At last count, there were 32 Guatemalans living illegally inside Belizean protected areas—particularly the Caracol Archaeological Reserve and the Chiquibul National Park—according to information released to the media today, Wednesday, by Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), a Cayo-based NGO which co-manages the Chiquibul National Park.
Rigoberto Gutierrez, who FCD’s Park Ranger Derric Chan said has expanded his ranch inside Belize almost 25 acres, may be linked with further illegal encroachments and incursions into Belizean territory, FCD’s executive director Rafael Manzanero indicated.
Those incursions include the increased clearing of Belizean forests, which have escalated from a reported 113 hectares in 1987, 692 hectares in 1994, 4,680 hectares in 2009, and almost 5,000 hectares in April 2011, are a major threat to Belize’s territorial integrity, the NGO points out.
“We need more boots on the ground,” said Manzanero, calling for an increase in observation posts inside the protected areas in question.
It’s not just the illegal clearings for farming and pasturing nearly three miles into Belize that pose a serious problem for Belize; there is a multi-million-dollar interest involved, spanning the illegal logging trade, clandestine xate harvesting, and stealthy scarlet macaw poaching expeditions deep into Belize’s Maya Mountain Massif, and particularly across the majestic and expansive Chiquibul, which makes up a sizeable chunk of the Cayo District.
FCD notes that 13 detainees were held in 2010, but 11 were caught in 2010 up to 22 kilometers, or nearly 13 miles into Belize.
In addition, 46 horses brought by encroaching Guatemalans were confiscated over the past two years, 32 of them in 2011.
As for the poaching of the scarlet macaw—a bird under international trade restrictions—Guatemalans have come as far as 20 miles into Belize to steal them, the NGO indicates.
Illegal xate harvesting has perhaps been the most rampant, but according to Boris Arevella, FCD’s wildlife manager and research coordinator, a comprehensive study to examine the economic impact won’t be pursued until 2012. What they do know, he said, is that between 2000-2005, 37.8 million of leaves have been extracted illegally at a value of roughly BZ$ 1 million.
FCD’s executive director said that there is a need for urgent action, the main ones being the establishment of two new conservation posts along the border, specifically at Ceibo Chico and Valentin in Cayo, to be manned by Belize Defence Force (BDF) and police, who would be patrolling in the area with rangers.
FCD also calls for “reinforcements in hotspot areas through activation of joint conservation posts.”
Belize Defence Force Commander Dario Tapia agrees with Manzanero that putting up the new observation posts would increase border security—but, Tapia told Amandala, when we contacted him via phone for his comments, what the BDF needs is more manpower.
“As long as I get more manpower, no problem!” he said. “Government would have to give more manpower. [The new observation posts] would alleviate some of the pressure there [on the border.]”
FCD also calls on Belizean authorities to strengthen joint forces units with personnel, equipment and training to demonstrate a credible deterrence; to articulate a clear policy and mandate on how to deal with cross-border environmental crimes; to synchronize roles among regulatory agencies and other stakeholders; and to build up of cooperation programs with Guatemala such as Peace Park concepts.
Manzanero said that he is due to meet next week Minister of Natural Resources and Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega to discuss the issues and the hope is that a Cabinet paper can be submitted for consideration as early as next week.
Manzanero underscored that the real issue is territorial integrity and security for the country of Belize, which, he said, is way above the environmental concerns.