Headline — 16 April 2013 — by Miriam Longsworth

Maya Leaders Alliance and Toledo Alcaldes Association furious – “worst of many injustices in rosewood and logging industries”

Last week Cabinet gave instructions to the Forestry Department to release all confiscated rosewood the department had in custody for sale, and granted amnesty from April 8 to 26, 2013, for all persons who have rosewood in their possession, to submit the timber to the Government for sale.

At a press conference today, Monday, Minister of Forestry, Fishery and Sustainable Development, Lisel Alamilla, said that although the Government had in its possession three containers with over 25,000 board feet of rosewood, they still believe that there is more harvested rosewood being stored in secret.

For that reason, the amnesty was granted, so that those persons would come forward with whatever amount of rosewood they might have.

“The events of the past week have understandably given cause for concern,” she said. “The decision and action were taken with full cognizance that the decision, while not being a popular one, was in the best interest to solve an impasse in the local rosewood trade,” she went on to explain.

She said that the Government’s decision was made in order “to account for the entire volume of rosewood currently available and to dispose of it and to concurrently be in compliance with a decision made by CITES on March 14 with respect to the trade of rosewood.”

At the March 14, 2013, 16th session of the Conference of the Parties on the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a decision was made to regulate the international trade of rosewood. The decision affects Belize’s local rosewood trade as well.

“The purpose of the amnesty is to allow all those persons in possession of rosewood material to declare it to the Forestry Department,” Alamilla said. “Understandably, it may not be that the material was illegally harvested. However, given the value and perishability of the produce, it is of every intention to have those individuals capitalize on the rosewood they have in their possession.”

The decision has seemed somewhat abrupt, as the country only became aware of the release of the rosewood when the media broke the story. However, Minister Alamilla said that the decision, which was made by Cabinet, was an ongoing process which started a while back. She said that the delay in informing the public of the decision was a shortcoming on their part.

“I will accept the responsibility of my Ministry that we did not come out with this information prior and explained to the public in detail why we were doing this,” the Minister said. “The decision really is something that had been in discussion from December last year. It had been discussed and then the situation had happened whereby I had burnt the rosewood because things were getting out of hand again, and that burning really put the brake on what was happening with illegal cutting of rosewood. But it didn’t address the problem, so the problem remained.”

Minister Alamilla said that they were still receiving information that illegally harvested rosewood was being stored in different places, so the issue was discussed and debated in three consecutive Cabinet meetings, and the decision was made.

The Minister said that she sees the action as essential to ensure that the Forestry Department accounts for the remaining volumes of harvested rosewood material and to permit its eventual sale and export. Belize will now be operating strictly under the CITES regulations, and the country needs a clean slate. To do that, the Government cannot have in its possession any rosewood that was illegally harvested.

The Government has sold the rosewood to G.I.V. – which is an acronym for German Ignacio Vega, brother of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Lands, Gaspar Vega; the company is said to be one of the largest exporters of rosewood — which will be selling the wood on the international market. The wood was sold to the company for $5.00 per board foot, which is the market value in Belize. There will be a revenue sharing agreement which will grant the Government 50 percent of the revenue made from the international sale.

Minister Alamilla said the trade of wood with China is very problematic, as sometimes they send the material and they don’t get paid. The buyers in China pay upon receipt of the material and not before. She said it was the Cabinet’s decision to not take the risk of selling to China. Therefore, the material was sold to G.I.V., who had the money to pay before they received the material.

Minister Alamilla said the department is currently conducting the necessary groundwork which includes conducting measurements, supervising the movement of rosewood and documenting the transfer of rosewood at every step. After the amnesty period is over, the Government will start working on sourcing funding to take an inventory of the rosewood population, which will include studying the biology and taxonomy of the species, mapping its distribution, and understanding the mortality and regeneration of the stock.

“This will enable us to make a sober look at what remains of rosewood and how we can manage it responsibly,” she said.

The release of the rosewood in the absence of the Minister was questioned by many, who said that it made the entire operation seem suspicious. The Minister said that it was not intended to seem that way.

Cabinet made the decision prior to her leaving the country.

On Friday, April 12, the Maya Leaders Alliance and the Toledo Alcaldes Association issued a press release stating that they are outraged and disturbed by Cabinet’s decision.

“By doing this, the government of Belize is saying to the entire country and to the international community as well that it will allow so-called loggers to violate the laws and regulations, steal from legally recognized Maya lands, and be rewarded and even embraced as business partners by our elected officials,” the release read.

The groups referred to the decision as one of the “worst of the many recent improprieties and injustices surrounding the rosewood and larger logging industry” and wrote that the original rosewood logging permits are in violation of the 2010 Supreme Court injunction in the Maya land rights case that prohibits the issuing of permits and concessions on Maya land without the consent of the Maya villages.

They added that “The government has compounded this wrongdoing by allowing the sale of the illegally harvested wood after its confiscation, and dividing the profits with the very people they should be prosecuting.”

Minister Alamilla said that it is important that the Maya Leader Alliance and Toledo Alcaldes Association are aware that the business could not have happened without the participation of the Mayan communities, because they were the ones who assisted in identifying the rosewood.

“We are interested in them partnering with us; we would like them to help us in giving oversight and being present when we are measuring and loading this material,” she said. “But I want to make adamantly clear that any material that is newly cut will be confiscated by Government, and will become the property of Government.”

She said that the Government calls on the Mayan communities to become partners with them in ensuring that new material is not mixed in with old material. She said that the Mayan communities have experienced loggers who can contribute to their efforts.

Alamilla said that any rosewood not submitted for sale during the amnesty period will be considered illegal and will not be eligible for export at any time in the future.

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