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Jun 15, 2018

News Five Treks to South Cebada in the Chiquibul Forest

South Cebada is one of the most remote areas of the Chiquibul National Park. While it is deep inside the protected area and difficult to reach, it is also located about one point five kilometers from the border with Guatemala. That makes it an open ground for illegal activity perpetuated by nearby communities who depend on the forest for their livelihood. PACT and a number of agencies are attempting to at least minimize the growing threats to the area. On Thursday, News Five’s Isani Cayetano headed out to the area for the opening of a conservation post. 


Isani Cayetano, Reporting

It’s pretty difficult to imagine that anyone would find pleasure or amusement in trekking the far-flung reaches of the country, unless you are the intrepid, outdoorsy type.  For me it’s a job and one that I am damn sure in love with, despite the misgivings of accepting challenges that take me completely off the beaten path.  In fact, today’s assignment has me entirely off the grid, a total departure from the urban civilization I’ve always known.  Assuming this task simply meant that I would trade the pavements of Belize City for the unforgiving muck and demanding terrain of the hinterlands.  My destination? The bowels of the Chiquibul Forest.


Our appointment to rendezvous with a team of government officials in the most remote area of the national park known as South Cebada, is set for eleven o’clock and we’ve been traveling for the better part of two hours along what seems to be a never-ending dirt road.  With over two dozen kilometers left to cover, the convoy requires skillful, if not tactical driving and all the dexterity behind the steering wheel doesn’t ensure a smooth ride to journey’s end.  Along the way, on at least three different occasions, our vehicles got bogged down in thick, sodden mud.  Fortunately, a motorized winch was never too far away.


At eleven o’clock or just about, we arrive at a clearing, a frontier point manned by military personnel.  Our geographic location is plotted on a virtual map embedded in the mind of seasoned ranger Derrick Chan.


Derrick Chan

Derrick Chan, Friends of Conservation & Development

“We are about ten kilometers south of Caracol and about ten kilometers north of Rio Blanco Conservation Post and here we are about a thousand, five hundred meters, right, from the border.  So that’s one point five kilometers.”


The proximity of neighboring communities on the other side of the Belize/Guatemala border, makes this location a breeding ground for illegal activity.  The presence of poachers just beyond the line of sight poses a perennial threat to the Chiquibul National Park, as well as its extraordinary biodiversity of flora and fauna.


Omar Figueroa

Dr. Omar Figueroa, Minister of Forestry & Environment

“At over six hundred thousand acres, the Chiquibul remains one of the last expanse of pristine, biodiverse tropical forests in Belize and in fact in the wider Central American region.  But the high intrinsic economic value is why it continues to be plagued by the multitude of threats, including trans-boundary environmental infractions.  Already over three thousand acres have been significantly altered because of such illegal land use practices.”


As such, this expanse of wilderness has to be protected against incursions.


Derrick Chan

“The area of Cebada is one of the farthest areas, far-reaching in the Chiquibul, so doing regular patrols, daily patrols, is very difficult out here.  By the time you get here it takes you three days and then that means that you are not effective.  So construction of a conservation post here will be more efficient because they will be on twenty-four hours, three hundred and sixty-five days of the year.”


Realizing the need for a station to be placed here, the Protected Areas Conservation Trust, PACT, has erected a camp that overlooks the area.  Cebada is now one of several posts built along the western border.


Stephen Ortega

Stephen Ortega, B.D.F. Commander

“We have quite a few of these dotted along the western border for the specific purpose of maintaining the serenity of the Chiquibul to ensure that what is in here is preserved for further use.  So this will definitely enhance what we are doing out here and improve that we have people permanently stationed here now, so that our patrols will be able to stay a bit longer and ensure that the deterrence method is applied properly.”


That system of discouraging and preventing unwanted visitors from pillaging natural resources found in the Chiquibul, is one that works best when boots are on the ground on a fulltime basis.


John Saldivar

John Saldivar, Minister of National Security

“This area, this hotspot, the Cebada, you will all agree, is a very remote area where operational reach has proven to be difficult and this challenge which is amplified during the rainy season, poses very serious and sometimes extremely dangerous restrictions for the presence of our security forces here in the Chiquibul and onwards to the western border.  Illegal activities thrive, agricultural encroachments, marijuana plantations, harvesting of xate leaves and logs, poaching of our exotic, protected animals and the general exploitation of our natural resources.  These issues provided the genesis of the Chiquibul Forest Investment Initiative which is a strategy to strengthen enforcement and protection of the reserve.”


That plan of action has seen millions of dollars being set aside for the safeguarding of this invaluable resource.  Despite the hefty investment, the threat persists.


Derrick Chan

“Right across from the border we have communities.  The closest communities are within two kilometers of the border in Guatemala and then there is just a number of other communities within the area which could be up to ten communities in the near ten kilometers from the border.  And all those people, they depend largely on the forest for food, so they will cut forest for planting corn and whatever it is that’s their staple food, beans, squash and so on.  As you can see, around here, this area is what we call a wahmill which is forest they had cut some five years ago and then they planted corn and abandoned it.”


Leaving it unattended is perhaps what allowed local law enforcement agencies to capitalize on the cleared land, making use of it by building the observation post.  It’s an effective lookout point, but communication by radio can prove quite challenging.


John Saldivar

“What we have done here today is part of a long-term plan to put more of our footprint in this area, to make our presence more felt in this area and hoping to deter the encroachments that have been happening.  This is only one in a number of things that we have planned to try to improve our presence in this area.”


Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

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