GUATEMALA CITY — A DRY season in the lowland forests of Guatemala's Peten region is coming to a close. Thin columns of smoke rising across the horizon and a pervasive haze give the landscape the appearance of a war zone.
For three decades now, immigrants pouring into the Pets lush forests have made burning of trees and vegetation an annual ritual of survival for themselves, and one of unending alarm to environmentalists. As the thin soil sown with corn and beans is exhausted, the pilgrims must move on to clear new plots for milpas (cornfields) or face starvation. "Every new road brings colonists, and when you have colonists you have milpas, and when you have milpas you have no need for trees," says an official with the U nited States Agency for International Development.
Forty years ago, Guatemala's population was a modest 3 million. Today, in a pattern that is all too familiar globally, three times as many people spread out from the country's crowded highlands in search of the land, fuel, and grazing areas needed to survive.
The result is that some 65 percent of the country's original forest cover has been destroyed, most in the last three decades. At current rates, the highest in Latin America, the remainder will disappear within 25 years.
"The quest for more agricultural and grazing land to feed the world's swelling population has sealed the fate of much of the world's tropical forests," notes a United Nations study.
Population is not the only culprit in a worldwide pattern of deforestation that claims an area the size of Bangladesh each year. Commercial logging, unequal land distribution, and inefficient agricultural technologies have all played a part.
In Ethiopia and Haiti, two nations that have been virtually denuded, the correlation between high population growth and loss of forests has been unmistakable.
There are other indications that the world's tropical and temperate forests are living on borrowed time. Within 40 years, 80 percent of the world's projected population - a billion more than now inhabit the entire planet - will be living in the 25 nations that are home to the world's remaining tropical forests.
"It is difficult to see that much forest will remain in just a few decades time" in these countries, says another UN report.
In the seven countries of Central America alone, population is expected to swell from 28 million to 50 million within 20 years, placing enormous, possibly overwhelming pressure on what remains of some of the world's most lush, biologically diverse forest lands.
To stem the tide, Guatemala's legislature recently voted to set aside one-third of the Peten as the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Officials hope to preserve the area by encouraging the cultivation of crops, like spices and chicle, a substance used to make chewing gum, that don't require decimating forest land.
"We are finally beginning to solve the very old and very important problem," says Marta Pilon de Pacheco, a Guatemalan environmentalist. "We don't know if it will work, however, as long as there is nothing done here about out-of-control population growth."