Over the course of the past year, 300 acres inside the Chiquibul Forest have been hacked, and the razed portions of the forest to date amount to 13,000 acres – larger than Belize City. That is according to Rafael Manzanero, the executive director of Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), who spoke with Amandala today, Thursday, in Belmopan.
The latest surveillance focus out in Western Belize—an area plagued with illegal incursions from Guatemalans—has been on illegal logging, which has cost Belize an estimated $15 million in the past year—almost half the budget for the Ministry of National Security.
The assessment report was unveiled by FCD this morning at a forum which it held at the Convention Hotel in Belmopan.
Manzanero told us that FCD held the forum because it wanted to inform the stakeholders of the magnitude of the problems taking place inside the Chiquibul Forest. Their preliminary assessment is based on a pilot project, but more surveys need to be done, particularly in the southern part of the forest so they can have a more comprehensive assessment of what is really happening on the ground. The $15 million, FCD says, is really a conservative estimate.
The illegal harvesting of xate from Belizean forests had dominated the talks for the past few years. Xate had reached the point of being a national security issue, but illegal logging is deemed by conservationists to be an even more serious problem.
Mahogany is the most prized hardwood in Belize – the national tree; and this, along with cedar, is the main hardwood being stolen from Belizean forests.
Belize is losing more and more of this resource, and the mahogany trees are not coming back after two months, Manzanero pointed out, emphasizing the need for more military forces on the ground.
There is also a serious problem with the illegal poaching of the scarlet macaws, which, by law, should not be harvested from the wild without special permits. Last week, said Manzanero, they found evidence that illegal intruders had been feasting on the macaws right there in the Chiquibul jungle.
“For the past three years, we have tried but have not been able to catch them in the act,” said Manzanero, adding that the Guatemalans have jungle guardians on the lookout so they can scamper before the Belizean patrols can catch up to them.
There is also evidence of looting of Belize’s archaeological artifacts, he said, which “…would happen anywhere there is a human footprint.”
The Chiquibul-Maya Mountains is a key biodiversity area and Belize is losing stocks of biodiversity interest, which are declining in value, Manzanero explained, pointing also to its value for clean air and water which are likewise preserved through efforts to conserve the forests.
Belize tries to protect its resources through a partnership between the government and non-governmental NGO’s, which help to manage the protected areas. However, those close to the border risk their lives while serving as vanguards of Belize’s wealth untold.
“The security risk for rangers is high,” said FCD’s Manzanero.
Manzanero said that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Guatemala would claim that in the adjacency zone, which lies 1 kilometer on each side of the Belize-Guatemala border, the installation of observation posts is a provocation; however, said Manzanero, Belize set up these posts for conservation purposes. Although these posts should be manned by rangers, because of rising security concerns, the military presence is required.
He explained that most Guatemalans have some training in jungle works, and Guatemalans also find it easy to get firearms.
“They know the jungle pretty well. We [FCD] know that it is a really high risk [to patrol the jungles]. The [Belizean] authorities are understanding it also,” he added.
Manzanero warns that people should not wait for a really terrible incident to occur on the border to begin talking about the problems that continue to escalate.
The Guatemalans, said Manzanero, have their contacts and informants, and so the Belizean enforcers have to be careful where they go and what they say. The Guatemalans show no fear, he explained.
“The major problem is that the Guatemalans are willing to take the risk; and if they are willing to take the risk, what do we do? Do we also go and take the risk ourselves? I mean the country,” Manzanero questioned.
According to Manzanero, there are indications of Guatemalans coming deeper into Belizean territory, and illegal logging happens several miles within Belizean territory all along a 48-kilometer or 27-mile span along the border.
“We can safely say they are operating up to 11 kilometers into Belize, like from the border to San Ignacio Town, 7 to 8 miles, in harsh terrain,” said Manzanero.
“This thing is not being contained,” he added.
He underscored the need for the Government of Belize to devise a policy on the matter.
“It’s one of those things where perhaps the security agencies do not really understand the whole gamut of impacts. Our job has been to inform,” he added.
Manzanero explained that the matter is “sensitive” and “security forces need to be more aligned with how to [properly enforce the laws] in a manner that they don’t compromise.”
There is need for them to do things “by the books,” so that things don’t backfire, he added.
The nature of illegal loggers is to display aggression against law enforcement officers, Manzanero noted at the forum.
When they are caught inside Belize taking resources, such as logs, illegally, they would wrestle or bring more guys, he told Amandala in an interview.
“If there were 3 or 4, they would come back with hordes demanding their things back,” said Manzanero.
Belize needs the higher echelons of Guatemalan authorities to be involved, because they may not even know the magnitude of this problem for us, he advised.
The problems in the Chiquibul have been going on for quite some time – since 1984 with illegal milpa incursions, he noted.
“It has now come to a point where I think it might create bigger tensions between two countries, if there is a confrontation. That is where I don’t think we want to go,” he noted, citing a recent crossfire between Belizean law enforcement authorities and illegal Guatemalan loggers, who come mostly from Dolores, Peten.
The incidences of illegal logging have not quelled since the cross-fire two weeks ago, Manzanero noted.
Furthermore, the 56 illegally-harvested logs were not removed from the forest by Belizean authorities and the Guatemalans have returned for them.
“A lot of [the logs] are gone,” Manzanero noted. “They [the illegal loggers] take the risk to come back.”
Meanwhile, the Belizean authorities were wary about going back to the location, for fear of getting into a confrontation with the Guatemalans.
“That does not work to our favor,” Manzanero warned.
“If we as a country say we are afraid …forget it, because they are not afraid,” he added.
He also noted that the illegal loggers “…use many tactics and they use children. What can you do with children? …You cannot do anything; you have to treat them nicely.”
Is Belize stepping up its level of surveillance and enforcement in a way that could deter increased illegal activities along the border?
“We believe that we need to increase on that,” Manzanero told us in reply.
He said that they had expected increased pressure from Guatemala when the Chiquibul Joint Enforcement Unit was set up to address the illegal activities happening inside the Chiquibul.
“We knew there was going to be confrontation,” said Manzanero. “That is precisely what we are seeing now. We have to go to other level now? Are we prepared as a country to do what we have to do?” he asked.
Because the Guatemalans traverse Belizean territory at nights as well, he pointed to the need for night operations, which are currently not in effect.
At today’s forum, the National Protected Areas Secretariat invited FCD to attend its next technical meeting, at which time it will have the opportunity to present its report to key technical staff within the government.
FCD hopes that a Cabinet paper will eventually be presented to the Government, so that ministers of government could be properly informed about the seriousness and magnitude of the problems along the border.
“The Minister of Tourism can’t say it is not important,” Manzanero told us. “Once something happens there at Caracol, it will be put on an alert list and visitors will not go there.”
He said that Belize could lose further economic opportunities and potential investments in concessions in the area, such as mining concessions.
Due to the illegal exploitation of Belize’s gold resource inside the Chiquibul, Boiton Minerals, which explores for gold in the area, does not feel secure in the area. Manzanero pointed to serious negative impacts on the economic development in that area.
Manzanero also noted, during the forum, that Guatemalans come in advance and mark out plots of lands in Belize, which appear as survey lines on the ground, saying “this is going to be my space [for milpa farming] for next year.” He said that with elections in the making for later this year, there are indications that some are being pushed into Belizean terrain with promises of land for political purposes within Guatemalan elements.
Following up from today’s forum, a donor’s forum is also planned to explore how further investments could be secured to quell illegal harvesting of natural resources in the area of the Chiquibul.
One initiative being heavily promoted as a means to help combat the negative effects of illegal harvesting from the area is to engage Belize in a UN REDD program where it can get real dollars for the carbon credits value of this most prized forest.
According to information presented at today’s forum, Belize may be able to access US$10.5 million for a 20-year project that could be invested on the ground to help put the brakes on increasingly problematic deforestation along the border, and inside key forests and protected areas.
Manzanero also stressed to us the need for champions of the cause. Government has set up a Scientific Committee led by Dr. Arlie Petters, which FCD hopes would become very involved with the lobby to address this very important national concern.
He added, however, that “Local participation at all levels is really important… I believe this is heritage of Belize and it creates the opportunity for people from all walks of life to be able to participate.”
During the discussion segment of the forum, Tanya Santos Neal, one of the attendees, asked why the matter is not getting the appropriate level of priority at the Cabinet level. She noted that this is a protected area issue as well as a national security issue. She questioned how many people in the streets of Belize are taking the matter seriously.
Ansel Dubon of the National Protected Areas Secretariat pointed to a recent Amandala online poll which revealed that 95% of respondents do see the national security risk in this kind of illegal incursions. He also noted that Belize has a lot of assets but is very short in cash flow.
“We hear of many individuals and companies who have a lot of assets but go bankrupt, because they don’t have cash flow. That is what is happening to us in Belize. We have assets but no cash flow. We need cash flow to get people on the ground,” said Dubon.
He also questioned how many Belizeans would sacrifice, to put their nickels behind getting short-term measures in place to help protect the Jewel.
At today’s forum, participants commended FCD for its work in helping to protect the area, despite its lack of power to act as an enforcement agency to uphold law and order inside the Chiquibul Forest.