Officials of Belize and Guatemala, including a representative of the surveillance group Comision de Belice, a department in the Guatemalan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, held a high-level meeting in Belize City, Belize, on Tuesday, March 9, 2010, in the wake of flared tensions along Belize’s western and southern border with Guatemala.
The parties had agreed in December 2008 to take the 150-year-old dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), pending approval by their parliaments and voters; however, on the first anniversary of that festive signing, they were meeting in Guatemala to discuss protests from Guatemalan villagers, who were accusing Belizean military of incursions into Guatemala — allegations which Belizean authorities have categorically denied.
Belize contends that because of the illegal incursions by Guatemalans who come to cut xaté and logs, and hunt wildlife inside protected areas, an observation post was set up at Machaquilha.
“The complaint from Guatemala about militarization of the border came shortly after the post was installed. The political spin by Guatemala was that Belize installed the outpost as a political strategy to demarcate the border long ahead of the ICJ resolution of the case,” said Alfredo Martinez, Belize’s Ambassador resident in Guatemala.
He told the Belize media on Wednesday at a press briefing held in Belize City that as the time for court draws near, Belize will continue to see Guatemala challenge the country’s sovereignty in an effort to help its case before the court.
“We will continue to see challenges in writing, because they are trying to document for the court purpose — should we ever reach there — that they did protest our sovereignty. In other words, it’s just like when you have a piece of land, a squatter, you send that person a notice constantly: ‘Hey, come out of my land!’” said Ambassador Alfredo Martinez.
In October 2009, Guatemalan villagers of El Carrazal in Guatemala made official protests to their government over the Machaquilha observation post installed by Belize near the western boundary with Guatemala. These are not indigenous people, said Ambassador Martinez. When they go to a restaurant, it’s not their cell phone they put on the table — it’s their gun!
The villagers called their Guatemalan congressmen to complain, and the Guatemalan Government, in turn, sent a diplomatic note to Belize, questioning the installation of the observation post on the Belize side of the border.
Soon after the problems in the west, there were problems in the south, at the Sarstoon – a natural border between Belize and Guatemala, with Belizean military conducting regular patrols to Cadenas, near Gracias a Dios Falls, marking Belize’s south-west border with Guatemala.
The Guatemalan Armed Forces stopped Belize Defence Force officers from using the southern channel of the Sarstoon, which is the southern boundary between Belize and Guatemala, telling them to instead use the northern channel, north of the Sarstoon Island, which is included in Belize’s territory, as defined under the 1859 Treaty and the Belize Constitution.
The Guatemalan military had complained that Belize military were speeding too much and creating waves that were overturning the canoes of these poor families who do subsistence fishing in the area.
“We did not interpret that to be any navigation challenge; we interpreted that — and protested severely — that this was a challenge to our sovereignty of using the southern channel,” Martinez told the press.
He said that while the challenges at the Sarstoon had stopped over the past two to three weeks, and the Guatemalan military had stopped intercepting the Belize military, there was “a brief challenge last Tuesday.”
This came up on Tuesday at the High Level Working Group meeting between Belize and Guatemala as a point of discussion. “Belize says it has to stop,” said Martinez.
On a visit to Guatemala last week, said Martinez, Prime Minister Dean Barrow also raised the concern with Guatemala president Alvaro Colom, who reportedly assured that things will return to normal.
For their part, the Guatemalans claim that it is not a sovereignty issue, but we know that that is not the case, Ambassador Martinez maintained.
“But as we have pointed out to them, this [challenge of Belize’s sovereignty] does not help you any at all, because the International Court of Justice, looks at what happened before you signed that special agreement,” said Martinez. “Anything after the special agreement, the court will say, they are just doing that, it won’t help you. Why didn’t you do that show of sovereignty before?”
In response to a flare-up out west over the Machaquilha observation post, the parties had met in Guatemala first and then later in Washington at the Organization of American States. It was coming out of this meeting that Belize’s Foreign Affairs Minister Wilfred Elrington commented, much to the discontent of many Belizeans, that, “We have to interact to emphasize the view that we are not different from each other; the fact of this artificial border does not make us different. We are still the same people, with the same aspirations and desires.”
When the Guatemalans first protested the Belize observation post in October 2009, Belize returned a diplomatic note, crafted with the help of international lawyers, said Ambassador Martinez.
The Confidence Building Measures, said Martinez, say that the Guatemalans must dissuade their people from coming over to Belize illegally. “We don’t see them doing that,” he declared.
Border or no border
Going back to the year 2000, said Martinez, Guatemala’s constitutional court ruled that the 1859 Boundary Treaty is null and void, and therefore there is no longer a border.
“Therefore, the Foreign Ministry and the military interpreted that to mean that anything that happened, that happens in Belize, it’s as if it happened in Guatemala — there is no border. Hence the reason we ended up at the OAS under that crisis, and the OAS had to invent something they had to accept,” he explained.
The Guatemalans refer to the border as the “adjacency line.” Our newspaper questioned where the term came from.
“The OAS invented it,” Martinez replied.
“They [the Guatemalans] can only refer to it constitutionally as an adjacency line, because if they ever use the word ‘border,’ it’s treasonous for anybody at the Ministry to do so — under their law. Which we obviously don’t agree, but that is their internal situation,” Martinez elaborated.
“Shouldn’t it also be considered treasonous for us to be calling the border an adjacency line, seeing that the Guatemalans will not call our border a border?” Amandala asked.
“Good question. I can’t answer the legalities of that. …”
“Your opinion?” we probed.
“I wouldn’t call it treasonous. I think it’s an accommodation for peace along the border. I wouldn’t call it treasonous,” Ambassador Martinez said.
He said that in all official communications from Belize, it is called the border.
“We use boundary, border; that’s what it is to us,” agreed Ambassador David Gibson, foreign affairs consultant for Belize.
High level working group
In December 2009, OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza recommended that the parties convene a high level working group to address the border concerns. That group held its inaugural meeting in Belize City at the Radisson on Tuesday, March 9, 2010.
The Belize side of the table is headed by Ambassador Martinez, and includes Ambassador Gibson, with an open seat for an official of the Ministry and a floating seat for a technical person from relevant Government entities, such as the BDF and Forestry Department, depending on the subject of discussion at the working group meeting.
Comision de Belice – all eyes on Belize
The Guatemalan side of the table is headed by Guatemalan’s resident Ambassador to Belize Manuel Téllez; the executive secretary to the Comision de Belice Antonio Castellanos; former ambassador to Belize; a Guatemalan Foreign Affairs official and the fourth – a floating seat for a technical representative of the Government.
Martinez and Gibson explained that the Comision de Belice is a department inside Guatemala’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dedicated completely to Belize, made up of 10 persons, mostly lawyers, with their support staff. They monitor everything that is written and said on the radio in Belize and by the next day, they have a recording in Guatemala of whatever is aired on the call-in shows or written, said Martinez.
Prensa Libre does not recognize Belize
The Prensa Libre, Guatemala’s leading newspaper, has published a few articles recently, regarding the flared tensions along the border. The paper, said Martinez, was formed by one of the most right-winged families in Guatemala, who at one time belonged to a party that advocated the take-over of Belize.
Last Friday, following the publication of the Prensa Libre article saying that Guatemala has been protesting Belize’s military presence on the border, Amandala queried Ambassador Martinez for clarifications.
“The villagers at El Carrazal complained that the BDF was in Guatemalan territory harassing them,” said Martinez, at the briefing Wednesday.
He told the Belize media that while he could not speculate that the Guatemalan Government was behind the cry of outrage, he suspects that maybe one or two people in the Comision de Belice may.
He noted that Prensa Libre, which also has a market in Belize, has consistently used maps showing Belize attached as one to Guatemala, not as a separate country. The Guatemala Chamber of Commerce did the same, but has announced this year that they would change, said Martinez.
Barrow to Guatemala
Ambassador Martinez also reported that Belize Prime Minister Dean Barrow was in Guatemala on Friday, March 5, along with presidents of the Central American Integration System (SICA), and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss Honduras’ situation. At the same time, said Martinez, Prime Minister Barrow got Guatemalan authorities to sign the Partial Scope Agreement, which takes effect on April 4, 2010.
“It is the first bi-lateral agreement that has ever been signed between our two countries, the first bilateral agreement that has been ratified by the Guatemalan Congress, and ratified by the president of Guatemala,” said Martinez. “We stand to benefit a lot in agricultural exports to Guatemala.
He said that the Agreement provides opportunities for Belize’s exporters for corn, rice and beans.
Meanwhile, said Martinez, Guatemala has its own troubles, including corruption charges against the Minister of Home Affairs, who, along with three other ministers, resigned, in addition to his vice ministers, over corruption allegations and claims of involvement in the setting up of death squads.
The chief of the anti-narcotics unit is now jailed, along with the second chief of police to have been jailed there in seven months.
The SICA meeting provided Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom, whom the ambassador described as an honest man, with “silent support from the presidents in the region.”
The Guatemala government clean-up, Martinez noted, is being done not through an internal initiative, but through the UN Commission Against Impunity.
ICJ referendum may be years ahead
The ICJ agreement between Belize and Guatemala calls for both countries to hold simultaneous referenda to see if their populations will agree to taking the dispute to the ICJ for final and binding settlement. However, with the internal problems Guatemala is facing and with approaching elections, “This is no time for referendum,” said Martinez.
The Guatemalan Congress has yet to approve the “special agreement.”
According to Ambassador Martinez, “There has been a suggestion by the president of Congress of Guatemala that maybe the referendum may be held during their general elections in September , which we have pointed out very strongly – very dangerous and nasty possibilities over there, because any political group may pick up this issue and head off with it as a political platform. Their voting is very complicated in the first round, their general elections are for president, for congress, for mayors, for Central American parliament – four different ballots, and if you add on one more, you know, it is total confusion. So we have warned against those possibilities.”
Belize’s natural resources plundered
Chiquibul, Vaca, etc. face rising incursions
A prime area of concern, even as Guatemala and Belize talk border tensions, is the pillaging of Belize’s natural resources by illegal entrants. While the Ambassador claimed that there were no illegal Guatemalan settlements in Belize, he later concurred with reports we cited from the BDF that there are 29 illegal settlers, including settlers at Sapote 1 in Cayo, who they claim have not been removed because the OAS has no money to relocate them.
Rafael Manzanero, Executive Director of Friends for Conservation and Development based in Benque Viejo del Carmen, Cayo, told Amandala Thursday that the incursions are never-ending, and are forecasted to get worse in the weeks ahead. With the dry season coming up, milpa farming is on the upswing, and illegal xaté extraction for ornamental use is also expected to increase with the Easter approaching: “The Catholic Church has a special program for purchasing xaté in Guatemala. This has been going on for quite some years,” he said.
Illegal xaté harvesting multiples four times more in the weeks leading up to Easter, said Manzanero, adding that xaté illegally cut from Belize’s forests eventually make it to the US and Europe markets as well.
With the availability of xaté dwindling even in Belize, and with tighter restrictions in Guatemala, illegal logging of woods like mahogany has surged, FCD has observed.
“What we have seen over the last few months is increase in activity with illegal logging along the border because of dry weather right now,” said the FCD director. “The milpas are appearing once again in certain areas along the border. Some of the activities are still occurring within one kilometer of the border.”
Manzanero told us that at the December meeting in Guatemala, they outlined the threats along the western border, including protected areas at Vaca, where there are numerous reports of illegal milpa activities; the Chiquibul, where xaté extraction and macaw poaching are a problem, and Caracol, which has problems with, among other things, illegal logging activities.
The illegal hunting of the highly prized scarlet macaw, which has protective status and restrictions on international trade, is harvested from Belize’s forests for handsome profits, according to Manzanero.
Poaching of scarlet macaws
The Chiquibul Forest in Belize is one of the main areas where the scarlet macaws breed, but over the last two years, said Manzanero, Belize has lost a lot of scarlet macaws. “They are more prone to be robbed as chicks,” he said.
“Who reaps them?” we asked. “Guatemalans!” replied Manzanero. “They come from their villages and precisely for the birds. They know the period of their breeding, and would come in for that. A macaw chick would be sold for 2,400 quetzales, about BZ$700. As the animal becomes bigger, it can be sold for up to 4,000 quetzales!”
The birds are expensive and rare, and Belize has been one of their remaining strongholds. The FCD hopes to step up its surveillance program in April, May, and June, when illegal activities tend to increase.
The FDC team also does Light Hawk airplane flyovers along the border, and has observed an upswing in illegal logging in Belizean territory, which they deem to have been done by Guatemalans. Manzanero said that they suffer from serious human resource constraints and do not have enough rangers to properly monitor the area.
The xatéros now have a new strategy they have been employing in the recent months, Manzanero explained. There are the cutters and the collectors: the cutters stay for more than two weeks, while the collectors come, pick up the leaves and bolt back to Guatemala.
The loggers seem to be right along the border and come into Belize, up to five kilometers and mostly in the northern area of Rio Blanco, on a daily basis. “They operate precisely in evenings and nights, which makes it more dangerous for authorities to combat,” he explained.
The milpa farming is really close to the border, and they tend to stay for short periods of time.
Xaté licenses “not helping”
Manzanero, like Alamilla, has expressed concerns over the systematic issuance of xaté licenses by the Government of Belize. Everybody knows that the licensees employ Guatemalans, “even Immigration. They have the names. …They are from Guatemalan communities,” he commented.
On the bilateral front, Belizean authorities and Guatemalan authorities have been discussing the concerns over the new observation post on the Belize-Guatemala border — which Belize says was erected to stem the illegal incursions into the protected areas.
According to Lisel Alamilla, executive director of Ya’axche Conservation Trust (YCT), the Machaquilha observation post was built right within the one kilometer strip buffering the Belize-Guatemala border — but on the Belize side — to address the incursions along the border.
Last year, YCT had to suspend monitoring activities in the protected areas after a joint mission with Belize security forces ended in crossfire with illegal Guatemalan entrants in the area, threatening the lives of YCT rangers.
“The security matter is really prohibitive,” said Alamilla.
She noted that there are three protected areas in Belize at highest risk: the Chiquibul National Park, the Colombia River Forest Reserve and the Sarstoon-Temash National Park — all on the border.
The Government of Belize’s decision to issue xaté licenses, which engage Guatemalans as laborers, “is really not helping,” she commented.
“All accounts are that the Guatemalans are harvesting,” Alamilla said. “Maybe Belizeans are processing and packaging, but they are definitely not the ones going out there to harvest the xaté.”
The cost-benefit analysis is showing that xaté is not the way to go, Alamilla recommended, saying that the organization is left with two ways to address this problem: (1) calling for a international boycott of the trade, or going to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) to determine if the plant is at risk and should receive special protective status, then “the whole business would be impacted.”
We are more threatened internally, said Alamilla, because Belize is not taking a strong position, which is evident by the Government granting labor permits and licenses for the xaté trade.
“The policies have to match what the diplomatic mission is working on,” she underscored.
“To a large extent, the [Guatemalan] people are driven by poverty,” said Manzanero. “We do not have significant motive to believe there is a great force pushing them in.”
Belize is attractive to them: “…natural resources, trees, animals — you name it, a nice natural forest they can see just across from their home. They have really denuded their area [Guatemala] already,” Manzanero said.
Trying science diplomacy
He pointed to a new intervention program involving alcaldes from nine Guatemalan communities and mayors from various communities in the Cayo District. They are working to promote the need to protect forestry resources, to help preserve the health of the Mopan River, which begins in Chiquibul in Belize, going underground and moving up into Guatemala, passes through several communities there and then curves back into Belize’s Mopan River, then meets the Belize River, before emptying into the Caribbean Sea.
There is the question of whether the Guatemalan Government has the political will to help Belize stem the illegal harvesting within the protected areas: “There is not really a strong support from Guatemalan authorities for them to refrain from these [illegal] activities. …[I]f they were more supportive, the activities could be decreased,” Manzanero opined.
It is evident the tensions between Belize and Guatemala won’t dissipate any time soon; therefore, Belize is employing a different strategy to build international alliances to protect Belize’s threatened natural resources.
According to Ambassador Gibson, Peten has 650,000 people; Belize’s entire population is 300,000. There are 14 protected areas in the Maya Mountain Massif, and four are adjacent to the border: The Chiquibul National Park, the Colombia River Forest Reserve — these are the two major ones co-managed by FCD and YCT on behalf of GOB; as well as the Caracol Archaeological Park and the Vaca Forest Reserve.
There are 60 small communities of Guatemalans living in the border area inside the so-called “adjacency zone.”
“They are coming over and exploiting Belize’s forests, because they have depleted the forest on their side,” Gibson said, describing the incursions as catastrophic. “It has been a burgeoning problem for us to deal with that.”
He added: “What we have done under the heading of science diplomacy, is to harness science and technology to deal with this problem under the heading of the Copenhagen UN REDD Plus [Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation]… to which all countries subscribe, including Guatemala.”
Martinez noted that Guyana was able to get $275 million through this initiative.
(Belize’s international lawyers, according to Martinez, are Stephen Schewel of the U.S.A., a former president of the ICJ; Jan Paulsson, a former president of the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA); and Sir Elihu Lauterpacht of London, who had served as an ad hoc judge at the ICJ, and president of the Eritrea vs. Ethiopia Boundary Commission of 2001. Lauterpacht co-authored two legal opinions for Belize on the dispute with Guatemala.)