The Peten Region: A Remote Sensing Analysis of Past and Present Human Alteration

Elizabeth Wilson
Fall 2001

ES771 Remote Sensing    *    Emporia State University

Maya Temples of Tikal

Abstract    Introduction   Peten's Past   Peten's Present    The Collective Effort

Past and present human alterations in the Peten Region are direct links to current Guatemalan environmental issues; deforestation and soil erosion. The Maya civilization was clearly one of the central agents of environmental transformation (Redman, 1999). Supporting a population of over a million, the Maya invented techniques such as deforestation and slash and burn agriculture for productivity of agriculture, civilization growth, and expansion. Deforestation, essential to accommodate the large population, significantly altered the high forests unabling it to recover to it's natural state. Additionally, slash and burn agriculture readied the soil for necessary rapid growth, but over use depleted the soil of nutrients. Long term consequences however caused soil erosion ultimately placing pressure on production of food sources. In the 1960's, Guatemalan government opened up the Peten to colonization, resulting in dramatic population increase in the Peten region. Despite evidence of negative results associated with the Mayan techniques, the methods and survival strategies have yet to cease. Thomas Malthus, a researcher on population, suggests that population inevitably places pressure on the means of subsistence. The Peten Region clearly sets the threshold of survival for a population reliant on its resources. This project comparatively examines past and present human alteration in the Peten Region and offers a remote sensing analysis as a preventive strategy for the present from what was the inevitable for the ancient Maya.

Introduction of Peten
The Peten region is located in the lowlands of Northern Guatemala. The region resides in what is now the largest remaining tropical forest in Central America (Miller, 1998).

In the Peten region, environmental transformation is due to todays farmers and their ancient Maya ancestors. Their dispersal, to take advantage of the maximum amount of land, has led to excessive use of resources and environmental devastation. The most important factor in evaluating this Peten devastation is population. The emmense past and present population growth has resulted in excessive deforestation and slash and burn agriculture. This allows for expanded settlements and provides more open land for agriculture, threatening the Peten ecology. The ancient Maya lived successfully for many centuries while threatening the sustainability of the landscape. However, their population outgrew the sustainability, leading to their collapse. Is this the inevitable for the Peten's present population?
Significant deforestation of the Peten region has resulted in this threatening situation, such that if current rates of cutting continue, only 2% of the forest will remain ten years from now (Sever, 1998). Reseachers studying climate in other parts of Central America note that without trees, cumulus clouds fail to form and rainfall diminishes. Evidence throughout this region indicate a 200yr drought that may have been a consequence of past deforestation and a contributing factor in the Maya collapse. Thus, it essential to assess deforestation patterns as a preventive strategy. Furthermore, when patterns of significant deforestation increase, the structure of the forest is not likely to recover. Species have low turnover rate and complex structures are difficult to rebuild (Green, 1988).
In an effort to offset this consequence, slash and burn methods were applied for rapid recycling of new vegetative growth. "If the trees and vegetation that are cut and also burned, this recycling is even faster. Hence, a slash and burn strategy can transfer the abundant nutrients in the tropical cover to newly planted crops and yield impressive returns. At the same time, slash and burn exposes the soil to potential erosion" (Redman, 1999). The consequence of soil exposure is soil loss from wind erosion, which prevents the growth of vegetative cover essential to prevent soil erosion and loss of soil nutrients. As slash and burn methods continue, the fertility of the land declines to the point that after a few years the soil is depleted of nutrients and must be left fallow for several years. When a large population is depending on the productivity of land, no choice is left but to farm a diversity of plants on the same field year after year. When depleted soil no longer supports the demand, the system for agricultural productivity suffers and inevitably places pressure on the means of subsistence. The population ultimately fails to continue to support itself.
The contributing role of remote sensing is essential in evaluating conservation efforts. Remotely sensed data monitors land clearance and provides a new way to assess deforestation patterns and soil condition; a modern benefit the Maya did not have. By applying remote sensing data to deforestation and soil erosion issues, conservation efforts can continue to develop so that the inevitable of the massive Maya population does not have to be the inevitable of today's growing population. Aspects of past and present human alteration in the Peten region provide clues to patterns of destruction and bring understanding to remote sensing data.

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Peten's Past

The Maya civilization dominated areas including Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala, and parts of Honduras about 1000-4000 years ago. They are well known for their elaborate temples and glyphs detailing their life. What they may not be so well known for is their impact on the Mesoamerican environment, particularly, the Peten Region. The Mayan population reached its peak of 8 to10 million inhabitants about 1,000 years ago. At certain times the population density attained 250 people per square kilometer (Rice, 1996). It is almost inconceivable the effects the Maya were having on the environment during their existence. The high forests that prevailed in much of the region were largely removed by the farming and settlement building activities of the Mayas as early as 3,000 to 4,000 years ago (Islebe, 1996). The large Maya populations increasing dependency on their crops harvest resulted in competition for food sources as agricultural productivity suffered. The population had used up all of its resources and ultimately failed to continue to support itself. People abandoned the region and population declined.

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Peten's Present

Guatemala has experienced a drastic increase of population, from 20,000 to 300,000 (Stuart, 1991), in the past 35yrs causing widespread and rapid deforestation threatening the Peten's ecology. As the government sought profit in the 1970's and 1980's, new roads were constructed for use of petroleum and logging companies, thus allowing increased access to the Peten. As population concentrated along these new roads, agricultural fields were established on cleared areas. The clearing process continued with increasing population for new fields, homes, and cattle pastures. Due to the immense population growth along the Guatemala-Mexican border and agricultural demands, the Peten environment has been greatly altered. Results from a recent study in the Peten indicated that the ratio of mature forest clearing to fallow or early second growth clearing was approximately 5 to 1 along the northwest border with Mexico (Sader, Sever, Smoot, and Richards, 1994). The following Landsat satellite image displays the contrast between the Guatemala/Mexico border. The image clearly demonstrates where agricultural demands are having their effect.

The Collective Effort

Currently, there are ongoing conservation efforts to protect the Peten ecology. Development of the Maya Biosphere Reserve and remote sensing utilization are efforts to aid in these conservation measures. Furthermore, our knowledge and further research of Maya devastation to the Peten Region provides further insight to present degradation issues. As seen on the linked page, forest change is the key factor in observing remotely sensed data, as it is inclusive of both past and present human alteration. Given the recent drastic population increase, remote sensing is capable of acquiring data to indicate destructive patterns throughout time. Remote sensing technology is a resourceful tool for this region and must be used collectively with ground truth information for effective strategy for problem increase, sustainability, and conservation.

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Forest Change    References

***** All copyright images have been linked to their source and listed as a reference. *****

This webpage was designed for ES771 Remote Sensing
Instructor: Dr. James S. Aber of Emporia State University
For questions or comments contact Elizabeth Wilson
Created on Nov 17, 2001.