Tropical Mountain Cloud Forests are distributed throughout the whole tropical belt and partially in subtropical zones as well. This type of forest vegetation is only possible in condensation zones where warm, humid air, begins to cool and thus condense. This generally takes place at altitudes between 1,500 and 3,000 m (4,920-9,840 ft) (LaBastille & Pool 1978). On tropical islands the special climatic conditions of cloud forests sometimes occur at lower elevations down to 500 m (1,640 ft) and on continental mountains cloud forests sometimes occur at elevations up to 3,500 m (11,480 ft) (Hamilton et al. 1995). Mountain cloud forests are centers of endemism and hot spots for biodiversity (Garcia et al. 1998; LaBastille & Pool 1978; Long 1995; Leo 1995; Stotz et al. 1996; Toledo & Ordóñez 1993). This can be attributed especially to the specific a biotic conditions and the geographic isolation of most cloud forests and it shows the high value of these areas in terms of worldwide conservation of biodiversity.
Indigenous people have exploited the cloud forests of Mesoamerica for thousands of years, long before Spanish colonization (Peterson & Peterson 1992). Nonetheless, at the present time, human pressure on cloud forests has increased drastically, which is, in turn, resulting in a critical threat to this ecosystem. In Guatemala, Mayan people most traditionally inhabit the mountainous areas of the country. Discrimination and possession of lowlands since the time of Spanish colonization in the 16th century has forced the indigenous population to move up into these areas, which are not appropriate for agricultural use (z.B. Sterr 1994). While the method of slash and burn farming was used by the Maya over a thousand years ago (Dunning 1996; Grube 1997; Turner & Harrison 1983; Killion 1992), this traditional lowland cultivation method is not appropriate for the steep slopes where Mayans farm today, and results increasing shrinkage of the forested area, due to forest fires, and increased erosion of the fertile topsoil. Only a few decades ago the impact of this shifting cultivation towards mountain areas was evaluated as trivial (Lamprecht 1961), but in the beginning of the 1980's, 21% of the forested area in the tropical belt had already been converted into agricultural land, with an annual increase of 1.25% since that time (Goldammer 1993 nach FAO 1985). In Guatemala between 1990 and 2000 the forested area decreased annually at a rate of 1.7% (FAO 2003).
The importance of cloud forests for the conservation of watersheds, as centers of biodiversity and as an attraction for eco-tourism was recognized three decades ago and resulted in the establishment of several protected areas throughout Mesoamerica (Bowes et al. 1969; Daugherty 1973; LaBastille 1973; 1974b; LaBastille & Pool 1978; Weber 1973). Initiatives for the conservation of this kind of ecosystem continue at present (e.g. Mühlenberg et al. 1989; Fundación Defensores de la Naturaleza) but need much more help. Eco-tourism and birdwatchers provide a positive impact, helping to conserve and provide added local stimulus to conserve primary forests throughout Mesoamerica. Your visit is not only exciting for you but very important for conservation activities!
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