Environmental Law

Bocas del Polochic, Sierra del Lacandón and Sierra de las Minas

– Bocas del Polochic Wildlife Refuge, Sierra del Lacandón National Park, and Sierra de las Minas National Park –
Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala

Conservation value and special characteristics

The Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve and the Bocas del Polochic Wildlife Refuge provide key ecosystem services such as clean water, filtration, agricultural land and local climate regulation to users (communities, fishermen, agro-industries among others) in the eastern part of Guatemala.  They host a high diversity of plants and large populations of emblematic and threatened species including manatees (Trichechus manatus), howler monkeys (for example Alouatta pigra), and hundreds of species of birds, reptiles and fish. 

The Bocas del Polochic has been internationally recognized as a Ramsar Site, the Sierra de las Minas and the Sierra del Lacandón also recognized as UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. The Sierra del Lacandón National Park is located in the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, in the North-West of Guatemala, at the border with Mexico. It constitutes one of the nine core areas of the Maya Biosphere Reserve and represents around 24.83% of the total area considered as core zone in this reserve.

The Bocas del Polochic Wildlife Refuge is a wetland formed by the Polochic River delta in Lake Izabal, the largest lake in Guatemala. It has the largest population of manatees in Central America. As a wetland, it acts as a filter for the pollution produced upstream by industries and the inhabitants of the valley. Many indigenous people Q´eqchí live in communities surrounding the wildlife refuge. The Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve (RBSM) is the second largest reserve in Guatemala and houses 15% of the endemic species of Guatemala (more than 59 species) of which inhabit 8 of the 14 life zones identified in Guatemala. In addition, the RBSM produces environmental goods and services; provides water to more than 500,000 people dependent on this resource for different uses (human consumption, agro-industrial irrigation, energy production, and tourism). The water comes mainly from the core zone, an area in excess of 105,000 ha. The RBSM contributes to the connectivity of threatened ecosystems such as cloud and dry-thorn forests facilitating altitudinal migration of small mammals and birds, such as quetzal (Pharomacrus moccino).

The Sierra de Lacandón National Park (SLNP) is the second largest national park in Guatemala (202 865 ha). The park plays a fundamental role in the most important Mesoamerican Biological corridor connecting the mountainous ecosystems of the Lacandon Jungle to the northeast of Chiapas with the forests of Belize and the rest of the forest and wetland ecosystems of the lowlands of Petén. According to the Mayan Biosphere Reserve (MBR), the park is home to some 79% of the fauna, highlighting in this way the importance of this core zone in the conservation of biological diversity. Eight of the eleven ecosystems reported by the MBR are present in the SLNP, a fact that shows its importance in the conservation of our natural heritage. The resulting diversity of ecosystems is the habitat of at least 552 species of fauna (vertebrates) and 406 species of flora. In the specific case of vertebrates, a total of 53 species of fish have been registered in the Park which are equal to 82% of those species reported by the MBR (64 species), 29 amphibian species representing 87% of the total reported by the MBR (33 species), 64 reptile species that correspond to 60% of those reported by the MBR (106 species), 340 bird species that represent 88% of those reported by the MBR (386 species) and 69 species of mammals that correspond to 63% of the total reported by the MBR (109 species).

In addition, the park protects more than ten archaeological sites with the remains of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization including the ruined city of Piedras Negras.


The three sites face similar challenges.  Wildfires are a significant problem, particularly in Sierra de las Minas and Sierra de Lacandon, where local communities often use fire to clear land for agriculture.  Illegal hunting and fishing, including hunting of manatees in Bocas del Polochic, create conflicts and threaten biodiversity.  Mining, deforestation and unsustainable agriculture are growing problems.  All three parks struggle with weak government institutions and the presence of destabilizing groups such as narco-traffickers.


Fundación Defensores de la Naturaleza, an NGO managing the three areas, has been working to promote forestry incentives, establish nurseries, implement biodiversity-friendly agroforestry systems, and protect and restore water recharge areas.  These activities provide a potential revenue stream as well as conservation benefits.

Arrangements for payment for ecosystem services, biodiversity offsets for mining, habitat banks, ecotourism and community based agriculture could be potential sources of revenue for the site and its surrounding communities.  There is strong potential for tourism in the sites, particularly relating to archaeological sites in Sierra de Lacandon, and the lake, with its population of manatees, in the Bocas del Polochic.  The sites provide significant water resources, creating possible opportunities for payments for ecosystem services or partnerships with private sector water users.   The size and richness of the forest ecosystems offer opportunities for forest incentives and the sale of carbon credits.  Local communities could be strong partners in development of sustainable products or agroforestry projects.


The Defensores and INC have begun to explore the feasibility of different options for the three sites in the context of the legal landscape and market conditions. The current financial situation of the three partner sites will be further assessed to identify the economic gaps and economic opportunities. Based on that, a general action plan and strategies to implement the identified financial mechanisms will be defined.

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