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Apr 27, 2007

Bi-national efforts to protect Chiquibul continue

Story PictureIt’s the largest and one of the most beautiful protected areas in Belize, but the Chiquibul National Park also has its fair share of challenges. Located along the porous Belize Guatemala border, its resources are constantly being pillaged, but as News Five’s Janelle Chanona reports, conservationists are undaunted by the formidable challenge and are more determined than ever to take control of the Chiquibul.

Janelle Chanona, Reporting
Measured at more than two hundred and sixty-five thousand acres, the Chiquibul National Park is the largest protected area in Belize.

But a bird’s eye view of the Chiquibul demonstrates the sheer expanse of jungle that conservationists must face in their efforts to preserve the pristine ecosystem.

Rafael Manzanero, Program Director, Chiquibul Maya Mountain Project
“It is an area that has been abandoned since it was actually created as a national park; abandoned in the case that there has never really been a management portfolio in place. It is a park but if you check there’s really almost no one who really would say, well, ok let’s put a programme of protection until now.”

Rafael Manzanero is one of the local environmentalists involved in creating a management plan for the Chiquibul. To that end, this week Manzanero and park manager Derric Chan, through Friends of Conservation and Development and the Chiquibul Maya Mountain Project, organised a flyover of the park.

The flights help administrators keep on top of the constant threats of illegal incursions, agrarian encroachment, and forest fires.

A massive thunderstorm and intense heat combine forces to create turbulence and makes for a very bumpy ride. But it’s the disturbing sight of the swath of cleared land for milpas and the charred remains of the jungle from multiple blazes that makes the trip really uncomfortable.

Derric Chan, Chiquibul National Park Manager
“I don’t know if this has been seen before but they are really in the highest mountains near the main divide. It’s very hard to get here from Belize walking; from Guatemala, because it’s already a platoon, it’s very accessible. But in terms of how it should be addressed, I would say actually go and do some ground trotting, maybe some helicopter flights because they are easy – you can land easier than a plane – but it definitely needs to be looked at.”

What we can’t see from the plane is the work of the xateros, who roam the forest floor searching for the valuable decorative leaf. Chan says in the times of peak demand, as many as a thousand men and boys cross into Belize to collect xate and they’ve been known to travel as far inland as St. Margaret’s Village on the Hummingbird Highway to get it. Currently, law enforcement officials provide on the ground response to illegal activities but with as many as forty communities on the Guatemalan side of the border, Belize’s efforts have not been enough to counter the pressures of the thousands of residents that rely on the forest for survival. That reality has prompted local environmentalists to team up with their Guatemalan counterparts.

Rafael Manzanero
“One of the main things is for protection programmes such as patrol systems and such as building a general public awareness campaign with Guatemalan communities as well and working with our counterparts in terms of looking at necessities along the border line for those communities. The bi-national initiative, therefore, it brings several elements of working together but at the end of the day it’s really for protection programme for the Chiquibul Ecosystem.”

“I don’t really have any particular problem in terms of zoning in order to ensure that a park which really have a lot of resources in there, the problem is really how to manage it quite properly, I mean to put interventions. In other words to put environmental measures to ensure that it’s really done in accordance with law as well because being a national park it falls under the national protected areas systems act.”

Joining in on the legal initiative is Hector Cucul of CONAP, the Guatemalan Forest Department. This week’s flyover was Cucul’s first airborne assessment of the challenges ahead. He hopes that plans to launch a xate cultivation facility in Guatemala, like the initiative recently established in Belize, will cut down the illegal activities.

Hector Cucul, Guatemalan Forest Officer
“We know that Belize will enforce its laws and so before that happens and to prevent them from causing problems and being caught across the border, they are thinking of cultivating xate in Guatemala. It would be beneficial to them that it’s less dangerous and they’ll be able to work on their own timing like before and they won’t have to walk for such long distances. That would be one of the main benefits of working together to protect the Chiquibul park.”

It is hoped that within the next eight months, CONAP, Friends for Conservation and Development, and the Chiquibul Maya Mountain Project will be able to present a comprehensive management plan proposal to their respective governments. Reporting for News Five, I am Janelle Chanona.

The flight over the Chiquibul National Park was an in-kind donation from Lighthawk, a non-profit international organisation dedicated to conservation efforts in Central America.

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