Breaching an international boundary

Two nations and two policies face off across the Mexico-Guatemala border (facing page [the above picture, my comment]). In the 1970s the Mexican government sponsored a homestead program here, giving forestland to settlers to clear for corn. As the soil gave out, they turned to cattle - and to the forests of Guatemala. Crossing the unpatrolled border, Mexicans harvasted trees, grazed their herds, and burned milpas.

The Landsat sequence of the border, arrowing north from the San Pedro River, reveals little intrusion into the Guatemalan forest, shown in red, in 1986 (above, at left [no picture here, my comment]). Lakes and rivers are dark blue; fields are white and light blue. In the 1990 image, at center, yellow indicates changes detected - cleared forest.

NASA archaeologist Tom Sever, the team leader, isolated the yellow areas of the 1990 image for emphasis, at right. Measuring the change by computer, he estimates that 10 percent of this strip along the border has changed in four years; 1,130 acres of forest have been felled.

As the forest goes, so go its treasures. Wildlife vanishes, and archaeological sites lie exposed to looters. Thus whole chapters of natural and human history are erased. Standing against the tide of destruction is the Guatemalan government's National Council of Protected Areas. So far, this youthful corps of dedicated environmentalists has persevered in the face of death threats and the burning of their guard posts by loggers and those who would profit from the depredation.

"With the satellite images we can monitor the region as never before," says James Nations of Conservation International. "Knowing the extent of the problem is the first step."

(National Geographic, November 1992, p 100-101)