Selva Maya

The largest forest in the region

Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize; 31,008 km2, 1st largest wilderness in Central America.

The Maya Forest is the single largest forest block in Central America and is home to a unique assemblage of animals and plants and thousands of archaeological sites. It hosts jaguars, critically endangered Central American river turtles, white-lipped peccaries, and scarlet macaws, as well as endemic species adapted to the region’s seasonally dry forests. Yet the Maya Forest is also home to hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom suffer from poverty or extreme poverty. Poverty, landlessness, weak governance systems, and rapid population growth have put increasing pressure on the region’s natural resources, spurring deforestation and forest fires that threaten biodiversity, and undermining the proven potential for sustainable streams of natural resources and commodities of vital importance to rural economies. The greater Maya Forest also includes the 5,220 km2 Montañas Mayas – Chiquibul protected areas complex straddling the Belize-Guatemala Adjacency Zone, a weakly governed area under legal dispute. Over 80% of the Guatemalan portion of this forest has been decimated by colonization and agricultural expansion, and Guatemalans have made illegal incursions into the more preserved Belizean protected areas to poach timber and wildlife.


It is, at the same time, a very old human occupation zone and for millennia it has been the seat of the Mayan people who consider this jungle as their ancestral territory. From the first half of the 19th century, the Mayans were joined by the Garifuna who now make up a significant portion of the indigenous population on the eastern fringes of the Belizean jungle.

The Selva Maya is a space of immense importance, both for its historical and heritage significance and for its natural wealth, its biodiversity, and its role in relation to the conservation of water resources and the mitigation of climate change.

Nonetheless, its existence is in danger due to a set of threats that increase its vulnerability, such as cattle ranching, logging, mining, the exploitation of hydrocarbons, etc. Due to these factors, the Selva Maya, between 2000 and 2015, saw its size decrease from 55,218 to 41,380 km2 in 2015.


Flora and Fauna 

As a whole, this important biological corridor is home to five species of felines, like the jaguar (Panthera onca), tapir (Tapirus bairdii), saraguato (Alouatta pigra), hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and birds such as the Scarlet Macaw (Ara Macao) and the keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus), considered the national bird of Belize. Some of the most representative species of flora are the ramon tree (Brosimum alicastrum) and sapodilla (Manilkara zapota).


According to the research of the Calakmul Reserve (Mexico), it contains more than 400 bird species on its list. In the Tikal National Park (Guatemala) more than 350 species have been counted and in the Rio Conservation Area (Belize) more than 390 species between residents and migratory.

Indigenous and Local Communities

In all three countries, there is a significant indigenous population. In Mexico, more than a fifth of the population defines itself as such, in Guatemala, just under half, and in Belize, almost 20 percent.

It is for this reason, in part, that an important political movement has developed among indigenous peoples who, with different perspectives, have fought for their territorial rights, consultation, and self-determination in relation to their own management of their natural resources.


Issues related to land, territory, self-determined management of natural resources, and the right to define their development and future prospects are politically very sensitive issues, mainly in Guatemala and Belize.

In all three countries, the Selva Maya is part of the ancestral lands of the Mayan culture, in which a cultural matrix was consolidated that is now made up of millions of people and more than 20 different peoples. Among them, are those who still live in that forest and derive their livelihoods from it: In Belize, the Yucatecan Maya, the Mopan Maya, the Q'eqchi' Maya, and the Garífuna, in Guatemala the Itza Maya and the Q'eqchi and, in Mexico, the Yucatecan Mayans.

In Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, there are sites considered as cultural heritage of Humanity declared by the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO). In Mexico, in the state of Campeche, the historic fortified city was declared in 1999, the ancient Mayan city and tropical forests of Calakmul, declared in 2002 and in Yucatan, the mythical pre-Hispanic cities of Chichén-Itzá, declared in 1988 and Uxmal in 1996. In the region regarding the Maya Forest of Guatemala, the Tikal National Park in 1979, and in Belize the Barrier Reef Reserve System.

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