In recent decades, the Mesoamerica Biodiversity Hotspot has seen some of the highest deforestation rates in the world; between 1980 and 1990, deforestation averaged 1.4 percent annually, and it is estimated that 80 percent of the area's original habitat has been cleared or severely modified. Of all the countries in the hotspot, El Salvador is the most devastated—the country has less than five percent of its original forest cover remaining.


The expansion of the road network, logging, agricultural encroachment and livestock production, and the use of wood for cooking have contributed to deforestation. While the national governments of the Mesoamerica Hotspot have declared dozens of new national parks and reserves, many of these areas remain poorly protected. Some of these areas are too small to provide adequate protection to the full range of their biodiversity and are vulnerable to outside threats, especially illegal squatters and poaching.

Conflicts in legal framework

In Southern Mesoamerica, contradictory laws have made it difficult to carry out conservation management plans. In Costa Rica and Panama, new laws governing forest resources or the administration of indigenous territories often conflict with prior laws. Good legislative intentions are frustrated by circumstances and existing legal frameworks that limit the applicability of new legal protection.

Agriculture encroachment

The advance of the agricultural frontier in the hotspot has rarely occurred in a sustainable manner. Many soils rapidly lost productivity, forcing farmers to move to more fertile lands, those that are forested and even protected.

Insecure land tenure and title creates a major disincentive for sustainable agriculture and resource use secure title would anchor farmers in one area rather than requiring them to continuously extend their range into new, forested areas.

Infrastructure development

In Northern Mesoamerica, significant investments hold great promise in terms of introducing new opportunities for economic development and to address the poverty that is a root cause of environmental degradation. At the same time, however, large infrastructure projects could well fuel wide scale habitat destruction if not designed and implemented with adequate protection.

Illegal traffic in timber and fauna

Despite appropriate laws and regulations, illegal timber and wildlife harvesting inside Northern Mesoamerica's protected areas is widespread. Weak law enforcement allows illegal and unsustainable hunting and trafficking of fauna, despite the fact that Belize, Guatemala and Mexico each have laws that prohibit the hunting or collection of threatened species; that outlaw hunting inside a protected area and its buffer zone; and that regulate in other areas through strict permits capture rates and closed seasons and areas. Subsistence and trophy hunting not only kill individual animals, but also can affect biodiversity in the rest of the forest through the loss of potentially important ecosystem processes.

Read more about the hotspot's species in our Northern Mesoamerica ecosystem profile (PDF - 1 MB)—also available in Spanish (PDF - I MB)—and Southern Mesoamerica ecosystem profile (PDF - 747 KB)—also available in Spanish (PDF - 753 KB).