They took all the trees
Put ‘em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ‘em
– Joni Mitchell,
Big Yellow Taxi (1970)
Belize faces a major threat over the coming years and we will need the best weapons available to deal with it. The name of that threat is climate change and it will affect the whole world, with tropical regions feeling the worst of the change. Global experts agree that, by the end of the century, Belize will see 5°C increase on average daily temperatures, more frequent and longer droughts, less overall rainfall, more hurricane force winds and sea level rises that could submerge parts of low lying areas such as Belize City.
Climate change cannot be stopped solely from within Belize, so we need to find ways to adapt to it. The impacts listed above will clearly hit agriculture the hardest. This is particularly worrying because our agricultural sector currently employs more than 32,000 Belizeans and contributes 23% of GDP.
It is clear that Belize needs a successful agricultural sector, but this sector is under serious threat and measures need to be taken sooner rather than later to avoid disaster.
We cannot think about how we will adapt to climate change without thinking about population growth. Belize’s population is growing fast; in 1991 Belize’s population was 189,392 and by 2010 the population had risen to 312,971. Looking into the future, at the current rate of growth, by the year 2050 Belize’s population will have grown to more than 660,000. Can you imagine double the amount of people in Belize in just 35 years? Where will we all live? What will we all eat? Where will we grow our food?
Needless to say, the demand for land is increasing as quickly as Belize’s population grows. Currently the common view is that, to deal with the rising population and need for land, we simply need to allocate more and more land for living and agriculture. This approach raises a number of problems. For example, when all the good land has been allocated, who wants to farm on bad soils? Who wants to live in mountainous areas that are hard to access? Where will people move when climate change causes their crops to dry out? Should we not safeguard a part of Belize to make sure that we can reduce the impacts of climate change on our livelihoods?
Forests are one of our best weapons
In recent years, there has been a worrying trend of expansion of agricultural land into Forest Reserves and other protected areas. Belize’s protected areas are not always popular or well understood, but it is a fact that they are protecting livelihoods and life quality for all Belizeans, because their forests provide us with services we do not have to pay for.
Three of the most important services for the agricultural sector are controlling extremes – Forests slow down the movement of water into streams and river during times of flood and also retain moisture in times of drought helping to keep the rivers flowing; rainfall – forests create local rainfall; without forests rainfall for crops will be reduced; and soil health – tree roots bind soils together preventing erosion; they help retain soil moisture through shade and by putting nitrogen back into the soil (saving farmers the expense of using fertilizer)
In addition, forests play a very important role in the protection of freshwater supplies, and managing our watersheds will become more and more important for communities and farmers as the effects of climate change build up. A watershed is an area of land that drains to one central point. For example, the Belize River watershed is the largest watershed in Belize and drains more than one quarter of the land area of the country.
Some of the sources of this watershed are located all the way in the Chiquibul Forest in the Maya Mountains. What happens to the water way up there, affects the water reaching all the way to the people of Belize City.
As a nation, Belize must start to place the correct value on the services the forests in forest reserves and other protected areas provide. If upper watershed forests are lost, then water quality is degraded for downstream communities. If agricultural activities such as slash-and-burn milpa and cattle are permitted in these areas then downstream communities will end up with water containing pesticides, cattle excrement and other toxins.
What other choice do we have?
In summary, there are a range of problems associated with relentlessly pushing the agricultural frontier into forested lands. Forests are essential to human life and they provide services that we Belizeans are not valuing highly enough. If, as a nation, we don’t decide on the limits as to how much land can be allocated to each community, or where good agricultural land is located and what kind of agriculture would be the most suitable for that land, then we are likely to reach an unpleasant dead end.
Belize may end up like southern Peten, where rivers are empty and poisonous, droughts are common and soil is infertile. Why do you think the Chiquibul forests are under such pressure? Belize has no choice but to find alternative ways to provide food and land for its increasing population. Throughout the country, there are many people already working on solutions to the need for land, food and employment. Good examples are initiatives that promote alternative ways of dividing and working the land, such as shade grown organic cacao and coffee, sustainable logging of high value hardwoods, and sustainable extraction of other forest products.
These initiatives can (and do) work because they secure good and reliable income for people, whilst keeping forest services functioning. If we want to provide a good future for ourselves and our children, we must realize how climate change will affect us and together, choose the pathway that brings Belize multiple long-term benefits.