Chiquibul Park managers want Guatemalans to stay on their side
Author: Colin

On Monday, October 8, 2007, the managers of the Chiquibul National Park invited Amandala to fly over the park and see first hand the damage done to the forest by illegal farmers from Guatemala.

There are over 260,000 acres of land in the Chiquibul National Park. For Rafael Manzanero, Program Director of the Chiquibul Maya Mountain Program and Executive Director of Friends for Conservation and Development, Derric Chan, manager of the Chiquibul National Park, and the five rangers who serve in the field, that’s a lot of park to handle.

George Hanson, Enforcement and Wildlife Program Officer for the Forest Department, and a small band of Belize Defence Force soldiers stationed in the park throw in their pound, but it is not nearly enough to protect this essential resource, especially since the park shares its western border with Guatemala.

The park is of national and international importance. Forests are the world’s great reservoir. Trees conserve water. Take away the trees, and rivers, creeks and lagoons shrink and disappear. Trees purify the air. They absorb carbon dioxide, which they use to make food, and return oxygen to the atmosphere. Trees protect the soil. Take away the trees, and soil washes away. Hillsides are eroded, the rivers are silted, and sediment settles on the reefs. Then reefs die.

The Chiquibul National Park is bordered on the west by Guatemala. From the skies it is clear that our Guatemalan neighbors are not the best stewards of land. Wherever there are villages, there is land devoid of trees. The farmers across the border slash and burn, but it appears they do not fallow. Instead of leaving the land to rejuvenate, they convert their milpas to pasture. Then they rove farther afield for new land to cut down. When a population is small, slash and burn is sustainable. When a population is large, or turns its “cutting” to pasture, slash and burn is disastrous.

In explaining the decline of ancient Maya civilization, Belizean archaeologist Dr. Jaime Awe wrote thus in his book, 101 questions and answers about The Ancient Maya of Belize: The Maya, it can be said, were victims of their own success. Droughts, decreasing productivity of food, conflict, and competition for resources made it difficult to sustain the requirements of such a large population; consequently the system failed and people were forced to emigrate into neighboring regions. Note that the ancient Maya were irrigating crops, terracing hillsides to protect soil, and using rudimentary fertilizers. The farmers to the west of us who are assaulting the national park do not include any such practices in their husbandry.

At Los Olivos, a settlement in Guatemala near the border, the only land left to slash and burn is to the east – in the Chiquibul National Park in Belize. North, south, and west of Los Olivos, as far as the eye can see, is deforested. Park managers estimate that over 1,000 acres of the Chiquibul Park were cut down this year by farmers from this settlement. They estimate that over 6,000 acres of the park has fallen in recent years to the machete and match.

In the last quarter the Belize Defence Force has chopped down more than ninety acres of illegally planted crops (corn and beans). Park managers estimate that there are hundreds more acres to cut down. Add to this a small army of Xateros who scour the park’s floor for the valuable Xate plants every day…and loot the Maya temples and caves. Park rangers say that Xate and artifact hunters from Guatemala are so brazen now that they hire armed men to protect their trade.

It could be that Guatemalan farmers and Xateros get encouragement to cross the border. Many in Belize believe that these invaders are egged on by officials in Guatemala who are happy to stick thorns in our side. It could also be that people who invade our land are simply the victims of tremendous neglect. Really, it might be easy to empathize with poor farmers eking out a living. But, the fact that their system is doomed, and threatens valuable forest, is sufficient reason to stop them. Then there is the matter of the sanctity of our border.

There is a border dispute between Belize and Guatemala, with Guatemala being the aggressors. That is sufficient reason, in itself, to protect the park.

Park managers believe that our government is not doing enough to protect the park from illegal farmers. They believe that their lives are endangered because armed men are coming across our borders to do business in our territory. It is the plan of Rafael Manzanero, Derric Chan, and George Hanson, men who work in the park, to make a presentation to the government on this urgent matter.

We expect the government to step to the plate. Immediately.