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May 3, 2023

The De-reservation of the Machaka: Maya Land Rights Versus Urban Expansion

In our second episode of “The Five Point Breakdown,” we head south to Toledo District where the complexity of Maya land rights versus urban expansion is at the heart of the proposed de-reserving of a forest reserve. At word of the proposal, there was public outcry about a suspected land grab, but tonight, we delve into the history of the Machaka Forest Reserve which, for almost seventy years, has lost its ecological value and has been reduced to just about three thousand acres. But in a country where land is a finite resource, who gets a piece of the new plots of land now being made available? News Five’s Duane Moody reports.


Duane Moody, Reporting

It’s almost a decade later and the infamous statement that the Lands Department is a hotbed of corruption remains etched in the minds of Belizeans across the country and elsewhere. But the snaking lines and the wait outside the Ministry of Natural Resources in Belmopan continue to be commonplace, as the process for residents to acquire what is their birthright is not without its challenges.  Since 2021, the Ministry of Natural Resources, under the leadership of Deputy Prime Minister Cordel Hyde, has been hosting land clinics across the country, bringing the functions of the Lands Department to the people. And while it is to help those whose processes need finalization, there are also those first-timers who simply want a piece of land.  It’s a finite resource for which there is a high demand.


1. Land Shortage


Cordel Hyde

Cordel Hyde, Minister of Natural Resources [File: May 11th, 2022]

“Everywhere we go, people want us to come back and the places we haven’t been, people want us to come.  The fact of the matter is that land issues are varied, they are plenty and a lot of them are lingering for many, many, many years.”


Orlando Habet

Orlando Habet, Minister of Sustainable Development

“Largely across the country, when we did our campaign in 2020 towards the last election, one of the things that was very salient was that there were many people who were living three or four families in one house lot.”


…and so, at the core of government’s policy is identifying land that can be subdivided and issued to those in need. This includes the de-reservation of a protected area.


There are currently one hundred and three protected areas that form Belize’s National Protected Areas System, encompassing national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, spawning aggregation reserves, natural monuments, marine reserves, nature reserves and forest reserves. Sixty-one percent of the country is under forested areas; approximately forty percent is protected by law.


2. Why is an area made a reserve?


Orlando Habet

“As a government, we have to make certain that we designate and delineate those areas that we want to put under protection.  Traditionally and historically, Belize has protected a large portion of the country and have it as green areas. Those resources, those ecological systems are absolutely important for everything that we do – for controlling air pollution, for trapping carbon from the atmosphere and reducing emissions, for providing a habitat for all the wildlife, for providing water.”


Established back in 1954, the Machaka Forest Reserve was designated to secure land for a pine plantation and encompassed an area of twelve thousand eight hundred acres. The acreage reduced over time and as of 1998 stands at approximately three thousand, one hundred acres. It served as an economic development project for residents to benefit from the controlled harvesting in the area. The protected area has been a source of bush sticks for house construction and to provide sustenance to those living nearby.


3. What was the ecological value of Machaka Forest Reserve?


Anthony Westby Sr.

Anthony Westby Sr., Punta Gorda Resident

“I remember in that area there was this company Tropical Produce Company or TAPCO which was harvesting cohune at the time during the war effort. And I remember my dad telling me, because I was a pretty young kid at the time, that there were over four thousand people living in both camps. As you know they had trains just like they had in Stann Creek in those days running back and forth transporting the cohune. They mostly export the kernel and the shell for charcoal purposes and for the purpose of making gas masks during the war and they also used the oil for submarines and so on.”


Harold Usher

Harold Usher, Chairman, Yemeri Grove

“That’s the original Machaka Creek. The reason why dehn call it Machaka Creek is that whenever it floods, whenever it rains, we could have go down to that creek and you could have actually see the machakas flowing in the current and we could have actually just take a machete and make a chop and sometimes yo get two to three machakas; we didn’t have to use net. This area used to be used a lot for logging. Right where we are standing and across the road, we actually had a lot of pine trees, but this was actually the Machaka Forest Reserve.”


4. What validates the de-reservation of a protected area?


Back in October 2001, Hurricane Iris, a category four storm, left thousands homeless and in its path, destroyed the Machaka Forest Reserve. This, coupled with a bug infestation, also reduce the ecological value of the reserve.  And so, the de-reservation of five hundred acres of the Machaka Forest Reserve to accommodate village and agricultural expansion has been given the green light by cabinet as the solution to a clamour for land by residents particularly in the Toledo West constituency.


Orlando Habet

“The de-reservation was taken to cabinet and it was approved and so what our ministry was to do is to make certain along with the Ministry of Natural Resources, who is responsible for lands to do a land tenure assessment and if everything was okay to proceed with the Minister of Natural Resources assigning the lands for re-distribution. Through land use planning now, the government would be able to say well these areas are adequate for agriculture, these are good for tourism development, these may be good for housing and urban expansion and so that’s the process that has to happen and we have to go through those.”


But the de-reservation in itself is being met with challenges, due to the ruling of the Caribbean Court of Justice on Maya Land Rights.


5. Maya Communal Land Rights Versus Urban Expansion


Oscar Requeña

Oscar Requeña, Area Representative, Toledo West [File: March 16th, 2023]

Laguna is saying this area belongs to us and Yemeri Grove is also saying that this area belongs to us. So certainly we have to continue the dialogue and find some middle ground so that ultimately, while we understand and respect the ruling of the court, we also called upon our communities and our leaders to also understand that our people have needs and we have to find a way to address those needs.”


Dolores Balderamos-Garcia

Dolores Balderamos-Garcia, Minister of Human Development, Families & Indigenous [File: April 20th, 2023]

Hold it down until we can do the demarcation of the boundaries in a way, maybe not, maybe not everybody would like it, but at least there can be compromise and we can do the limitation of boundaries in consultation with neighbouring villages, whether it’s Maya or non-Maya.


Duane Moody for News Five.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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