The Chiquibul Forest (CF), located within the Cayo District, covers an area of 176,999 ha (437,376 acres) and is comprised of three protected areas being the Chiquibul National Park (CNP) (106,838 ha), Chiquibul Forest Reserve (CFR) (59,822 ha) and the Caracol Archeological Reserve (CAR) (10,339 ha), with central UTM coordinates 1,878,200 – 1,871,800 North and 265,600 – 322,600 East. Meerman and Sabido (2001) identified 17 different ecosystems within the area, all being variants of Tropical Broadleaf Forests, except for a pine forest category. The region has a subtropical climate with a marked dry season between February to June and a rainy season coinciding with the hurricane season which starts from July to November (Salas & Meerman 2008). Cretaceous limestone forms the parent rocks found in the western half of the Chiquibul while Permian meta-sediments are dominant on the east (Cornec 2003). On the extreme south of the Main Divide there are volcanic deposits. The soils are generally derived from limestone and are regarded fertile in comparison to other tropical areas but on the steeper limestone slopes Wright et al.(1959) classifies the soils as skeletal where the bedrock tends to protrude out as a consequence of the soil layer being a few centimeters thick.
Within the Chiquibul Forest there are no human settlements but an estimated 65 Guatemalan communities are found along a 45 km stretch along the Belize-Guatemala border of which 11 are buffering the CF and are highly dependent on the natural resources found in this forest. Guatemalans from these communities are the major agents causing threats to the native biodiversity and altering ecosystem functions having a myriad of direct and indirect impacts to the area’s ecological integrity.
Along the western border the major threat to the ecological integrity of the CF is deforestation as a cause of converting forested lands to “milpa” farms (through the process of slash and burn agriculture) and livestock pastures. This phenomenon not only has local impacts but also at a regional and international scale where it has been associated with climate changes at the global scale (Fearnside 1996). While developed countries have contributed to much of the planet’s recent warming trend by burning fossil fuels and via the introduction of industrial compounds, Adger & Brown (1994) estimate that tropical deforestation is responsible for between 25% and 30% of the alleged climate warming in the world; and forests are responsible for about 90% of the carbon stored in global vegetation.
Slash and burn agriculture is a form of shifting cultivation system that supports millions of mostly poor people throughout the world, especially in the tropics (Loza 2004) and accounts to about 30% of all cultivated lands (Attiwill 1994). Conklin (1961) defines slash and burn agriculture as any continuing agricultural system in which temporary clearings are cropped for shorter periods in years that follows. It consists of clearing plots of land from forest and allowing vegetation to dry, then burning, and finally planting crops in the ashes. This practice is also a major precursor of permanent agriculture and pasture establishment (Ewel et al. 1981) and considered a major cause of tropical lands used and land cover changes, especially deforestation (Metzger et al. 2002).
Potential explanations for why farmers in developing nations employ slash and burn agriculture range from increased population pressure (Jones & O’Neill, 1992), land tenure (Larson & Bromley, 1990), government policies (Deacon 1995), and price risk (economical factors) (Barrett 1999).