Jorge Emilio Espat, a Belizean who owns land along the border between Belize and Guatemala, has notified Belizean authorities and a representative of the Organization of American States (OAS) that Guatemalan citizens are squatting on his land and some of them are even building houses. The Amandala reported that Mr. Espat told the media that the OAS representative has been to the area with him, and that the representative “deemed that about ten lots occupied by the Guatemalans are on Belizean territory.”
This is far from the first time that Guatemalan citizens have encroached on our territory, which they do to raid mineral resources, poach plants and lumber and animals from the forest, and sometimes to establish farms and even settlements.
A handful of settlements sprang up in the Toledo District along the borderline in the 1980s and 1990s, the most infamous of which was called Santa Rosa. The village of Santa Rosa didn’t completely cease to exist until 2008, after the Guatemalan citizens living there were offered special incentives to return to Guatemala.
The indefatigable Executive Director of the Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), Mr. Rafael Manzanero, has reported to the nation that Guatemalan citizens are not only stealing products and cutting the forest to plant temporary crops, they are now establishing pastures for cattle. We are not aware of a response from our government to these disturbing developments.
These encroachments, and some violent incidents along the border, one of them in which Guatemalan soldiers snatched four Belizean security officers who were on patrol, led to a protocol called Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), the most important of which was the establishment of an Adjacency Zone. In the protocol the border was described as the Adjacency Line, and one kilometer east and west of the line formed the Adjacency Zone.
The governments of Belize and Guatemala agreed on the Adjacency Zone to help keep the peace while the parties negotiated, and, while the arrangement lasts, both sides are to confine their people to their respective sides of the Adjacency Line. Belize’s citizens have treated this protocol with the utmost respect. Guatemala’s citizens have not, and they have become a thorn in Belize’s side.
In 2013, Brother Wil Maheia and his group, Belize Territorial Volunteers (BTV), in response to Guatemalan encroachment into the Columbia Forest Reserve and on land near one of Belize’s villages on the Western border, Jalacte, set out to clear the borderline in the south, as the British had done when Belize was a colony. Prior to Belize gaining its independence in 1981, the borderline between us and Guatemala was cleared periodically.
Maheia and his group were advised by the government to desist from any such activity. The government warned that Belizeans who participated in such an exercise were not only endangering themselves, but they were also endangering the peace between Belize and Guatemala. The Territorial Volunteers were not deterred.
These encroachments by Guatemala’s citizens have been occurring mostly in areas that are not frequented regularly by many Belizeans, but the encroachment on the Espat land is right in our backyard. Jorge Espat’s land is close to Belize’s Benque Viejo del Carmen, and Melchor de Mencos in Guatemala. The relationship between Belizeans and Guatemalans in these two towns has never been hostile, but the present situation is extremely troubling. The disrespect here could be considered extreme.
We need to be very concerned about what is happening here. Have the leaders of Melchor de Mencos decided that friendship with us is of so little value it can be discarded? Have the people in Melchor, seeing how feeble our response is to encroachment in the Chiquibul, come to believe that it is no big issue to squat on our land? Could this conceivably be an honest error caused by our failure to keep the borderline (Adjacency Line) cleared?
What is for sure is that there is population pressure across our border in the Petén, a nearly 14,000- square-mile department of Guatemala. According to one Wikipedia page, a census of 2002 estimated the population of the Petén at 366,735 and the official estimate as of mid-2012 was 662,779. That is explosive growth.
The Inter-American Development Bank said in a 1998 report that the population in this department was growing at 9% per year, far faster than the rest of Guatemala. The report says that much of the Petén is in reserve, but “enforcement is weak or nonexistent, and the calls of birds and monkeys are increasingly being replaced by the whine of chainsaws.” The report said “the forest was being converted to smoke and charred earth at the rate of 75,000 hectares annually.”
The population pressure from this area is affecting us. Belize has agreed with Guatemala to settle our territorial differences at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and while we expect a favorable outcome at the United Nations’ court, that will not change the reality of what is occurring in Guatemala.
If things continue on the present course with their native population, the present number of persons in Petén could double in the next ten years. Thousands of people from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala traveling through the department toward Mexico and the USA, and an agreement between Guatemala and the Americans to set up areas in the department to house people seeking asylum in the USA, will cause the population in Petén to increase even more. The pressure will increase on us to conserve and control our territory.
Belize’s leaders appear to be asleep at the wheel, and while they are napping, things are getting out of control. It has been pointed out that our government doesn’t maintain public assets. We have watched murder and armed robbery increase until they have become a near epidemic. We allow border encroachments to go on in other parts of the country until citizens in Melchor say ‘all of Guatemala is doing it, so we can too’.
This latest encroachment is high profile, in a populated area, on private land, so our leaders have to wake up and address the problem. It is among the primary duties of a government to protect the lives and the properties of its citizens, all of its territory. We need a positive resolution to this encroachment near Benque, and we need it now. If we delay in getting our neighbors back to their side of the border, a trickle could become a stream.