The Sierra de las Minas in Guatemala contains a biological treasure. At least 885 species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, which amounts to 70 percent of all the species from these groups that are known to exist in Guatemala and neighbouring Belize can be found here. It is also an important tropical gene bank of conifers with 17 distinct endemic evergreen species. The area is thus considered an irreplaceable seed resource for reforestation and agroforestry throughout the tropics.
Besides its robust population of diverse flora and fauna, the Sierra de las Minas plays an important role in providing fresh, clean water to the many farms and villages in the Polochic and Motagua valleys below. More than 63 permanent rivers drain the reserve, making it the country's biggest single water resource. Local people depend on these small rivers for their agricultural crops (e.g., melon, tobacco, grapes, citric fruits, tomatoes). Bigger industries, such as soft drinks, fertiliser and paper-recycling plants, and hydroelectricity all rely on water generated at the Río Hondo station. A drop of 40 percent in water flow in the last 10 years has been attributed to forest loss.
Since October 1990 the reserve has been managed by a local nongovernmental organisation (NGO), Defensores de la Naturaleza. The reserve's managers are engaged in an environmental education programme designed to persuade local community leaders of the need to protect, manage, and restore the forests in Sierra de las Minas in such a way that they can continue to offer the services locally but also downstream. Payment schemes have been set up (see "Payment for Environmental Services and Restoration" for more information on such schemes) to ensure that those engaged in protecting and restoring the watershed, are paid by the beneficiaries downstream.372
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