Crime and criminals come in all
shapes and sizes, ranging from
gunmen in sagging shorts to con
men in suits and ties. But while
we have become accustomed to
stolen cash, stolen jewelry, and
even stolen cars, there are
thieves in Belize's rural areas
who have set their sights much higher... specialising
in the crime of stealing trees. This morning
cameraman George Tillett and I were hot on their
trail off the Hummingbird Highway.


Janelle Chanona, Reporting
More than fifty percent of Belize is still dominated by
forest, but that doesn't mean marketable timber is
plentiful. In fact, as the big trees become more
scarce, treasured species like Mahogany and cedar
have become prime targets for illegal loggers. To curb
this activity, the Forest Department, accompanied by
members of the Dragon Unit, conduct patrols in areas
identified as likely targets.


Percival Cho, Forestry Officer
"The St. Margaret's area, and including Armenia they
are all connected by roads is one of the hotspots in
the Cayo District for illegal logging. We receive reports
almost every month about people taking out lumber
illegally. We have to wait sometimes before we can
actually respond to these reports."


JC
"Wait for a vehicle, wait for personnel?"


Percival Cho
"Wait for, most of the time vehicle. We have personnel
ready on hand but it's the transportation that's the
limitation for us."


And today was no exception, as both the police and
the forestry officers hitched a ride with the News 5
crew.


Today, the enforcers were in the Five Blues Lake
National Park responding to a report of illegal logging.
Residents from nearby St. Margaret's Village reported
seeing several people leave the area with planks of
lumber.


The park, best known for its spectacular lagoon, has
several mountain trails. The paths are tough going
and at several points, the group must climb over,
under, and even hang off limestone outcroppings.


Approximately twenty minutes down one of the trails,
we find an abandoned camp, complete with food,
supplies and evidence of recent logging activity...but
none of the chainsaw loggers are found.


According to forestry officials, the people who camp
here are smart enough to know that the authorities
aren't patrolling on the weekend. They wait until then
to cut the trees into planks and move them out of the
area at night. The officers estimate this camp is at
least three months old. A GPS check and crosscheck on
a map verifies we are still in the park.


The fallen trees have punched a hole in the foliage.
The bounty they have taken is a fifty-year-old
mahogany.


Percival Cho
"Mahogany trees need a stamp mark before they can
be felled and converted to lumber. I've checked this
stump and there is no hammer mark present or release
mark. Therefore this tree was felled illegally."


Justo Navas is one of the park's wardens. Navas says
the loggers have reverted to a more traditional way of
transporting the lumber.


Justo Navas, Park Warden
"They bring the lumber, they throw it in the water,
float it down across the park. There they get the
tractor and take the lumber out, put it on a big truck
and sell it."


Navas says despite clearly displayed warnings of
prosecution for illegal logging, the constant drum of a
chainsaw often pierces the quiet of the forest.


Justo Navas
"We hear a lot of logging, a lot of chainsaws but we
don't know whether it's legal or illegal."


That's right, the issue of illegal logging in this area is


compounded because certain individuals have been
granted the right to log here legally by way of a
permit. Near to the trees illegally felled, we find the
stamp of a forestry officer's hammer on a gigantic
cedar tree.


Percival Cho
"It have an F and a D. And inside is the number which
is eighteen. This is a cedar tree. Cedar and mahogany
require a stamp to be felled."


Janelle Chanona
"What's the procedure is you guys are out on patrol
and you find somebody logging illegally?"


Percival Cho
"In the first instance we ask them if they have a
permit to fall a tree. If they do not, then we have to
confiscate the lumber and any equipment, including
the chainsaws. And we either take them in to the
nearest police station and we ask them to come in
and pay for the tree if the situation warrants that."


But the maximum penalty of a thousand dollars fine
and a six-month jail term is easily dwarfed by what
the loggers can earn for the stolen wood.


Percival Cho
"Mahogany is very valuable, especially on the illegal
market. Trees like cedar and mahogany fetch two
dollars and fifty cents a board feet on the local market
and government sells it at one twenty-four per cubic
feet."


Janelle Chanona
"So a tree this size would get how much?"


Percival Cho
"A tree this size would get about almost six thousand
dollars on the market.


In most cases, we actually feel like we're getting
something done, but it's good that we have publicity
like this sometimes to get across to the public the
need to understand the laws when it comes to
forests. And also the need to conserve what we have
already, our existing resources because logging is
slowing down on a whole and we have to protect
what we have remaining."


Janelle Chanona
"Given the limitations of the Forestry Department, it's
safe to assume that the practice of illegal logging will
continue in this area and other parts of the country so
long as those responsible decide to act unlawfully.
Reporting from the Five Blues Lake National Park, I am
Janelle Chanona for News 5."