MEXICO CITY (AP) – Mexico and a U.S. environmental group agreed on a plan to protect 370,000 acres of tropical forest on the Yucatan Peninsula in what officials said Friday was the largest conservation project in the country’s history.

As a result of the $3 million expropriation, published Friday in the federal registry, the land will be included in the core conservation zone of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, a 1.8-million acre area that contains significant Mayan ruins and is home to hundreds of exotic plant and animal species, including the largest jaguar population outside of the Amazon.

The expropriation will annex the land into the biosphere’s “core” conservation zone. Previously, the 370,000 acres was located in a buffer area not subject to the strictest land-usage rules, say experts at the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy and the private Mexican conservation group Pronatura, which mediated negotiations with the landowners. The Nature Conservancy contributed $1.7 million of the $3 million price.

The expropriation deal follows more than a decade of frustrated attempts by about 300 Mayan communal farmers to sell the land, 125 miles south of the communities where they actually live.

“They have been trying for a long time since the (biosphere) reserve was established to get cash from the land so they can invest it in the properties where they live and work,” says Andrea Erickson, The Nature Conservancy’s lead scientist on the project.

Officials from Mexico’s Environment Department declined to discuss the project until it is formally announced later this month.

The expropriation announcement comes more than a year after the government bought the Manhattan-size Espiritu Santo islands in the Sea of Cortes – one of the region’s most unspoiled ecosystems – using $3.3 million raised by several nonprofit groups.

AP-ES-11-12-04 2216EST

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