CROOKED TREE, Belize District, Mon. May 15, 2017–Over the weekend, all attention turned to the village of Crooked Tree for the annual Cashew Festival.
However, before the start of the much-anticipated Cashew Fest, a fire of unknown origin burned the Belize Audubon Society’s building, located at the entrance of the village, to the ground.
“Actually, we want you to get out of here!”
Amanda Acosta, executive director of the Belize Audubon Society, told our newspaper how her staff learnt about the fire.
“We have two staff that live within the village and so they were getting calls in the early morning hours and then the site manager [Mr. Derrick Hendy] was actually going to do a birding activity in the early morning, so he was there around 3:30, and he called me about the fire. But by 3:30 the building was already engulfed in flames,” she explained.
According to Acosta, she does not suspect that the fire started because of negligence on the part of her staff.
“The building was opened on Friday. The normal procedure is we turn off everything — we don’t even have external lights on the building because there is a big street lamp right at the end of the corner,” she said.
Audubon manages several sites throughout the country, including one in Crooked Tree. The residents of the village, however, have been battling Audubon for some years now, because, they say, Audubon has been interfering with their livelihoods by enacting legislation to curtail their fishing and hunting activities, which, one irate resident said, “have been happening for almost 250 years.”
So, while many villagers seized the opportunity to attract income at the Cashew Fest, others used the moment to tell the Belize Audubon Society that they shed no tears for the catastrophe. Audubon, they said, was no longer welcome in the village.
Since the fire, several villagers have made celebratory remarks on Facebook. The consensus is that the Belize Audubon Society was jeopardizing their livelihoods.
“Crooked Tree is a wildlife sanctuary by designation; nothing should happen in a wildlife sanctuary, which is obviously a huge problem, because people have to eat, people have to live,” said Acosta.
John Gillett, chairman of the Crooked Tree village council, has gone on the record in his address during the festival’s opening ceremony to speculate that the building was burnt down by disgruntled villagers. Acosta would not join in speculations, though she conceded that the relationship between the Audubon Society and the villagers had been turbulent.
“That is a speculation and that is one that we have to be careful of, because we don’t have proof or evidence of anything, and I cannot speak to a lawless act, but we’ve been working there for 30-odd years. Yes, we’ve had contentious moments, but it has never been to a point of violence. So I would not want to suspect and cast aspersions on an entire community,” she claimed.
Orin Smith, Station Manager at the Fire Department, in an interview with our newspaper, could not verify that the building was deliberately burnt down.
When we asked him if any accelerants were found near the burnt remains of the 40 by 40 wooden structure, Smith did not comment. According to him, investigations were underway.
Police have also launched an investigation into the fire.
The destroyed building had been the Crooked Tree office for the Belize Audubon Society for the last 17 years. The work of the society in that village goes as far back as 1984.
According to Acosta, despite the antipathy of the villagers, the Audubon Society will continue its work in the village and will reconstruct its office as soon as possible.