Guatemala harbours a rich — albeit insufficiently studied — diversity of ecosystems and species [1], [2], [3].

The country’s tropical location, its complex orography and wide elevation range, plus interannual climatic variations created by ENSO events, have moulded a diverse array of climatic zones and terrestrial and marine environments. Thirteen distinct Holdridge life-zones grouped into five broad categories (tropical forest, piedmont tropical forest, mountain tropical forest, and sub-Andean tropical forest) have been identified in Guatemala [4], [5]. In addition, a diverse array of coastal and marine environments and ecosystems (including coral reefs, sea-grass beds, mangroves, beaches, lagoons, and coastal dunes) occur along the country’s 403 km-long coastline [1].

This diversity of ecosystems, along with the country’s geographic position at the junction of the Nearctic and the Neotropical biogeographic realms, have begotten a high species diversity and endemism. Although the country’s flora and fauna have not been adequately inventoried and figures available are inconsistent [1], [2], [6] some 11,806 species of vascular plants, 166 amphibians, 248 reptiles, 744 birds, 229 mammals, 1,003 fish, 59 sharks and relatives, 782 fungi and lichens, and 5,612 invertebrates have been recorded. Guatemala holds perhaps the highest rates of endemism in Central America. Over 13% of the known species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and plants are endemic to the country. Guatemala is part of the South Mexican and Central American centre of origin of crop plants — the cradle of crop species such as maize, bean (Phaseolus spp.), gourd and pumpkin (Cucurbita spp.), pepper (Capsicum spp.), cherry tomato (Lycopersicum cerasiforme), and others.

Many zones and particular ecosystems of the country are exceptionally or uniquely biodiverse. The entire country is part of the Mesoamerica hotspot, one of the 36 biodiversity hotspots of the world [7], [8]. The Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund has identified 26 Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) in Guatemala, which cover about 49% of the country’s territory [9]. KBAs are sites of global significance for biodiversity conservation and require priority protection due the vulnerability and uniqueness of the animal and plant populations that reside in them [10], [11]. The Lachúa lagoon, La Chorrera-Manchón Guamuchal, Tigre-Río Escondido lagoon, Yaxhá-Nakum–Naranjo, Punta de Manabique, Bocas del Polochic, and Sarstún river have been recognized as wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar convention.

Guatemalan ecosystems and species are being threatened by various anthropogenic pressures. For instance, 680,556 ha of forest were estimated to have been lost between 2010 and 2016, most of those in the Petén Department [12]. Some 26,000 ha of mangroves are estimated to have been lost since the 1950’s. Although data are insufficient to assess with certainty the extent of species loss, 230 plant and 635 vertebrate species have been identified (as of 2021) as vulnerable or threatened with extinction in Guatemala [13], [14].


Guatemala’s biodiversity is being eroded mainly by the loss and degradation of terrestrial (different types of forests, natural grasslands, wetlands, etc.), aquatic, and coastal marine habitats, in addition to other pressures [1], [2], [3], [15].

Forest ecosystems are being adversely affected by deforestation for land use change, and degraded by illegal logging, fuelwood extraction, forest fires, and pests [16].

River ecosystems are threatened by increased sediment loads from soil erosion; pollution by effluents, wastewater, and solid waste; as well as by exotic invasive species such as the common pleco (Hypostomus plecostomus).

Coastal habitats on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts are adversely affected mainly by poor watershed management. Deforestation, land use change, soil erosion (caused by poor farming and livestock ranching practices), and changes in river flows in the middle and upper watersheds have led to a reduction in the rivers’ flow and increase in their sediment loads which, in turn, cause coastal erosion and silting of coastal lagoons and channels, respectively. Beach erosion is also a side effect from the construction of dams upstream and beach dikes. Mangrove ecosystems are adversely affected by construction of shrimp farms, salt pits, and tourism infrastructure, and degraded by wood extraction to be used as fuelwood or for charcoal production. Guatemalan coral reefs are being affected by coral bleaching and exotic invasive species such as the lionfish (Pterois volitans, P. miles)

Impacts on particular species include, for instance, overexploitation of game fish species (e.g., Sailfish) and sea turtles whose eggs are traditionally harvested and commercialized (mainly on the Pacific coast) as delicacy food. Although the trapping of Caribbean manatee is prohibited by decree, its population has decreased drastically, with only 49 individuals remaining at the latest census. Wildlife trafficking is also a significant threat. Some 1,212 animal specimens (mainly reptiles and birds) were seized between 2009 and 2014, and 469 specimens in 2014 alone.


Key policies and governance approach

Guatemala is party to several multilateral agreements related to the protection of biodiversity, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

The Government of Guatemala ratified the CBD in 1995 and is also party to its Cartagena (since 2005) and Nagoya (since 2014) protocols. Efforts to fulfil its obligations to the convention and develop the policy framework for protecting and sustainably using the country’s biodiversity have been undertaken since then.

An initial National Biodiversity Strategy [17] was adopted in 1999. The National Biodiversity Policy [18] was adopted in 2011, with the purpose of mainstreaming biodiversity into national development, emphasizing its valuation, conservation, and sustainable use. The policy identified five strategic axes: (i) knowledge and valuation; (ii) conservation and restoration; (iii) sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystem services; (iv) the role of biodiversity in climate change mitigation and adaptation; and (v) policy implementation.

The biodiversity policy provided the basis for producing an updated National Biodiversity Strategy and its Action Plan 2012-2022 [19]. The new strategy develops the policy’s strategic axes, outlines the desired 2022 scenario for the country’s biodiversity, identifies strategic actions necessary to materialize this, and sets goals and objectives to be attained.

The comprehensive 1989 Act on Protected Areas [20] is the sole regulatory instrument on biodiversity conservation and use. Created in 1989 by the Act, the National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP, for its acronym in Spanish) is the government agency responsible for formulating and implementing all policy instruments related to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

The main mechanism for conserving biodiversity in Guatemala has been the creation of protected areas [2]. The first protected area was decreed in 1955 and several more have been established since then, particularly following the adoption of the 1989 Act on Protected Areas. CONAP is the government entity responsible for managing the National System of Protected Areas (SIGAP). As of 2021, the SIGAP included a total of 348 protected areas encompassing 4,176,914 ha (38.4%) of the country’s territory [21], including 241,556 ha of the marine portion, mostly in the Caribbean. Numerous areas (covering 1,577,129 ha) that have been voluntarily devoted to nature conservation by local and indigenous communities occur across the country, but particularly in the Alta Verapaz, San Marcos, Huehuetenango, Chiquimula, Quetzaltenango, Totonicapan, Quiche, Baja Verapaz, and Sacatepequez departments. Guatemala’s system of protected areas includes three UNESCO biosphere reserves, Maya (the largest protected area in Central America), Sierra de las Minas, and Trifinio Fraternidad (shared with El Salvador and Honduras), and one UNESCO World Heritage site, Tikal National Park.



As admitted in Guatemala’s National Development Plan K’atun 2032 [22] and its Sixth National Report to the CBD [2], despite progress made in expanding protected areas and raising awareness on the value of biodiversity, significant challenges remain [1], [2], [3], [15].

Knowledge on Guatemala’s rich biodiversity is still very limited and fragmented. Despite the high coverage attained by the SIGAP — over 38% of the country’s territory, the management of protected areas is not entirely effective and many of them face challenges such as illegal logging, wildlife extraction and poaching, and deforestation. Most protected areas lack management and financing plans [1] and 39,478 ha of forest within protected areas were estimated to have been lost over the 2010–2016 period [12]. The coverage of SIGAP is still limited, leaving a number of biodiversity-important sites and ecosystems (particularly marine areas) out. Only three of the 26 Key Biodiversity Areas of Guatemala are fully included in protected areas, 16 are partially included, and the remaining seven are entirely outside of the existent protected areas [9].

Deforestation and the loss and degradation of natural habitats have not been halted and are still substantial. There has been no improvement in the status of threatened species and the number of species identified as threatened has increased —  [13] versus [14] — suggesting that still more species may be at risk of extinction but have not been documented. As suggested by the growing number of specimens seized, wildlife trafficking is increasing. Although some measures have been taken to deal with invasive exotic species, a comprehensive system to address this issue has not been implemented.


Initiatives and Development Plans

Technical studies and legislative initiatives for establishing five new marine protected areas on the Pacific coast have been prepared and submitted to the consideration of CONAP. Those areas would increase SINAP’s coverage in 293,202 ha and would help to fill its gap in the representation of Pacific coastal and marine ecosystems [2].

Guatemala has been participating in UNDP’s Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN) since 2014. During the first phase of BIOFIN, the financing needs for the conservation, sustainable use, and equitable sharing of the benefits of Guatemalan biodiversity were estimated, and potential mechanisms to increase investment and meet such needs were identified. The BIOFIN phase II (2018–2025) project aims to support efforts to mobilize additional financial resources for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity by a) implementing a budgetary strategy in five local governments on the Pacific coast that redirects/generates financial resources towards/for the management of marine-coastal biodiversity; b) engaging the private sector in a public-private partnership to promote the recreational fishing and conservation of Sailfish and the sustainable development of artisanal fisheries; and c) developing a certification scheme for the natural rubber value chain.


Goals and Ambitions

Guatemala’s National Development Plan K’atun 2032 [22] aims to improve the management of protected areas, achieve zero net deforestation in the core zones of protected areas, and reduce the number of threatened species by 14%.

The National Biodiversity Strategy and its Action Plan 2012-2022 [19] set 14 goals — aligned with the Aichi targets — to be achieved by 2022. These include: incorporating at least 10% of coastal-marine ecosystems into some mechanism of sustainable use and conservation; restoring 15% of the country’s biodiversity and ecosystem services; consolidating 50% of protected areas and other conservation schemes through their integration into the National System for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biological Diversity.


[2], [3], [15], [19], [22]

  • Information available on the state and trends of natural ecosystems and species is incomplete. Further efforts are necessary to fill these information gaps.
  • While significant progress has been made in developing a biodiversity policy framework, regulatory instruments for implementing such policies are still to be developed — the 1989 Act on Protected Areas is the sole regulatory instrument on biodiversity currently in place.
  • The National Biodiversity Strategy and its Action Plan 2012-2022 has identified concrete measures to improve biodiversity conservation. However, a significant amount of both technical and material resources is needed to implement such measures. The BIOFIN project estimated the financing costs of implementing the National Biodiversity Strategy. By comparing these with the public and private expenditure on biodiversity, the financing gap for the 2016-2022 period was estimated at US$66.23 million. This revealed the need to significantly augment the expenditure and investment on biodiversity conservation in order to achieve the national strategy’s objectives.
  • The BIOFIN phase II project is identifying mechanisms to mobilize additional financial resources to close this gap; implementation of those and additional mechanisms should be supported.

[1] Informe Ambiental del Estado de Guatemala 2016.

[2] Sixth national report for the Convention on Biological Diversity.

[3] Ministerio de Ambiente y Recursos Naturales. 2017. Plan Estratégico Institucional (PEI) 2017-2021.

[4] IARNA-URL. 2018. Ecosistemas de Guatemala basado en el sistema de clasificación de zonas de vida. Guatemala.

[5] The World Bank, Government of the Republic of Guatemala, Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services, & Institute of Research on Natural Sciences and Technology/Vice-Rectorate of Research and Outreach/Rafael Landívar University. 2021. Ecosystems account of Guatemala.

[6] MARN, SGCCC, & PNUD. (2021). Tercera comunicación nacional sobre cambio climático de Guatemala. Editorial Universitaria UVG.

[7] Mesoamerica. 

[8] Myers, N., Mittermeier, R.A., Mittermeier, C.G., da Fonseca, G.A.B., Kent, J. 2000. Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403: 853-868.

[9] Key Biodiversity Areas of Guatemala. Retrieved October 2021

[10] Langhammer PF, Bakarr MI, Bennun LA, Brooks TM, Clay RP, et al. (2007) Identification and gap analysis of Key Biodiversity Areas: targets for comprehensive protected area systems. IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas Best Practice Protected Area Guidelines Series No. 15. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

[11] Langhammer, P., Butchart, S. H. M. and Brooks, T. M. (2018). Key Biodiversity Areas. Encyclopaedia of the Anthropocene.

[12] Dinámica de cobertura forestal de Guatemala 2010–2016.

[13] Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas. 2009.  Lista de especies amenazadas de Guatemala -LEA- y listado de especies de flora y fauna silvestres CITES de Guatemala.

[14] Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas. 2021. Lista de Especies Amenazadas de Guatemala -LEA- FAUNA y 3 actualización Flora.

[15] CBD. Country profiles – Guatemala. Retrieved November 2021

[16] GCI, 2018. Evaluación preliminar de factores del uso de la tierra, causas y agentes de deforestación y degradación de bosques en Guatemala.

[17] CONAP 1999. Estrategia Nacional para la conservación y usos sostenible de la Biodiversidad y Plan de Acción Guatemala.

[18] CONAP. 2011. Política Nacional de Diversidad Biológica.

[19] Estrategia Nacional de Diversidad Biológica y su Plan de Acción 2012-2022.

[20] Congreso de la República de Guatemala. 1989.  Decreto Número 4-89.  Ley de Áreas Protegidas.

[21] Listado SIGAP (actualizado al 2021).

[22] Consejo Nacional de Desarrollo Urbano y Rural. 2014. Plan Nacional de Desarrollo K’atun: nuestra Guatemala 2032. Conadur/Segeplán.