Headline — 23 July 2013 — by Adele Ramos
Sunset or sunrise for the Chiquibul?

Belize’s virgin forest inside the Chiquibul is fast disappearing; xate nearly decimated

If the Government of Belize does not act to stop the mounting incursions by Guatemalans into the Chiquibul Forest—an asset valued conservatively at $3.4 billion: more than the nation’s GDP—it could vanish within just two decades, according to information presented at a symposium held today in Belize City.

Dubbed Alarming Threats to Biodiversity, Peace and National Stability, the event was a standing-room-only showcase which attracted people from all walks of life in Belize: students, public officers, teachers, environmentalists, businesspeople, and politicians. Belize’s Governor-General Sir Colville Young took a front-row seat to hear just what these alarming threats are.

Apart from the Caracol Archaeological Reserve, the Chiquibul forest houses Belize’s largest protected area — the Chiquibul National Park (CNP), which according to Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), covers more than 264,000 acres of tropical broadleaf forests.

It is also the area through which passes the Chiquibul River, which meanders into Guatemala and comes back into Belize as the Mopan, Macal River, and Belize Rivers – three major waterways that help sustain Belize’s population; including providing a source for hydropower generation.

FCD organized today’s symposium as a part of its continued efforts to get badly needed national and international attention to push back the incursions by Guatemalans into this prized Belizean forest.

Rafael Manzanero, FCD’s Executive Director, said that the fear is that with the increasing use of firearms by those coming into Belize, there is the risk that the escalating encroachments will lead to serious confrontations that could disturb the peace between Belize and Guatemala.

With the expansion of the human footprint and the rapid escalation of deforestation, Belize’s virgin forest inside the Chiquibul is fast disappearing.

“We have people who are living inside of these areas – not Belizeans – these are Guatemalans who have made their shelter, they are living there,” said Manzanero.

He said that today, there are over 7,400 acres used today by Guatemalan farmers, and anyone who walks in the forest will likely meet illegal migrants.

As for illegal logging, the total impact zone is over 41,000 acres. According to Manzanero, the Guatemalans come with the lists of what sizes and types of timber they want.

A similar pattern is seen with the extraction of xate, which, he said, is nearly decimated.

The endangered scarlet macaw and other wildlife are also targeted by poachers. According to Manzanero, in 2011, 8.9% of monitored macaw nests were lost. In 2012, the ratio skyrocketed to 30%.

He said that the poachers curse and shout at Belizean authorities; and if they sleep for just one hour, the poachers climb the trees with the spikes and steal the birds.

Chiquibul wildlife is, at times, poached to populate a pet zoo owned by a drug lord in Guatemala, the FCD director said.

As for Chiquibul’s gold, that is also procured at will by the Guatemalans. Manzanero said that once gold was found in Belize, the call went out in Guatemala: “Belice tiene oro!”

He said that communities dissect the Belize forest and they make rules dictating which Guatemalans are allowed in particular parts for the Belize forest for gold panning.

“What is going on in the Chiquibul in my view is nothing short of a national embarrassment, it is a failure to act properly, and quickly; and unless we find the courage and the will to take the action that is needed, at next year’s symposium the picture is going to be even bleaker,” said Retired Belize Defence Force (BDF) Major Lloyd Jones, responding to Manzanero’s overview of the eastward drift by Guatemalans.

Jones expressed the view that the Chiquibul represents the continued and sustained breach of Belize’s sovereignty.

“No matter how you slice it, that is what it is… Let me tell you a little secret: Belize is no longer 8,867 square miles. The adjacency zone amounts to about 82 square miles. The area of influence that Rafael pointed out to us just now – I had his original presentation which said it was about 35,000 hectares. That translates to about 135 square miles. If you add those two together, we are at 8,650 square miles. Now on paper we own the full 8,867; so we have what they call in diplomatic circles sovereignty de jure, but on the ground… sovereignty de facto is only 8,650 square miles,” said Major Jones.

He pointed to the data presented by Manzanero, indicating that in 1994 figures, there were 692 acres of land under agricultural exploitation by Guatemalans. By 2007, that increased more than 6-fold to almost 4,500 acres.

Jones said that during that period, two significant events happened: the British forces had left about 1993 and around 1995, the BDF were deployed to the streets of Belize City. The military’s role shifted from the defense of the border to teaming up with police to maintain law and order in Belize City.

“This [expanding encroachment] has been the consequence of that decision,” said Jones, insisting that Belize has to move from a policy of appeasement to a policy of containment.

Jones said that the Guatemalans are now 18 kilometers (11 miles) inside Belize, and immediate collective action is required to ensure that no further encroachment occurs. He added that Belize then needs to put into effect a strategy of interdiction and slowly move that line back to where it belongs – along the Belize-Guatemala border.

“I would hope that whatever plan of action comes out of these discussions, that once again we have pointed actions, they are time-bound and as well we can identify how it is that we are actually going to execute the actions,” said Chief Forest Officer Sabido, also responding to Manzanero’s presentation.

“At this point, we are at a very critical juncture, in terms [of] Chiquibul, in terms of what it is that we want to address in the Chiquibul, and I think that after all the presentations, all the different issues they may seem daunting, but I think that once we are able to clearly define who is responsible or which entity is responsible for what action, there has to be some concerted level of effort to carry out those actions,” Sabido added.

The estimated value of the Chiquibul Forest is $3.4 billion, according to a presentation delivered by Percival Cho, Sustainable Forest Management Expert. The vast majority of that is in the form of material wealth: $2.1 billion, and natural wealth: $1.3 billion.

Cho demonstrated the progression of encroachments from the Petén into western Belize, beginning in 1975/1976, when there were mostly fire scars in the Chiquibul Forest. In 1991, there was massive deforestation in next-door Petén. By 2001, those encroachments had spilled over into Belize and over the next 10 years, those continued further into Belize. Cho said that the only thing quelling the eastward deforestation is the border.

“There is a high probability that in 10 years’ time, if we do nothing, that is what will happen to the Chiquibul: we lose half of it! In 20 years’ time, we lose the other half,” he emphasized.

At the end of his presentation, he asked: “Will it be sunset or sunrise for the Chiquibul?”

Chief Executive Officer in the Office of the Prime Minister Audrey Wallace said that Government has resolved to “internationalize” the problem, and Belize will be talking with officials from Britain, Guatemala and the OAS.

She said that “…in the face of sustained and increasing threats — we cannot do it alone, we must raise international awareness.”

Forestry Minister Lisel Alamilla said, “I want to caution you that the Chiquibul is not the only protected area that is threatened…. The threats to protected areas also come from within, from our own Belizeans.” One of the ways to solve the problem, she said, is to involve the private sector.

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