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BTV calls for action against Guatemalan encroachments

HeadlineBTV calls for action against Guatemalan encroachments

Photo: The Chiquibul Forest Reserve (Pic Courtesy Arlo Cansino)

Deforestation/destruction in Chiquibul; confrontation in Sarstoon

by Kristen Ku

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Mar. 21, 2024

The Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV) have raised concern over the recent encroachment of Guatemalan citizens into the Chiquibul and Caracol protected areas.

According to BTV’s recent press release dated March 19, these actions have led to extensive deforestation and destruction of Belize’s national parks, the deforestation and destruction extending over an area nearly as large as Belize City.

“For more than 10 years now, Guatemalans have been having incursions or invading the Chiquibul forest, and our authorities seem to turn a blind eye to that, while the average Belizean cannot even go and cut a piece of land without the government coming after them,” Wil Maheia, the leader of the BTV told us on Wednesday.

Approximately 2,000 hectares out of the reserve’s 59,822 hectares have been devastated by these activities, including illegal logging, poaching, and unauthorized farming.

While there are patrols by NGO troops and continuous documentation of the damage by Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), Maheia suggests that the lack of a firmer response could be interpreted as a form of accommodation for the Guatemalans involved. “It’s almost like they are accommodating the Guatemalans,” Maheia said.

The issue traces back to at least 2007 when Belizean law enforcement encountered Guatemalan loggers near the Caracol Maya ruins.

Incidents of violence have erupted, such as the shooting in 2011 and a standoff in 2014, when armed Guatemalans threatened to destroy a Belizean conservation post at the Valentin Camp within the Caracol Archaeological Site. (In connection with that incident, on September 25, 2014, Belizean Police Special Constable Danny Conorquie was gunned down at the Caracol Archeological Site, and his suspected Guatemalan killer was never caught.)

The BTV’s reports contribute to a history of territorial disputes with Guatemala, which have involved illegal activities damaging the Chiquibul National Forest, an area critical for its biodiversity and as a source of water for a significant portion of Belize’s population.

Notably, the region saw increased Guatemalan presence in 2016, as highlighted by photojournalist Tony Rath, who called attention to the illegal gold mining and environmental destruction in the Chiquibul, warning of the potential for Guatemala to effectively possess portions of Belizean territory through these activities.

The FCD has been working since 2007 under a co-management agreement to manage the Chiquibul National Park and document the rise of these illegal activities.

Just like Maheia, both Rath and Rafael Manzanero, Director of the FCD, have acknowledged the urgent need for the Government of Belize to enhance border security and increase patrols to cease further encroachment and preserve the integrity of Belize’s natural resources, given that a newly built road has been observed coming from Guatemala into the reserve.

Following the recent invasion, Maheia has not only called on the Government of Belize, but also the Belize Network of Environmental NGOs to meet and discuss a plan to reforest the damaged areas left behind by the Guatemalans.

“We cannot champion our environmental efforts while neglecting the destruction unfolding in our national forests. The Chiquibul is not only integral to Belize’s ecological well-being but also to the global ecosystem, serving as vital “lungs” for our planet,” the BTV’s press release read.

According to Hon. Florencio Marin, Jr., the Minister of National Defence and Border Security, despite their lack of proper resources, they are currently conducting patrols and working with the FCD and Minister Orlando Habet, of the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Climate Change & Disaster Risk Management, to address the issue.

“Last week, myself, Minister Habet, Mr. Manzanero, and Mr. Chan from the FCD, we did an overview helicopter flight over the areas, so we got a good bird’s-eye view of it. I mean, there’s always activity on the border, and hence why we do patrols, hence why the FCD is working in Chiquibul. So, we did see a lot of activity,” he told KREM reporters late Wednesday evening.

“The military is fully aware. We even landed at one of the Machakil outposts, and the officer in charge gave us a full and thorough briefing of what’s happening. A lot of these activities are occurring at night. Now, we are limited in our resources in having our soldiers deployed to destroy it. And without trying to breach any action, well, Cabinet has ordered that these places, whenever we encounter them, they will be addressed. But those are things I prefer not to comment on.”

Fortunately, according to the Minister, despite the ongoing attacks by Guatemalans, many areas of the forest that had been destroyed and cleared out have begun to grow back.

With the Belize Defence Force (BDF) up to speed with the recent developments, the Minister is also keeping a close eye on narco-trafficking, an issue that has been active since the inception of the Guatemalan encroachments.

“Our BDF knows what is happening. Well, of course we won’t go around advertising it. I mean, the General will decide when and where they will operate with the resources he has. He keeps us informed; I keep the Cabinet informed; and the Cabinet gives the directions,” he added.

Minister Marin also acknowledged the recent confrontation between the Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF) and the BDF in removing a barge that was stuck in the Sarstoon area.

The barge, used to mobilize sand by the Guatemalans into the Sarstoon Village on the Guatemalan side of the river, was traversing through the North Channel (north of Sarstoon Island) which also happens to be Belizean territory. But what they believed to be a smooth trip quickly caused their barge to get stuck in some sludge.

This is when the Guatemalans called on the GAF for help, claiming that the BDF were trying to charge them. On the contrary, according to the BDF’s Commander, Brigadier General Azariel Loria, they only confronted the Guatemalans to remind them of their limits.

“The southern channel where Sarstoon Island is, is our border. And so, that’s what we were expressing to them, that they need to be very clear how they use that channel, the southern channel. And I believe one of the personnel had a Belizean social security, so there were some issues with that. But eventually, I think everything was settled on that part,” Minister Marin said.

Eventually, the Guatemalan nationals were given innocent passage.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long been actively pushing for a Sarstoon Protocol which will help to avoid any future confusion between the two parties.

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