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The Southern Yucatán Peninsular Region Project:
Deforestation and Land Change in a Season Tropical Forest and Economic Frontier

The Southern Yucatán Peninsular Region (SYPR) project was designed from the outset as a fully integrated, land change science effort, devoted to understanding deforestation and land-use change in the Southern Yucatán (SY) in the full dimensions of the coupled human-environment or social-ecological system as subsequently articulated in the GLP Science Plan. On-going since 1997, the project has involved partnerships among Clark University, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur [Chetumal y Campeche units], Harvard University, Rutgers University, and the University of Virginia.

The SY, that portion of southwestern Quintana Roo and southeastern Campeche, Mexico residing above 150 m elevation, occupies the uplands or meseta rising above the Caribbean and Gulf coastal plains of the Yucatán Peninsula.  The region maintains a critical ecocline of seasonal tropical forests connecting the xeric forests of northern Yucatán and the humid forests of Petén, Guatemala.  The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is situated in the center of the SY, and its southern border meets the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Petén, marking the largest expanse of protected tropical forests in Mexico and Central America, a critical element of the MesoAmerican Biological Corridor.

The SYPR operates on the assumption that by understanding land change in its own right powerful insights are gained about the processes and dynamics specific to the human or environmental subsystems and their interactions.  The range of expertise brought to bear in the design and implementation of the project includes over 40 sponsored researchers in the ecological, social (especially geography and economics), and GIS (including remote sensing) sciences.

The project began in 1997 with the aim of documenting, explaining, and modeling land changes and some of their ecological consequences.  Landsat and Landsat ETM and aerial photography were used to develop a rich suite of land cover classes and document their changes from 1987 to 1997.  The land classes included four types of tree cover, agricultural lands, three stages of successional growth, and savanna-tular (marsh).  The rates of deforestation of older growth forests were shown to be large, even within the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve.  These changes were associated with large-scale agricultural projects and a substantial increase in the rural population, rising to more than 37,000 people by 2000 (from 2,500 in 1960) and stimulated by the establishment of ejidos (communally owned lands) throughout the SY for emigrant populations from elsewhere in Mexico.  This period of land change activity was marked by the expansion of the invasive bracken fern, its persistence amplifying the need for more deforestation.

With the emergence of El Mundo Maya (a state-sponsored effort to promote eco-archaeo-tourism that includes the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve) and state-led neoliberal reforms, emphasis was placed on muting new deforestation through various NGO-sponsored “green” activities (e.g., agroforestry) and direct payments from the state, while farmers experimented with commercial jalapeño (chili) cultivation.  This high risk endeavor created winners and loser, with winners investing their profits in illegal immigration to the United States, such that by the early 2000s an emerging “remittance” economy was developing.  Agriculture refocused on extant open land, reducing deforestation but sustaining large patches of “permanently” disturbed vegetation (cultivated, pasture, successional growth, and bracken fern).

By the mid-2000 the project had developed an in-depth understanding of the forest, biota, and nutrient dynamics of the environmental subsystem and the structural and decision making dynamics of farming household.  It also had developed both econometric and agent-based models linked to land changes observed in Landsat imagery. This knowledge and capabilities permitted the project to expand to questions of coupled system vulnerability, and more recently, to the search for a sustainable land architecture (SLA).  SLA refers to the win-win dimensions of the design of the landscape—the implications of the configuration of the landscape to serve both the ecological and human needs and wants as defined by various stakeholders (e.g., farmers to reserve agents).  This effort requires that the projects models add an optimization component, an effort under exploration at this time.

Selected Findings and Products of the SYPR 1997 to Present
Land Change and Observation-Monitoring

Environmental Subsystem

Human Subsystem




B. L. Turner II, J. Geoghegan, and D. Foster, eds. 2004. Integrated Land-Change Science and Tropical Deforestation in the Southern Yucatán: Final Frontiers. Oxford: Clarendon Press of Oxford University Press.

C. Vance and J. Geoghegan. 2004. Modeling The Determinants of Semi-Subsistence and Commercialized Land-Uses in an Agricultural Frontier of Southern Mexico: A Switching Regression Approach. International Regional Science Review 27(3):326-347.

Vester, H. F. M., Lawrence, D., Eastman, J. R., Turner, B. L. II, Calme, S., Dickson, R., Pozo, C., Sangermano, F. 2004. Land Change in the Southern Yucatán and Calakmul Biosphere Reserve: Implications for Habitat and Biodiversity. Ecological Applications 74: 989-1030.

Schneider, L.C. 2004. Bracken Fern Invasion in Southern Yucatán Peninsular Region: A Case for Land Change Science. Geographical Review: 94 (2): 229-241

L. Read, and D. Lawrence. 2003. Recovery of Biomass Following Shifting Cultivation in Dry Tropical Forests of the Yucatán. Ecological Applications 13(1): 85-97.

Keys, E. 2004. Commercial Agriculture as Creative Destruction or Destructive Creation: A Case Study of Chili Cultivation and Plant-Pest Disease in the Southern Yucatán Region. Land Degradation and Development 15: 397-409. 

Manson, S. M. 2006.  Bounded rationality in agent-based models: experiments with evolutionary programs. International Journal of Geographic Information Science 20(9): 991-1012.

Roy Chowdhury, R. and B. L. Turner II. 2006.  Reconciling Agency and Structure in Empirical Analysis:  Smallholder Land Use in the Southern Yucatán, Mexico.  Annals of the Association of American Geographers 96(2): 302-322.

Vallejo Nieto, M.I. y Gurri, F. D. nd.  Vulnerabilidad en campesinos tradicionales y convencionales de Calakmul, Campeche, méxico;  Secuelas del Huracán “Isidoro.”  Estudios de Antropología Biológica 13 (forthcoming).