Optimisation of techniques for the assisted natural forest regeneration in abandoned cattle pasture in the Maya forest, Guatemala

Project Details

Key research question?

Understand the factors that determine success in promoting the natural regeneration of forest in areas that have been deforested for cattle pasture in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, Guatemala.


This project will work with data from pilot restoration sites in the MBR, ecological observations, satellite imagery and other spatial data, to model the parameters that influence success with the restoration of abandoned cattle pasture through assisted natural regeneration (ANR). The objective of the project will be to inform an intervention strategy for the restoration of thousands of hectares of deforested land within an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Project Description

The Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) in northern Guatemala forms the heart of the largest intact forest of Mesoamerica, the tri-national “Selva Maya” of Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize. The reserve spans over 19% of Guatemala’s territory, covering the old centre of the ancient Maya civilization and spectacular abandoned cities including Tikal, El Mirador, and Piedras Negras, among dozens more. It remains Guatemala’s last large wildland, conserving viable populations of wide-ranging, endangered vertebrate species including jaguar, white-lipped peccary, Central American spider monkey, and Baird’s tapir, in addition to 500 bird species and 130 species of mammals. By virtue of its location, the MBR also plays a key regional role by facilitating ecological connectivity between adjacent forests in Mexico, and Belize, ensuring the “Selva Maya” remains Mesoamerica’s largest forest.

However, in recent years, the forests of the MBR have been under siege. Large areas of the landscape have been deforested for cattle ranching, often illegally. Since 2000, MBR is estimated to have lost around 15% of its forest area to deforestation, with ninety percent of deforestation resulting from illegal and/or extensive, poorly managed cattle ranching.

There are signs that the tide may be turning. Due to increasing levels of government commitment to law enforcement (i.e. eviction of illegal cattle ranching operations) led by Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), the region is fast emerging as an area of opportunity for forest and landscape restoration at scale. Guatemala’s Ministry of Agriculture, Ranching, and Food (MAGA) has shown commitment to work with WCS to reduce the impact of legal cattle ranching and leverage national incentives to maintain intact forest within ranching areas. 155,000 hectares of forest and degraded land have been “reclaimed” from powerful illegal ranchers, the vast majority in the eastern MBR.

Nevertheless, the presence of invasive grasses planted for cattle grazing as well as the prevalence of wildfires in these degraded areas often prevents the restoration of the forests without human assistance. Initial pilot efforts made by WCS have shown that there is potential to use assisted natural regeneration techniques to restore forests in degraded pasture that would likely remain in a degraded condition without intervention. However, these pilot restoration projects have only taken place at a very limited spatial scale. Little is known about the ecological and operational feasibility of scaling up assisted natural regeneration to the level that would be necessary to reforest thousands of hectares of reclaimed land.

Summary Problem statement

Initial assessments made by WCS suggest there are at least 50,000 ha of degraded land within the MBR with potential for forest restoration. However, little is known about the feasibility and cost effectiveness of restoration at that scale. Assisted Natural Regeneration (ANR) has been proved to be a cost effective solution for restoration at scale in some environments, but the feasibility of implementation depends on the baseline condition of the site, Including the original, pre-deforestation forest type (bajo vs alto), the time since deforestation, the condition


Please contact Andrew Hector on andrew.hector@biology.ox.ac.uk if you are interested in this project. The CASE partner supervisor will be Tim Rayden (trayden@wcs.org) and Roan McNab (rmcnab@wcs.org), Wildlife Conservation Society.