PUNTA GORDA, Toledo, Fri. Mar. 18, 2016–The Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) has been taking some heat from the Government on allegations that the group’s expeditions to the Sarstoon area have been causing a backlash from the Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF), leading to an escalation in tensions between that military and the Belize Defence Force (BDF). In essence, the BTV and its supporters have been accused of putting the BDF at risk by their “well-meaning” activities to express Belizean sovereignty at the Sarstoon – Belize’s southern boundary with Guatemala.
However, BTV founder, Wil Maheia, told Amandala that the BTV was formed back in 2009 in response to incursions by Guatemalan civilians inside the Columbia River Forest Reserve in southern Belize, because these unchecked incursions have posed a clear and present threat to Belizeans.
Maheia said that around 2008 the idea was birthed after he attempted to establish an eco-tourism, adventure travel enterprise from San Jose Village to Caracol, across the Mayan divide for tourists seeking extreme adventure. The idea, he said, also was to provide supplementary income for Maya villagers who were being asked to stop their traditional slash and burn farming for environmental purposes. The “green” alternative was to create the trail, which would enable tourists who would be up to the challenge to take a 7-day hike or almost 50 miles through very steep terrain.
While initiating that enterprise, though, they kept coming across xáteros, Guatemalans who were coming into Belize to harvest the ornamental xáte palm.
“One of our guys got shot and when we see all the illegal activities by Guatemalans in the Columbia River Forest Reserve, we decided we needed to take this into our own hands. We felt that the Government was not doing anything. They were trying to hide it,” said Maheia.
Due to the security threat it would have posed to tourists, the eco-tourism enterprise was abandoned and instead Maheia formed the Belize Territorial Volunteers, with the aim being the conservation of Belize’s forest, which was being pilfered, and also “to save our country. That’s where the BTV started, with about 9 Mayan farmers,” Maheia said.
That happened in 2009, but it was not until the following year, 2010, that the BTV made its first trip up the Sarstoon River.
Maheia said that the BTV also realized that there were problems with illegal fishing in the Sarstoon.
He said that the illegal fishing was not being checked in the area in front of Punta Gorda and while the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management had co-managed the Sarstoon Temash National Park, not enough efforts were made after the co-management arrangement with the Government came to an end.
Maheia said that when the BTV placed its first flag on Sarstoon Island, the GAF came over and asked if the BTV was going to leave the flag there, but said nothing more.
Later, they decided to take more trips to the area, including students from the University of Belize to the Gracias a Dios border marker.
“In 2013 was when we placed a flag there and then the Guatemalans… returned that flag to the BDF. That was the first confrontation. Then we realized that they are coming closer and closer into our territory,” Maheia said.
As we chronicled in last weekend’s edition of the Amandala, those reported acts of aggression by Guatemala’s military against the Belize military date back several years. An internal report filed by a major of the Belize Defence Force (BDF) cites incidents occurring since 2006 – four years before the BTV began expeditions to the Sarstoon.
Maheia said that unofficially they have been making trips to the Sarstoon area at least once a month, primarily to observe fishing activities. Alex Dillett, Earl Smith and other Belizeans from the diaspora send fuel money to keep those efforts going, he said.
Maheia said that the main concerns at the Sarstoon are illegal fishing and illegal logging inside the Sarstoon Temash National Park.
His response to the Government’s assertion that the BTV’s activities on the Sarstoon are responsible for flared tensions between Belize and Guatemalan military is, “There is no way in which a group of unarmed civilians who are clearly inside Belizean territory could aggravate any military force. I could understand if we have arms and stuff. We never carry arms and I believe all we are doing is to try to bring awareness to Guatemalans cutting down our forests and raping our seas…”
Maheia said that another good date for an excursion to the Sarstoon would be April 30, the anniversary of the signing of the 1859 Boundary Treaty between Guatemala and Britain.
It is that document which shows the boundary at the Sarstoon drawn with a red line south of Sarstoon Island, extending to the mouth of the Sarstoon.
Maheia said that students should be educated about that date and Belizeans should mark the milestone.
(Photo of illegal fishing by BTV)