Editorial — 17 August 2012

Sometimes we get the impression that the government cannot handle more than one pressing issue or exigency at the same time – it’s a one-or-the-other kind of situation. But, the truth is, such a luxury cannot be enjoyed by any modern nation state, for any excessive period of time.

We understand the dramatic importance of the Super Bond negotiations. We understand that we are at an awfully critical stage in those negotiations, and we understand that the next few days, and particularly the next few weeks, will, to paraphrase Thomas Paine, try the souls of men.

We understand all that. But still, serious issues pile up in modern government. Those issues don’t stay neatly stacked in the backroom until the number one issue in the front room is resolved, and a beautifully ordered transition can take place. Case in point – the creeping “invasion” taking place on the western front of our country will not hit the pause button because we have to face down the bondholders. We wish it were such.

Sometimes we get the impression the government is looking the other way, praying this matter of the border encroachments would just go away.

In times past our Guatemalan neighbors were encroaching on our fabulously diverse forests for logging purposes. Then it was for xate leaves, and if it wasn’t for the ornamental leaves, it was for farming purposes, or to actually settle and live; now it’s to pan for gold. All these varied activities on our border have been going on for over 30 years now.

We find it absolutely stunning that the government has not marshaled all their resources and people together to address this most pressing of issues. We know they haven’t because Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD) has had to publicly call on Belmopan to convene a high level working group of the Ministry of National Security, the Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so that “immediate strategic steps” can be taken to address the situation.

That’s not the way it should be; FCD shouldn’t have to do that. After years and years of documented incursions, the government should have long taken the lead.

AMANDALA as far back as October, 2010 featured an article titled “Belize’s forests vanishing,” in which we pointed out that a whopping 25,000 acres of Belize’s forests are cleared each year, “equivalent to about 9,000 football fields” annually.

With the help of FCD, in May of 2011, the newspaper again did a special report highlighting massive land clearings by Guatemalans in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, using the traditional slash-and-burn farming techniques. The rest of the media also joined in with stirring visual images. Again, the government did nothing with efficacy. Or at least we have no public indication they have.

Now we are being told by a group of international experts that if the aggressive deforestation of our country continues untrammeled, Belize’s forest cover can be wiped out in a matter of 30 years. AMANDALA’s Adele Ramos documented their study in an article in our Sunday, August 12, 2012 issue, entitled “Belize’s border forest threatened.”

While we applaud FCD’s steely determination, marching two and three illegal gold seekers at a time through the jungle to the San Ignacio Magistrate Court does not strike us as a very sustainable and dramatic indentation in what’s been taking place on our border. By FCD’s own estimation, there are at least 300 Guatemalan nationals alone panning for gold in the Chiquibul, and we are not even talking about the others doing illegal farming, logging and animal poaching.

The situation is made all the more complex and daunting by the crushing poverty in the Guatemala border towns. In Guatemala, more than 75 percent of their people live below the poverty line. In a population estimated at 14 million persons, over 10.5 million are considered poor.

The recent study featured in last weekend’s AMANDALA cited that 74 percent of Guatemala’s deforestation takes place in Peten, where the highest rate of population growth in the country occurs. In Peten and surrounding areas, while they continue to clear even more of their forests, and extract the last of their fine woods, it will become even harder to feed their rapidly growing population. So where will their residents go? Where else? Belize has an open frontier.

This is a big, big problem. And our government seems to be looking away, praying it goes away. That’s not how the real world works, we’re afraid.

It may be that the government doesn’t feel any real heat coming from the Belizean electorate on the issue. Our people, perhaps, have been too taken up with trying to survive and make ends meet, while trying to keep our children safe and in school. So we have not been making a whole lot of public fuss about it. The government, in turn, has taken that to mean it’s not necessary to lead on the matter. But that’s a mistake. Privately, our people are perturbed.

As we have said, we understand the challenges of our indigenous neighbors near the border. There is a certain feeling of solidarity we share with the poor and oppressed everywhere. But at the same time, we in Belize cannot surrender this land of ours by default; we have to decide how we will address this situation very soon. Of late, we seem to have thrown our hands up in the air. Que sera, sera! But we just cannot continue like this. This is our land!

Perhaps it is that the government is on their game in these matters, and we just don’t know. That is a possibility. Successive governments have been less than open with the Belizean public when it comes to these border activities.

But if that is not the case, and that’s a very distinct possibility, then we need to get the ball rolling. It just seems to us ordinary folk, that while our forests are being decimated and our natural treasures looted and exploited, we seem at best to be asleep at the wheel, or at worst to be hopelessly impotent on the issue. Either way, that’s not good, to put it mildly.

The government cannot continue to expect FCD to lead on this matter. There are very many environmental issues at play here for sure, but the situation is fraught with national security and diplomatic implications – and that’s the exclusive domain of the duly elected government. They have to lead.

In an ideal world, the government can complete negotiations on the Super Bond, and then go on to the other pressing issues of the day, one solitary issue at a time. That’s not a luxury this government has – and that’s because we have not even discussed crime and violence in this essay. Government will have to summon the resolve and attentiveness the border issue demands, and soon. This policy of waiting on the ICJ is hogwash. It is written.

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