Don Carlos Mendez and the Culture of Fire

In the spring of 1998, Don Carlos Mendez, a legendary fighter for Guatemalan conservation, was making emergency calls on his radio. The Mendezes had been enjoying a family dinner when Don Carlos’ son called him to the window. Bright flames lit young seedlings just above their home in the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve.

Don Carlos Mendez. Credit: Megan Epler Wood

The fires outside the Mendezes’ window were purposely set; his own neighbors were burning the reserve to send a signal. Mendez was soon on the radio begging Defensores de la Naturaleza, a small Guatemalan nonprofit with a mandate to protect the forest, for assistance. Little was forthcoming but, fortunately, the fire went out on its own before much harm could be done.

With the damage exacerbated by an extended El Nino dry season, Guatemala erupted in a conflagration of fire last spring. Forests that had never burned in recorded history were going up in flames. Nearly 850 fires, most of them intentionally set, were recorded in Guatemala by the end of May. Smoke forced the closing of Guatemala City’s airport, and fires raged over thousands of acres in the northern Peten region, just 20 miles from the famous Tikal.
Setting fires is a way of life in Guatemala because fire makes the soil fertile for the planting of corn. The battle for more land to put food on the table has traditionally taken precedence over legal boundaries, and respect for law and order is low in a country that is still recovering from 30 years of civil war.

The Sierra, located in Southeastern Guatemala, protects a unique variety of five mountain ecosystems, and provides refuge to the world-famous iridescent green resplendent quetzal. The Mendez’s small farm is perched in a precarious position at the gateway to the reserve’s core, which receives the highest level of protection from development.

Fires destroyed over 25,000 acres of the reserve in the spring of 1998, and Defensores de la Naturaleza mobilized over 100 firefighting brigades. But their efforts were not enough. The military refused to loan helicopters to Defensores to fight the flames from the air, and Defensores’ executive director, Oscar Nunez, publicly complained that “the government is skimping and making very little effort to fight the fires.”

Mendez and his wife Vicky began reforesting their property with native vegetation over 30 years ago. They share a natural love for the forest they help to recreate, and have always provided a sensible voice for conservation in the mountain community where they live. But acting as a gatekeeper to uncultivated land in Guatemala is extremely risky.

In 1993, Mendez nearly lost his life protecting the cloud forest above his home from illegal timber concessions. He and his son Alex were attacked by paid gunmen, who were working for timber barons planning to harvest within the reserve. Wounded and bleeding profusely, the Mendezes returned to their home and survived with emergency care. But a year later, Alex died from epileptic seizures brought on by the trauma of the attack. Carlos lost full use of his right arm, and had to receive special neurological surgery in New Orleans before he regained some dexterity in his right hand. The scandal forced the government to reverse all timber concessions in the nucleus zone of the reserve. Mendez accepted this as just compensation and never pressed charges against his attackers.

The Mendezes are now taking visitors into their home as part of an ecotourism program launched by Defensores. Delicious gingerbread and sweet, honeyed peaches from their property are among the delights to enjoy at their table. But the bitter truth of the illegal fires, hunting and logging is the staple of conversation. Defensores is trying to meet the challenge of illegal fires with a Pilot Fire Management Program for the Sierra. The group’s literature notes that, every year, the fires become more extensive, and serve to “weaken the pine and oak trees located in the region, skew natural regeneration and contaminate the air.” Defensores’ mission is to monitor the fires’ effects on biodiversity, organize local people to form fire brigades and hire people to do fire prevention in inaccessible areas.
Rainforests are increasingly vulnerable to fire worldwide. As trees are slashed and burned by peasant farmers desperate for land and clearcut by voracious timber companies, once-vast rainy ecosystems are reduced to dry fragments. This trend is leading to a drier climate worldwide and is also contributing to the greenhouse effect. In 1998, El Nino sparked drought and forest fires worldwide, with damage the size of small countries in Brazil and Indonesia.

“If the culture of fire continues, we are killing ourselves little by little,” says Jose Romero, a Honduran environmentalist. Shade-grown coffee has become the preferred agricultural alternative to corn, not the least because it provides excellent songbird habitat, and a small organic coffee cooperative is underway in the Sierra, launched by Defensores. But a coffee crop takes three years to become profitable, and by 1998, organic coffee programs had been underway for only two years in the Sierra. Patience was limited, the dry season interminable, and some of the same coffee farmers being trained by the project were guilty of burning forests in the nucleus zone. Despite all the problems, there was hope as local residents realized that coffee farmers live a more comfortable life without clearing and burning land year in and year out.

Family patriarch Don Carlos Mendez, at 62, still hikes in the mountains without tiring. The ecosystem of the high Sierra remains stable, but its future still lies largely in his hands, a heavy burden for one man. Without him, it is likely that fires and timber concessions would quickly eliminate the highland forest near his home. The long-term efforts of Defensores de la Naturaleza to replace the culture of fire with a new, more sustainable way of life are vital. But the question remains if the dwindling forests of Guatemala can be saved in time.