Around mid-September, the Association of Protected Areas Management Organizations (APAMO) raised an alarm about a recent development regarding illegal logging in the Mayflower Bocawina National Park in the Stann Creek District. Logs that had been confiscated in May 2021 and left in the forest on the road to the national park were being stolen by a group of 6 men who were caught red-handed by police and park rangers. It turns out that, rather than throw the book at the men, the Forest Department accepted a plea deal outside of court, and with three men accepting guilt, a police corporal, an ex-Forest Department driver and a minor went scot-free. That meant that the driver got to keep his truck and trailer and the penalties for the trio were not as stringent as a court would have applied based on stricter fines legislated in 2017. The following is the story narrated by KREM News’ Marisol Amaya following a visit to the park:
War continues to be waged against our forests — and protected areas are not being spared. The spoils of THIS war are our precious, valuable hardwood species that illegal loggers will seemingly do anything for. In May this year, some even went so far as to bulldoze a road through crown land. They did not stop until they reached a quarter mile INTO the Mayflower Bocawina National Park in the Stann Creek District.
Israel Pau, park ranger: “The area where they cleared…that would take you at least a quarter mile.”
If a road built through crown land into a national park sounds obscene, it’s because it is – especially when there are legislative prohibitions against damaging, destroying or removing species of flora, and constructing roads in national parks.
The magnitude of the destruction through the pristine forest cannot be properly gauged until you see it for yourself, and so we took a trip to the national park. On our way there, nothing struck me more than when our guide, park ranger Israel Pau, remarked: “This was all forest. No roads. Nothing was here.” And indeed, the illegal road uphill through crown land made our trip easier, just as it greatly facilitated the timber extraction for the illegal loggers from the remote and – at times – rugged terrain. That terrain includes streams, one of which was actually dammed with cohune trees so that vehicles and heavy equipment could pass through crown land to facilitate the illegal activity at the park.
Israel Pau, park ranger: “In front of us we have a dammed, running creek. The only access to go across was to knock down some of the cohune palms, set them underneath and put dirt over them so they can cross. But the result is: now they dammed the area and all the water accumulates at one spot. This means that the people who use this stream down, or farmers who use this, they have little less water now, because all the water is stagnant in one area.”
Along the way, through crown land, we observed several trees cut down, presumably by lone loggers using chainsaws. They now find it easier to access the area due to the illegal road.
Israel Pau, park ranger: “With this type of opening, it’s sad to say that more illegal stuff will happen – especially hunting now. And it’s open to other illegal loggers.”
Once on the mountain top, we finally got to see for ourselves the desecration in the northern portion of the Mayflower Bocawina National Park. There were beautiful felled Mahogany, Santa Maria and Nargusta trees left strewn around the forest floor from May 2021. These were a portion of the 43 logs that couldn’t be extracted in time. Also evident were the tree crowns and stumps of those they did remove to the barquedier — an open area to which logs that are extracted from different parts of the forest are taken.
Israel Pau, park ranger: “The 11th of May was the first scout, then the 12th of May we actually came with the police. We walked three hours up the hill. We found them as we followed the bulldozer area. We noticed that most of the Mahogany trees, the Nargusta trees and the Santa Maria trees were already extracted. We heard them from a distance, then from there we started following them down the hill. When we know that they can actually see and they can hear us, we made noises and the bulldozer guy didn’t want to stop. So we followed him all the way to the barquedier.
“They are well-prepared. They know what they are doing. They plan this long before. They know exactly where the trees are. You just can’t go anywhere and think you can find Mahogany, or anywhere in the country and you say you can find Nargusta. So there has to be some area where they know that there are these types of trees – and especially in protected areas.”
Marisol Amaya – “Over the years, how much have you seen the illegal logging increase in the national park?”
Israel Pau, park ranger: “When I started, it was more than 75% illegal logging happening within the protected area. Now, it went down, as we do our patrols, to at least 35%. There is less now, but with this huge one that we encountered, it is still going on – it increased again, because this is not the only part they go. They do the southern parts of the national park too.”
Even more alarming is that double the amount of felled trees from May 2021 have been left behind in the adjacent Sittee River Forest Reserve that is equally remote and has no co-manager, so its conservation falls under the responsibility of the Forest Department. These are enormous, precious trees that are in abundance inside these protected areas. Similarly visible in the reserve are the trails and cut underbrush destroyed by the illegal loggers to aid their extraction.
Fast forward 4 months from May 11, 2021, to September 7, 2021, and people were busted by rangers and police stealing some of the same logs that had been moved to the barquadier.
Marisol Amaya: “The rangers were hiding out in the forest here – ended up catching them red-handed, including a police officer and a former driver for the Forest Department. And only 3 of the 6 have been charged. Those who have not been charged include a minor (17 years old), the police corporal and that former Forest Department driver.”
The seemingly half-hearted slap on the wrist is no doubt a disappointment to the rangers who put in all the hard work to protect the forest that’s like their second home.
Israel Pau, park ranger – “I feel really bad, especially when you see those trees just going missing in the forest and no one does anything about it.”
Marisol Amaya – “It keeps happening.”
Israel Pau, park ranger: “It always happens, and no one gives a damn but the park rangers. They’re always the ones to go out there. To see this happen is not a good feeling.
“To my understanding, the charges for this opening of a road – I never heard that there were charges for it. Maybe for the logs them, but not for opening this road nor for entering illegally within the national park.”
One of the problems is logging concessions granted in national land adjacent to protected areas.
Jose Perez, Executive Director, APAMO: “Many times, these people use the fact that they went outside of their concession area – inadvertently or without knowing, as an excuse. I think a policy needs to be adopted in respect of concessions adjacent to protected areas. I think that would make a big difference. We need to collaborate more closely in respect to surveillance, but more so, the prosecution of these cases.”
Being questioned following this latest incident is the commitment from authorities. Apart from throwing the book at illegal loggers, are sawmills being properly checked? The question is posed: ”If you don’t have a demand for it, you won’t have the supply. So if they were monitoring the sawmills…”
If the illegal extraction continues unabated, like the conservationists and the former Forestry Minister Dr. Omar Figueroa rightly point out, extinction of the hardwood species is sure to come.
Jose Perez, Executive Director, APAMO: “Mahogany, Santa Maria, Nargusta – Yemeri is one they commonly extract. And whilst they may seem to be in abundance, pretty soon they will become as threatened as Mahogany and Santa Maria – these other hardwoods.”
Dr. Omar Figueroa, Former Forestry Minister: “We lose millions and millions of dollars, and in fact some of our prized hardwoods are now becoming threatened with commercial extinction because of the illegal harvesting. One major step is to readjust the fines and to let it serve as a deterrent to these illegal activities.”
First published by KREM News
Link to video package can be found at : https://www.facebook.com/ kremnews/videos/247961383953866