CHIQUIBUL, Cayo District, Thurs. June 9, 2016–Even with reports that Guatemala has increased its military presence around its border with Belize, Guatemalans continue to venture onto Belizean territory, where they not only enter illegally to slash and burn forests for farming, but they also continue to occupy land inside the Chiquibul, on the Belize side of the border.
Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD) confirmed to us earlier this week that an illegal dwelling we observed on Sunday via an online satellite image “is a fresh clearing, now being addressed by joint patrol.”
What FCD’s May 2016 assessment has revealed is that more than 1,600 hectares of the Chiquibul Forest, which is under protected status, has been razed for farming or cattle ranching by Guatemalans. That area converts to approximately 6.2 square miles of Belizean territory. The FCD identified 94 polygons illegally cleared by the Guatemalans.
They encroach on Belizean territory each year, where they slash large portions of Belize’s forest, burn it and then plant at the opportune time. The fact that they come back every year suggests that they also get to harvest those crops.
The 2015 FCD study shows that “the area deforested and impacted over the years in the Caracol and Chiquibul based on satellite imagery analysis and interpretation from 1984 to October 2015 was a cumulative total of 3,772.5 ha (9,318 acres).” (This translates to about 15 square miles where lands are used year-in, year-out for illegal farming. This area is similar to the area occupied by Belize City.)
Incessant illegal farming inside the Chiquibul is a matter which FCD believes should get more attention from the Government of Belize, and the NGO hopes that the pertinent Government officials will take a bird’s eye view from the sky in a much needed fly-over mission.
“Regardless of the serious tensions that have occurred, Guatemalans did not stop coming in to farm and use the Chiquibul,” said FCD’s Executive Director, Rafael Manzanero.
He told us that the FCD will continue on pushing for the installation of a Cebada conservation post and the implementation of more continuous multiday patrols.
The posts currently established in the Chiquibul are Rio Blanco, Valentin, Ceibo Chico, Tapir and Caracol, the last observation post to be established after Guatemalans who had been logging illegally inside the Chiquibul ambushed and killed Belizean special constable, Danny Conorquie in September 2014.
These posts were primarily set up to help protect the integrity of Belize’s most prized and most expansive protected area, which has been targeted by Guatemalans from right across the border, some of whom live in villages located less than a mile away from the border.
One such village is La Rejoya, the home village of Julio René Alvarado Ruano, who was shot to death in an encounter with Belize Defence Force (BDF), in what the Government of Belize said was an act of self-defense.
Belizean official reports indicate that the BDF had gone on a mission in the area to investigate illegal clearings inside Belize, and that is when they reportedly came under fire, under the cover of night, and fired back in the direction from which the shots were coming.
Tensions along the border could be escalating, after reports to our newspaper today indicate that Guatemalans are falsely accusing the BDF of destroying their farms in Guatemala.
Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of National Security, Ret’d Col. George Lovell, said that as far as he is aware, the allegation is untrue.
The BDF have over the years come under repeated attacks from armed Guatemalans in their attempts to protect Belize’s territory, especially in the border areas.
We understand that most of the incursions are perpetrated by Guatemalans who live in border settlements like La Rejoya, San Jose Las Flores, San Marcos, Monte los Olivos and El Carrizal.
When we spoke with him today, Lovell was unable to confirm whether three illegal dwellings set up by Guatemalans, which were reported to us last December, had been removed.
He told us that dwellings within a kilometer of the border are subject to verification by the Organization of American States (OAS), before the Government takes action to evict any settler. The Government of Belize, he said, would give them between two weeks to a month to leave. If they have crops in the area almost ready for harvest and they have been in the area for a while, said Lovell, they could be given time to harvest their crops and relocate.
We note that most of the farms planted illegally inside the Chiquibul are established by persons who only come over to Belize to farm and harvest but who live in Guatemala.
Manzanero said that apart from the communities found within the 1 km range, there are others further away that also inflict pressures on the natural resources of Chiquibul.