BELMOPAN, Tues. Apr. 24, 2018– As the early morning heat beat down on Belmopan City, a group of protesters, between 25 and 30 persons, who made the journey from Barranco, Belize’s southernmost village in Punta Gorda, walked around the National Assembly building in colorful Garifuna attire in an orderly protest, beating their drums and carrying placards in a protest against the refusal of the government’s Forestry Department to grant them concession licenses for logging on lands surrounding their village.
The villagers demanded that they be allowed to earn money through the harvesting of trees from lands which are adjacent to their village.
“I am here with my people today, because of some injustices we have been experiencing at the hands of the Forestry Department with regards to logging concession within our area,” Beatrice Mariano, the president of the Barranco branch of the National Garifuna Council told our newspaper as she and others from the group of protesters prepared to go into a meeting with the Chief Forestry Officer to iron out their differences.
“Can you be more specific about these injustices, and how long they have been going on”, we asked Mariano?
“I would say over about 25 years, if not more, concessions have been granted to people to log within Barranco area,” Mariano replied.
Mariano added, “The community has not been benefiting from these concessions, because they have been given to outsiders.”
Mariano went on to explain that they have had meetings with the Forestry Department in Toledo. “We had an agreement with them that consideration would be given to Barranco local folks who apply to them. We were made to understand that none of the 5 applicants from Barranco were successful,” she said.
“We are here to find out why these  applications were not approved,” Mariano explained, “approvals were given to outsiders.”
We asked Mariano to indicate how long had these applications been made before the decision of the Forestry Department was issued, and she explained that the length of time between the making of an application to the time it is approved or not approved, as the case might be, is roughly about three weeks.
Amandala asked Mariano what specific requirements are stipulated by the Forestry Department before they approve the applications.
Mariano said that all the groundwork had been done and the requirements had been met. This included the survey of the area, which the department has to visit to ascertain where the applicants would like to work, and where there are harvestable trees.
We asked Mariano what kinds of trees are being harvested.
“Nargusta, Santa Maria, mahogany, whatever is in the area that are harvestable trees,” Mariano said.
“Outsiders started to harvest trees in Barranco from during the 1990s, when Malaysians were the first outsiders to have been granted concessions,” Mariano explained. “We stood up against that, but normally, our cries fall on deaf ears and concessions continue to be given out to people who are not from Barranco,” she said.
Mariano was asked if in the past any person from Barranco had received licenses to harvest trees. Mariano said six years ago, three persons from Barranco received licenses.
She added that she would like to see local people take control of their area as a result of the meeting with the Forestry Department.
The five Barranco villagers who had their logging concessions rejected were among the group of Barranco villagers who met with the Forestry Department this morning after the demonstration, at the Department’s offices in Belmopan.
After their meeting, the group held a press conference which was chaired by one of the rejected applicants, Fabian Cayetano, who stated that on November 12, 2017, there was another meeting held between the Barranco village council and members of the Forestry Department, at which agreements were made that stated that it was necessary for the Barranco village council to take part in the approval of applications for logging licenses.
It was also agreed that only Barranco residents would be allowed logging rights, and that the community must receive tangible benefits from the harvesting of trees in the area.
However, the villagers stated that this agreement was apparently dismissed or ignored.
Mariano, the Barranco village council vice-chairperson, stated that they have just learned that the non-residents do not actually need the recommendation of the village council to get their license. She says this has been happening for years with no benefit to the community, but they have finally reached a breaking point.
In the meeting today with Chief Forest Officer Wilbur Sabido, Cayetano said that the rejected applicants demand to know why their licenses were denied without any explanation from the Forestry or Fisheries Departments.
They also requested approval for logging concessions for two logging seasons, which would begin on October 15, 2018 and end on June 15, 2020.
Lastly, Cayetano said that they wanted to “apply to the Ministry of Forestry and Fisheries as an indigenous people to manage the entire Barranco forest area from the Moho River to the northern banks of the Sarstoon River to do re-forestation and sustainable logging and eco-tourism to generate economic activity and jobs for our people.”
According to Cayetano, the Forestry Department has acknowledged that the selected areas of two of the five applicants, Leslie Colon and Alfredo Rash, have already been issued to a Mr. Blanco from Boom Creek, and therefore those applications cannot be approved. On the other hand, the other three are pending approval.
The Forestry Department indicated that it would be able to provide further information about these licenses tomorrow.
Although this is a step in the right direction, Cayetano also repeats that they want to be able to manage their forest area so as to effectively develop their village economically and infrastructure-wise, as well as create more jobs for the villagers.
We were told that Barranco has the last remaining forest in Belize. The government does not grant permits to persons to go into Maya lands for harvesting, but the licenses are given for harvesting in Barranco, said Mariano.