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Sep 5, 2008

Patrol attacked by illegal loggers in Toledo forest reserve

Story PictureMaintaining the integrity of our lengthy border with Guatemala is an uphill battle for local NGOs and security forces and an incident late last week has reinforced that point. On August twenty-sixth a multi-agency patrol consisting of ten Belize Defence Force soldiers, four rangers and a guide from the Ya’axche Conservation Trust, embarked on a six-day patrol into the depths of the Columbia River Forest Reserve. The Ya’axche Conservation Trust is an NGO based in the Toledo District, which owns and manages sixteen thousand acres of land designated as a private protected area and recently expanded its work to the Columbia River Forest Reserve. But what was supposed to be a patrol to survey the area’s flora and fauna and deter incursions ended abruptly on the third day when the team was attacked by a group of men, believed to be Guatemalans, who were illegally harvesting mahogany. Acting Executive Director of Y.C.T., Lisel Alamilla, told us by phone what transpired.

Lisel Alamilla, Ag. Executive Director, YCT
“This incident that happened with the Guatemalans happened six kilometres from the Belize, so this is far from what we call the adjacency zone. On the twenty-eighth of August, there was evidence—again, they went on a patrol and they encountered a large tract where a tractor had been operating. They also found one chainsaw and nine horses and they confiscated that. Right after they confiscated that—during that time they are hearing a lot of chainsaws, so there is evidence that there is a lot of logging and cutting going on. And so they regrouped because at certain points of the patrol they split up and go and check different areas. Later on that day on Friday, the twenty-eighth, which is the third day of the patrol, this is when everything just exploded really. One of the B.D.F. soldiers becoming alerted that they were being encroached by Guatemalans. To protect themselves or to announce that they were being attacked or at least being approached, they fired a shot into the air. This is what our rangers reported to us. And there was shooting from our B.D.F. and there was shooting—but the Guatemalans were shooting up in the air, they were shooting to injure one of the Belizeans on the patrol really. Our rangers said it was very scary.”

According to Alamilla, the group retreated and the B.D.F. called for reinforcements, but when a helicopter showed up several hours later, they did not identify it as the BATSUB aircraft and so they left the area that night. After spending the Saturday night between Union Camp and Edward Central, the group arrived back at base on Sunday. Alamilla says while they will not let the incident deter them from doing their job, they will have to regroup.

Lisel Alamilla
“There is clearly a huge investment from these Guatemalans loggers, so it’s gone beyond extracting xate. There is evidence of trails where they are pulling it out; they’re pulling it out with horses and so somebody in Guatemalan is really making a huge investment.”

Kendra Griffith
“What do you all do now?”

Lisel Alamilla
“Well, what we do now, we are going to follow up with the forest department, we’re going to follow up with the ministry of national security. The Minster of National Security, Carlos Perdomo, has stated at the opening of the Rio Blanco post that if a ranger station or post is built in the Columbia River Forest Reserve area, that he would man it. So I think for us, we would have to try to find the resources to build that observation post. We’ve been doing this for ten years, we’ve been going slowly but strong and it’s become evident that our presence and our partnership with the Forest Department and overall the government of Belize is critical not only for purposes of national security, because that’s of course very important, but for the protection of our natural resources.”

A Guatemalan was injured during the exchange when he fell and hit his head. The team administered first aid, but because they were busy trying to escape did not detain him. However, four months ago another patrol resulted in the arrest of two Guatemalans after they were discovered in the reserve. The O.A.S. has been asked to investigate the incident.

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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