IXCHIGUAN, Guatemala – Park rangers Juan Ramirez Sandoval and Eleuterio Ramirez Martinez, both pushing 70, patrol Los Cuervos forest in this town near the border with Mexico to protect the dwindling stands of Guatemalan pine from illegal harvesting for sale as discount Christmas trees.
“It’s called forest of Los Cuervos (the ravens), but all the ravens left more than 50 years ago,” Eleuterio tells Efe with a weary laugh.
Julio Estacuy, western regional director of Guatemalan’s National Council of Protected Areas (Conap), said that 95 percent of the Central American nation’s native pinabete pines have been wiped out over the last 50 years.
“People chop them down illicitly to sell them, as families use them as Christmas trees and they like the aroma of the branches,” he says.
Black market trees sell for around $35, compared with as much as $100 for a sustainably grown pinabete from a legitimate cultivator, Estacuy explains.
Though some cut down pines for use as firewood, most of the poaching is to meet demand for Christmas trees, Ramirez Sandoval says while searching the forest for sweet blackberries.
Grabbing a pine branch and holding it near his nose, he says, “this beautiful aroma is what people want in their houses.”
Ramirez Martinez, meanwhile, busies himself picking up empty beer cans left behind by young men who spent the night before drinking in the forest.
“The young trees of 8 or 10 years are those that people most want to buy, because they are a good size to put in their houses,” he says.
Roughly 10,000 Christmas trees are sold legally every year in Guatemala City and Conap pays cash bonuses to pinabete growers who follow sustainability guidelines, yet the illicit trade in the pine continues.
“We have to guarantee the reproduction of the species, the local merchants help diversify the market and aid conservation,” Conap’s Estacuy says.
He points out that the rampant crime plaguing Guatemala prevents authorities from devoting attention to the problem of pinabete poaching.
“There are prison sentences of five to 10 years for illegal tree-cutting, but the same prosecutors who handle those offenses must also deal with cases of drug trafficking and other serious offenses,” Estacuy adds.
Ramirez Sandoval, who says he knows the 35 hectares (86 acres) o Los Cuervos like the back of his hand, is most attached to the tallest pinabetes.
“They are older than me, or at least my age,” he quips.
“It’s sad to think that they take these little trees only to throw them away in two weeks after the holidays,” Juan Ramirez Sandoval sighs.