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Jul 28, 1999

Freetown Sibun steps up hicatee conservation

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A visitor’s center was inaugurated today in Freetown Sibun as part of the village’s program to protect their river turtles. News Five has been following this community’s tireless efforts over the past two years to help bring back the hicatee population and was on hand for today’s opening.

Simon Young, Farmer, Freetown Sibun

“My daddy used to be a hicatee fisher right, and those days, caught the hicatee by choice. They never used to catch any one. They caught the big enough ones that they needed to eat and the small ones they threw back.”

Janelle Chanona

“Belizeans normally associate the hicatee turtle with white rice. But the people of Freetown Sibun have decided to stop serving and begin conserving.”

The Sibun River has always been highly populated by a wide range of animal species. However, in May of 1997, villagers of Freetown Sibun noticed that the hicatee population was rapidly declining. People from as far away as Boom were coming to the village to capture the turtles from the river.

Simon Young

“Due to the fact that the population grew, people take them for commercial business like to do selling and they catch with net. They set the net along the river bank and bait the bait to the back of the net right, and some of the net all half mile in length.”

What the community lacked in numbers, it made up in determination. With funding from the United Nations Development Program, the villagers have made sure the conservation project not only protects the hicatee turtles but has also created income generating activities to support the community.

June Neal, Coordinator, Hicatee Conservation Project

“Actually we are only sixty-three persons strong. That’s very small to get a large grant so you can see they’ve placed a lot of confidence in us.

The visitor center, getting back to your question, is the end or the culmination of the facilities, getting all the facilities together. We set up our park, our trails, and so on but there must be a focal point where the tourists can come for information.”

But now funding from UNDP for the project has come to an end and the community will have to devise new ways of supporting itself. Small Grants Coordinator for the UNDP, Philip Balderamos, says the project is still eligible for funding.

Philip Balderamos, Small Grants Coordinator, UNDP

“They would be able to get additional funding because any recipient group can get up to a 100,000 Belize dollars and so far the conservation group here in Freetown Sibun has gotten about 80,000. So if they want to continue their efforts and to strengthen the work that has already been accomplished, they can design a another smaller project and apply for a new grant.”

A grant that will be essential to the next project the community is planning, one that would close a large portion of the river for an extended period of time so the hicatee population and the rest of the wildlife, will have a chance to regenerate itself.

Simon Young

“If we get it closed completely — this area that we’re trying to protect, from Hector Creek to Egypt — if they could close it completely, no catching of hicatee, no wildlife hunting, as a protected area, for maybe at least ten. I might not live to see it, but for the next ten or fifteen years, things might come back like it was before.”

With the anticipated support of the government, the newly established Freshwater Fisheries Unit and funding from both local and foreign agencies, the villagers of Freetown Sibun see that hope as realistic.

Janelle Chanona for News Five.

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