wonderful work these organizations are doing. Lafeber Conservation gives thanks to the people of these organizations for their work and their graciousness in involving Lafeber Conservation in their work and lives.
- Mariana Aviaries
- This longstanding aviary no longer breeds birds but serves as a substantial reservoir of knowledge and experience in psittacine captive propagation. They will relocate in the next year and will convert to a “bird park” that offers environmental and conservation education.
- Proyecto Loro – Guatemala Psittacine Conservation Project
- This project is no longer active but past participants reunite to count birds in the Pacific Plains and offer experience and knowledge from conservation attempts and research that spanned 1990 – 1995.
- Associación de Rescate y Conservación de Vida Silvestre (ARCAS)
- Provides ecotourism opportunities, environmental education, psittacine rehabilitation consulting, rehabilitation and release of confiscated parrots, and increasing production of captive-raised Scarlet macaws.
- Wildlife Conservation Society, Guatemala
- This organization is a major presence in the Petén researching, protecting habitats, and managing the wild scarlet macaw.
- San Carlos University, Veterinary Medicine and Wildlife Management
- Faculty at San Carlos, such as Dr. Dennis Guerra Centeno, teach avian medicine to veterinary students. There are plans to complete a captive psittacine breeding facility this year, and the program also hopes to open an avian clinical pathology laboratory.
- Mesa Nacional de Aviturismo
- Members actively promote avitourism in Guatemala and have a broad understanding of the status, problems, and possible solutions to increased pressures on avian populations.
Success may not save every habitat and species, nor significantly improve the lives of the next generation of Guatemala’s children, but there is change in the wind that might, just might, clear the air long enough for new tools and strategies to emerge and take effect. New tools include ethno-ornithology, socioscience, and multidisciplinary conservation teams. By bringing disciplines together “we may be able to forge synergistic conservation programs capable of protecting the vivid splendor of life on earth”5 and to see “people and things not only as objects of scientific and technocratic interest, but as ‘matters of concern” (Bonta 2003).
This hopeful synergism exists today. Conservation projects in Guatemala work as teams more than ever before and are increasingly open to the wide array of gifts and experiences, including not just veterinary and wildlife management skills, but also economics, publicity, information science, socioscience, fund raising, and local knowledge, experiences, and structures of meaning. There are plenty of opportunities for every one to become involved, contribute, and discover the beauty of the birds and people of Guatemala.
What you can do
There are a variety of things you can do for the birds and people of Guatemala. You might choose to contact any of the organizations listed above or Lafeber Conservation to see how you might get involved. Also see Ten Things You Can Do to Promote Avian Conservation.
Upcoming projects that need concrete and immediate support include:
- Visit Guatemala to discover the flights, plights, and rights of the people and parrots of Guatemala so as to discern what you might do in avian conservation.
- Contribute to a hematology course at San Carlos University and set up of avian clinical pathology laboratory. They need equipment, funds, and expertise.
- 3. Fund scholarships for Masters in Wildlife Management, San Carlos University. Cost approximates $1200 per year for a two-year program for students focusing on avian conservation.
May you, like the Maya, hear the quetzal calling to you, inviting you on the journey of a lifetime as you discover the wealth of Guatemala and the richness of the gifts you have to offer. Let the Scarlet macaw’s bright rainbow colors keep you steadfast in commitment to this earth and the goal that all people and birds may flourish in freedom upon an eternity of the sun’s rising.
Acknowledgement: Funded by Lafeber Company, LoraKim Joyner, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and private donors.
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