Building Ranger Teams with Local Communities

At El Mirador, the Maya built the most voluminous pyramid in the world, called La Danta. At 2.8 million cubic meters (more than 1,100 Olympic swimming pools), 70 meters high, and with a base the size of 35 football fields, it took up to an estimated 15 million man days of labor to construct. But in addition to its cultural treasures, this part of Guatemala is also biologically rich.The Mirador ecosystem contains six kinds of tropical forest, 300 tree species, 200 animal species, and five of the six cats indigenous to Central America. Large populations of elusive jaguar and threatened white-lipped peccary live here, alongside pumas, tapirs, ocelots, agoutis, brocket deer, and rare harpy eagles. Mirador’s southern limestone cliffs are the last place in the world with viable populations of the orange-breasted falcon. Mirador is also on a critical flyway for birds migrating from central and eastern North America.

The ancient city of El Mirador has been partially protected since 1990 by the small Mirador-Río Azul National Park, part of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, more than 2 million hectares of rainforest in northern Guatemala. Although the Maya Biosphere Reserve covers an impressive 10% of Guatemala’s total land area, almost 50,000 hectares of forest are lost each year in this reserve to agriculture and cattle ranching. In just the past 10 years, more than 60% of the Maya Biosphere Reserve’s forests have been destroyed.

To fight these threats, Global Conservation has deployed a Global Park Defense system including cellular trailcam networks, facial recognition software, command and control systems, satellite monitoring, and community involvement.

Global Conservation has also collaborated with our partners FundaEco, Rainforest Trust, and FARES to establish the first Mirador Park Authority. FundaEco spent three years training this special team of rangers, who carry out patrols with the army and the police and permanently patrol the entire area. They work together to stop wildlife poaching, looting of archaeological sites, illegal logging, and land clearing for cattle ranching. Their patrols now cover 40 ancient Maya cities and over 300,000 hectares of tropical rainforests.

Mirador Park rangers have now been trained in:

  1. The SMART Patrol system
  2. Protected areas management
  3. Fighting forest fires
  4. Biological monitoring
  5. First aid
  6. Garmin InReach GPS system
  7. Self defense
  8. Trail and camp maintenance
  9. Visitor safety and security
  10. Assisting community tourism cooperatives

Another important component of protecting Mirador is the Community Eco-Guard program. Community Eco-Guards play a critical role assisting park rangers and community tourism cooperatives, and monitoring trails and roads using SMART ranger patrols and surveillance systems. Twelve Community Eco-Guards will be selected from the gateway communities of Mirador – Carmelita and San Andres – to assist Mirador Park Ranger teams and police in undertaking key protection and conservation activities, including:

  • Park monitoring and surveillance
  • Trail and camp maintenance
  • Visitor safety and security
  • Communications with rangers and law enforcement
  • Assisting NGOs in wildlife conservation
  • Assisting community tourism cooperatives

Community Eco-Guards are an important complement to the park ranger teams. Firstly, Eco-Guards allow us to increase the size of patrol teams without the sometimes bureaucratic and expensive process of hiring new rangers. Secondly, because they are local people who know the forest well, we can capitalize on their knowledge. Thirdly, Eco-Guard programs allow us to recruit young people to complement more experienced rangers, creating a de facto training program for recruiting new rangers.

Finally, this program offers local residents, who might otherwise make a living hunting or logging, an alternative livelihood. Over time, former wildlife poachers, loggers, and looters will be selected from the Community Eco-Guards and trained to become full-time rangers.

2021 will be our final year of a five-year GPD program. Our long-term goal in Mirador is to achieve “No Cut, No Kill” protection while increasing tourism revenues to benefit local communities. We also aim to achieve UNESCO World Heritage Designation for Mirador, and to expand the area of the park by purchasing neighboring forestry concessions.