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Chapter 35. Central America and Mexico

Figure 35-1. Central America and Mexico: forest cover map

This subregion includes the countries of Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama (Figure 35-1). Mexico has the largest land area, more than 190 million hectares, with 29 percent under forest cover. The remaining countries together have a land area of 51 million hectares, with 34 percent covered by forest.

The natural vegetation of Mexico can be divided into three approximately equal areas. The tropical/subtropical region includes tropical rain forests originally covering 6 percent of the country. The temperate region occupies the main cordilleras, about 15 percent of the country, with forests consisting of a wide variety of pines (Pinus spp.) and oaks (Quercus spp.). About 80 percent of the plant species found in the pine forests are endemic. In the higher parts of the cordilleras, up to 3 300 m, forests of silver fir (Abies spp.) occur. The semi-arid/arid zone, found mainly in the north and centre (Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and central altiplano), includes mostly open shrubland (matorral), cacti and xerophytic monocots (Mexico Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad 1998).

The countries to the south of Mexico from Guatemala to Panama are recognized as a biological corridor between North and South America. In addition, the influences of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the mountains create environmental conditions also conducive to high biodiversity. Holdridge identified 14 life zones in Guatemala, 13 in Costa Rica, 12 in Panama and 9 in Belize (Godoy 1997).


A workshop, with participation from all countries, was organized in Costa Rica in 1999 for the collection of FRA 2000 information for this subregion. In addition, FAO assembled historical data to estimate forest cover as of 2000 and change from 1990 to 2000.

Table 35-1. Central America and Mexico: forest resources and management


Land area

Forest area 2000

Area change 1990-2000 (total forest)

Volume and above-ground biomass (total forest)

Forest under management plan

Natural forest

Forest plantation

Total forest

000 ha

000 ha

000 ha

000 ha


ha/ capita

000 ha/year




000 ha



2 280

1 345


1 348







1 000


Costa Rica

5 106

1 790


1 968









El Salvador

2 072













10 843

2 717


2 850










11 189

5 335


5 383










190 869

54 938


55 205







7 100



12 140

3 232


3 278










7 443

2 836


2 876









Total Central America

241 942

72 300


73 029









Total North and Central America

2 136 966

531 771

17 533

549 304










13 063 900

3 682 722

186 733

3 869 455



-9 391






Source: Appendix 3, Tables 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9.
*Partial result only. National figure not available.
The quality of information varies from country to country. Mexico has carried out systematic forestry inventories since the 1960s. The latest one was published in 1994 based on remote sensing images from 1993. Good, updated information on forest cover is available for Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras from detailed forest maps and forest inventories. Forest information for Belize and El Salvador was extracted from general land use maps. The estimates for Nicaragua and Panama were based on secondary sources.

This subregion has one of the highest negative rates of forest area change in the world. In terms of gross area, Mexico and Nicaragua have the highest negative change in the subregion. In relation to the amount of forest cover, however, the highest rates of negative change are found in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Belize, whereas Costa Rica and Honduras have the lowest rates. The countries with the highest proportion of forest cover are Belize and Honduras, with 59 percent and 48 percent, respectively (Figure 35-2 and Table 35-1). Even though broadleaf forest covers the largest area in the region, coniferous formations are economically more important in some countries; for example, in Honduras Pinus oocarpa and Pinus caribaea are very important, as are Pinus montezumae and Pinus ayacahuite in Mexico. It was also noted that in all countries where coniferous formations exist, deforestation rates for these formations are higher than for other forest types.

Mexico and Costa Rica have the largest area of plantations in the subregion, promoted by forest incentive policies in both countries. These plantations are both for industrial purposes and fuelwood production. Belize has the lowest plantation area in the subregion. The contribution of the region to the world's plantation area is less than 1 percent.

The volume and biomass estimates for Central America are based on a regional project that estimated carbon sequestration potential in these seven countries. The estimate of biomass for Mexico is based on the commercial volume of the different forest types of the country, adjusted to arrive at the total volume. It is noteworthy that the forests of this region have the highest level of biomass per unit area in the world.

According to Calvo (2000), this relatively small subregion contains 7 percent of the world's biological diversity. It has approximately 4 million hectares of natural tropical pine forests, ranging from Mexico to southern Nicaragua and Panama, and approximately 7 million hectares of tropical hardwood forests as well as mangrove areas along both the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts (Calvo 2000).

On about 4 million hectares of the area under hardwood forest cover, valuable species such as mahogany (Swietenia spp., mainly S. macrophylla, S. humilis and S. mahagoni) and "cedro" (Cedrela odorata) are present at the rate of about one commercial tree for every 6 to 7 ha of forest, or 4 percent of the total commercial volume per hectare. There are up to 100 commercial hardwood species. In their natural habitat these species grow relatively slowly, usually less than 1 m³ per hectare per year; however, this rate can double or triple in forests under sustainable forest management. In well-managed plantations, the volume growth per year of both pine and hardwood species can be exceptionally high, in some cases reaching 30 m³ per hectare per year (Calvo 2000).


Five of the eight countries in Central America and Mexico provided national-level information on the area of natural forest under management for the biennial meeting of the Latin American and Caribbean Forestry Commission in 2000 (Table 35-1). The figures provided ranged from 2 to 74 percent of the total forest area in 2000. Partial data were available from Costa Rica[48] and Panama.[49] No information was provided by El Salvador.

In each country the prerequisites for authorizing forest management activities are different, but in general the State and the users agree on the implementation of certain forest practices on a specific area for a specified period of time. All the administrative, technical and legal requirements are to be met by the parties that assume responsibility and obtain the benefits from the use of the area. The technologies used are supposed to be compatible with conservation of the environment and to guarantee the future services and functions of the forest. While this is the goal of the management plans, the results cannot always be quantified with regard to appropriate practices or sustainability.

According to the Revista Forestal Centroamericana (1999), during the past decade there has been increased interest in improving the monitoring and management of natural forests. The area of forest plantations has increased. The forestry industry, the "campesinos" (local people who work the land and may also depend on the forests) and the national forestry institutions have begun to work together to improve forest management of areas under communal and industrial concessions. The use of external evaluators to support "green certification" has increased. Traditional use of communal forests by indigenous peoples (such as the Mizquitos in Nicaragua and Honduras, the Cunas in Panama, the Garifunas along the Atlantic Coast of the subregion and the Mayas in Guatemala and Mexico) has not been quantified (Revista Forestal Centroamericana 1999).

Figure 35-2. Central America and Mexico: natural forest and forest plantation areas in 2000 and net area changes 1990-2000

Surveys of forest resource use in Mexico have mainly related to commercial uses. National demand for wood has not been met since 1997; in 2000 the deficit was 43 percent. The forest sector contributed US$369 million to the national economy in 1997, but forest products imports, mainly paper and cellulose, amounted to US$1 169 million. Communal management in the rural areas has focused mainly on resin extraction and the use of fuelwood (Mexico SEMARNAP 2000).

In the other seven countries the contribution of the forestry sector to the national economy, mainly timber production, is largely unknown since the statistics are combined with those for agricultural production. In addition, information on the extraction of non-wood forest products is limited to those that are regulated for export (e.g. resins, rubber, fruits, spices). There is a need to quantify the economic contribution of timber and non-wood forest products consumed locally, as these are significant uses (FAO 1998).

Export values for some hardwoods (especially Swietenia spp. and Cedrela spp.) can exceed US$300 per cubic metre, and they are therefore highly desired and often exploited. However, pine forests may be more frequently exploited since they are more accessible, the trees are generally smaller (thus requiring simpler technology) and the demand is high, especially for construction. (Calvo 2000).

Studies carried out by FRA 2000 indicate that, while there is increased interest in sustainable forest management in the region, the percentage of forest that is under management is still low. One of the reasons is that the development and approval of forest management plans largely depends on external financial support, especially from international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), mainly because the national forest authorities do not have enough personnel and funds to respond to users' needs. In Guatemala, instability and the ambiguity of the laws make forestry an unattractive sector for investment. While forest cover may stabilize through protected areas policies, the forest industry will not be an area of major investment as long as the laws and regulations change so often (see FRA Working Papers 13, 34, 35, 36, 37, 40, 41 and 44).

As discussed in the FRA Working Papers, fuelwood is still a major source of energy in the region and fuelwood extraction is a major forest use. In Mexico, around 3 million families in rural areas depend on forests for fuelwood. In Guatemala and El Salvador, more than 80 percent of the population uses fuelwood for domestic and industrial energy needs. In Costa Rica, there has been a decline in fuelwood consumption in homes but an increase in fuelwood consumption by industry.

Only general information on forest fires is available for most of the countries of the subregion. Fires have seriously affected the forests of Mexico. The total forest area burned in 1995 was around 300 000 ha (Mexico SEMARNAP 1995). In the Central American countries 450 000 ha were burned in 1998 (Comisión Centroamericana de Ambiente y Desarrollo 1998).

Protected areas in Mexico are facing management problems from irregularities in land tenure and pressure from settlements in and around protected areas. Most protected areas have been established on communal land or ejidales. This has led to conflicts between nature conservation and local utilization.

There are 411 declared and 391 proposed protected areas in Central America based on the IUCN classification scheme. Only 83 have management plans, and only 171 have patrols and controls in place. Private reserves exist in Costa Rica (85) and Guatemala (10), but most of the protected areas are national property (Godoy 1997).


Based on the country reports sent to FRA 2000 there is reasonably reliable and accurate forest cover information for six of the eight countries in this subregion. The main difficulties in estimating forest cover and change were for those countries where local definitions of forest types had changed or did not correspond to FAO definitions. Information is most accurate for those countries with baseline forest information: Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico. For these countries, forest area and change estimates have been produced at the national level, with good accuracy and easy integration into the global database.

All the countries have policies in place promoting sustainable management of forest resources. They recognize the sector's role as a source of rural employment as well as the valuable environmental functions of forests, and they are making efforts to evaluate the contribution of the sector to the national economy. Nevertheless, the forestry authorities do not have enough funds or personnel to be able to provide management advice to the various forest owners and users. Forest management plans exist mainly in those areas that are part of industrial and communal concessions, most of them supported by external grants or international aid funds. The impact of fires has been reduced in these areas (Rodríguez 1999).

FRA 2000 conducted an analysis of the historic causes of deforestation for the eight countries of the subregion, and there is no general agreement on the causes of forest cover change. However, agricultural demand for forest land and the conflict and competition that exist between the agriculture and forestry sectors are suspected to have had a significant impact. The causes of forest cover change also appear to have changed over time. In the 1950s, during a period of agrarian reform, forested areas were considered "useless". Property rights were often established by converting forested areas into agricultural land or cattle ranches. Cattle ranching was identified as a cause of deforestation during the 1980s. Internal political conflicts also impacted the region's forests. During conflicts, mainly in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, agricultural land was abandoned and regenerated to forest. However, after the conflict, repatriation was mostly to forested areas. Neighbouring countries (Belize, Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica) received refugees with negative consequences to their forested areas (see FRA Working Papers 13, 34, 35, 36, 37, 40, 41 and 44).

In El Salvador and Belize the main cause of deforestation is the expansion of urban areas. In El Salvador, economic development policies since the war have moved from support of agriculture and the rural economy to support of manufacturing industry. The drop in coffee prices has also resulted in a reduction of forest cover used for coffee shade.

In Nicaragua, cotton and sugar-cane production along the Pacific Coast has displaced traditional subsistence farmers. These people have migrated to urban areas and to the north to what is called the "agricultural frontier". A credit programme for agricultural production has also promoted the conversion of forest land to agriculture. In Guatemala, alternative employment outside the agricultural sector is difficult to find in rural areas, especially in areas that are not connected by road to markets or government services. When people cannot support themselves with their own food production, they often encroach into adjacent forest areas.

Local forestry experts felt that environmental movements during the 1990s had a positive impact on forest cover, particularly with the declaration of protected areas and the development of environmental policies, especially in Costa Rica. However, some experts maintain that preservation is not an appropriate strategy because of the dependency on and traditional use of forest resources by local communities. Monitoring and control of encroachment and other illegal uses in protected areas is difficult and expensive.

In general, popular participation in forest management has increased - both through communal and industrial concessions and through the participation of NGOs, universities and local people in the elaboration of forest management and protected area plans - but it needs to be increased further. Certification is also increasing, together with research programmes to determine indicators of sustainable forest management (Galloway 1999). Other important issues include giving an appropriate economic value to forests and their products in the national economy, quantifying the environmental services provided by forests, diversifying the species used in forest industries, documenting local knowledge for appropriate forest management, and research on biodiversity and forest plantations (FAO 1998).


Calvo, J. 2000. El estado de la caoba en Mesoamerica: memorias del taller. Costa Rica, PROARCAS-CAPAS, Centro Científico Tropical.

Comisión Centroamericana de Ambiente y Desarrollo. 1998. Atlas Centroamericano de incendios. Las quemas e incendios de la temporada 1998 en la región Centro Americana. Panama.

FAO. 1998. Los programas forestales nacionales y el desarrollo forestal sostenible en América Latina, by J. Gamboni & C. Carneiro. Proyecto GCP/RLA/127/NET. Santiago, Chile, FAO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Galloway, G. 1999. Avances en Centro América. Revista Forestal Centroamericana, 25.

Godoy, J.C. 1997. Hacia el consenso del sistema centroamericano de áreas protegidas (SICAP). Guatemala, PROARCAS-CAPAS.

Mexico. Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad. 1998. La diversidad biológica de México. Estudio del país. 1998.

Mexico. Secretaría de Medio Ambiente, Recursos Naturales y Pesca (SEMARNAP). 1995. Incendios forestales. Resultados 1995. Mexico.

Mexico. SEMARNAP. 2000. Jornadas nacionales de consulta.

Revista Forestal Centroamericana. 1999. Control y monitoreo en aprovechamientos forestales. Deforestación y pobreza.

Rodríguez, J. 1999. Plan estratégico del CCAB-AP. Borrador para consulta. Guatemala, PROARCAS-CAPAS.

[48] The figure provided was the area of forest taken under management for the period 1998-1999.
[49] Production forests only.

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