The Ever-Changing Illegal Activities in the Chiquibul
The huge expanse of the Chiquibul National Park has been under continuous threat for all sorts of illegal activities over the years. The protected area has an abundance of highly sought natural resources by persons from across the border. Tonight, the news is that the harvesting of xaté and the poaching of the scarlet macaw have been minimized significantly. Friends for Conservation Development has been at the forefront in the fight against the pillage of the forest. That is the good news…but on the flip side, a more lucrative activity is on the surge. News Five’s Duane Moody was deep in the forest as part of a program with the Protected Areas Conservation Trust and files the following report.
Raphael Manzanero, Executive Director, Friend for Conservation & Development
“The threats here in the Chiquibul are very much dynamic; some of them really would go down, other ones would go up in accordance to either periods in the year or external factors.”
Duane Moody, Reporting
For decades, the protected area has been under threat by criminal elements raping the lush forest of its priceless natural resources. The Chiquibul is the largest national park in the country, representing almost eight percent of Belize’s terrestrial surface and forms part of the tri-national Maya Forest bioregion, which is the biggest tropical forest north of the Amazon.
But the illegal activities within the National Park are dynamic, ever-changing as the demands of Guatemalan entities extend beyond the traditional exploits of xaté, precious hardwoods and even the poaching of the endangered scarlet macaw. This change is as a result of the bi-national action plan of the Friends of Conservation and Development and the Asociacion Balam from Guatemala, among other local N.G.O.s.
“The xatero activity is no longer a major problem for us in the Chiquibul. It might be because of a change on market value internationally or it might be that the Guatemalans are changing into another activity—gold panning or other use of the resource. But xateros you might still find a couple of them, small teams, but they are really much more kind of isolated activities. Xateros were actually opportunistic. If they could be poachers, if they could be…they would do all. So by not having xateros to a large extent, it also means that the human footprint is no longer there. Over the last two years, of the scarlet macaws that we have been observing, we have not lost a single one. So we have reduced it to zero right now, but that doesn’t really mean that we don’t need a presence.”
The Protected Areas Conservation Trust, which was established in 1996, provides financing for the sustainable development of the country’s natural resources and promotes conservation. As one of the biggest supporters for FCD, the most recent Chiquibul Forest Investment Initiative through the Government of Belize strengthens enforcement and protection of the national park.
Dr. Omar Figueroa, Minister of State, Environment [File: August 23rd, 2016]
“The Chiquibul Forest Investment Initiative, or the CFII as we call it, will invest over fifteen point eight million dollars in the Chiquibul Forest over the next two years. Specifically, these funds will be invested in the Vaca Forest Reserve in the north; the Chiquibul National Park; the Caracol Archaeological Reserve; the Bladen Reserve and the Columbia River Forest Reserve in the south. These protected areas, besides being adjacent to the Belize-Guatemala border, have been selected because of the high level of threats and encroachment currently ongoing. The fifteen point eight million is composed of grants and loan funds as well as direct co-financing from the recipient co-financing and leveraged funds. Of the fifteen point eight million investment, two point five million in cash will be invested by the PACT and the Environmental Management Fund for the following activities: the two construction of two additional CP’s; the construction of CP access roads to facilitate ingress and egress – so, Rafael Manzanero, you can rest assured that will happen within the next few weeks, at least it will be initiated – ranger salaries for two years for FCD, YCT and Forest Department; transportation and procurement of needed equipment for B.D.F., YCT, FD and FCD; training and capacity building for co-managers and regulatory agencies; communication equipment, and procurement of drones to assist with the monitoring.”
In recent times, however, there are two main threats within the Chiquibul, that have posed quite a challenge for FCD, despite assistance from the Belize Defense Force and Police, to monitor the problems. Millions of dollars in gold have been illegally extracted, increasingly so as the years go by, within the volcanic zone of the Chiquibul. It is to the extreme south of the national park and not easily accessible by park rangers and the joint patrol. Additionally, gold panning rivals all other illegal activities within the forest because of the environmental damage to the source of water for all Belizeans.
“The gold panning is becoming much more critical because the impacts on the headwaters is very difficult, even for us to assess it at this moment. We don’t know how much we have lost; we don’t know how much gold has gone; we don’t know how much of the sediments are reaching to those streams and to the riverbeds. We don’t know in terms of the contaminants, the pollution levels. But mindful that that water eventually is able to reach us way down from these mountains and reaches then into our communities.”
And then there are the milpa farms. Since the 1980’s, over twelve thousand acres of land have been lost as a result of the agricultural frontier expansion. The Guatemalan incursions see these criminal activities extend several miles east of the border. But Manzanero says that that in itself is changing on the land in a way that it can become dangerous.
“What we have realized is that by destroying the forest along the borderline, the farmers are probably going to be planting corn, beans and pumpkin, but also some of these lands after they are abandoned after a short period—it might be for one year or so—then these lands are becoming also cattle, like in terms of pastures, which eventually is going to be used for cattle ranching, which is another component that makes it even much more difficult. If we are dealing with farmers today, they are more of the poor farmers and poor community members. But if you are dealing with cattle ranchers, they are more organized and they can be much more dangers to deal with.”
But a different approach is expected to solve the problem. In the past three years, providing a sustainable alternative livelihood for the xateros, illegal loggers and poachers, have proven a notable decrease in illegal activities on that front. So what’s the intervention for gold panning?
“We had a review of the bi-national action plan between Balam and us from civil society that presented the kind of activities that have been undertaken, some of the results and also the review of that action plan for the next two years. We still have to get rangers on the ground and also in Guatemala, we still need the CONAPs and other people who can do their exercise of law enforcement across the border.”
Duane Moody for News Five.