When our news team visited Chiquibul two weeks ago it was clear that for the Guatemalans who live in the communities adjoining the Caracol reserve – the border is no deterrent at all they freely push into Belize, desecrate our national parks and reserves, exploit and vandalize its resources – and are prepared to use deadly force to defend themselves against the BDF soldiers who patrol Chiquibul. Yesterday Jules Vasquez when back into Chiquibul but not on the ground...this time there would be no 7 mile hike; he went by air to see the number of Guatemalan farming incursions all along the border. Here’s what he saw in the places with names like Chiquibul, Caracol, Sapote, Rio Blanco, Valentin Camp, Retiro and the middle divide.

Jules Vasquez Reporting,
These red areas are satellite images of where there have been active fires between 2002 and 2009 - these ones refer to slash and burn activities along Belize’s border.

Jules Vasquez,
“Where were we last week?”

Rafael Manzanero, FCD
“We were right here. We actually drove on this road and then we walked the rest.”

So there is here and those red blotches on the satellite image look like this on the ground – a razed area cleared for growing corn and other basic agricultural products. And the satellite image shows that there are areas like this all along Belize’s western border with Guatemala– and there’s no way to hike to all of them.

So with Friends of Conservation and Development’s Derek Chan pointing the way, we set out to size it up from the air in a single engine Cessna 172 Skyhawk. We left off on a clear day from the Central Farm airstrip in the Cayo District. Our course was to head along the western border southwards from Arenal to the Maya Mountain range, but heading to the border we encountered heavy cloud cover and rain – which meant that we’d have to bob and weave through the clouds all day.

Below the clouds, this is the Chiquibul Forest – dense and green and in most areas pristine. You don’t see the litter, the illegal logging, the Xate trails pocked by horse hooves. From a distance you simply wonder how many shades of green are there?

You see how the green extends it seems almost to infinity? But the long view while it is beguiling, it deceives – because when we get in closer we started to see areas like this about 4 kilometers into Belize’s territory – cleared and nearby this one ready for harvesting also in the Chiquibul Forest.

The FCD rangers have hiked to this one before – it sits very near to the border. This hill also in Belize has been cleared for a milpa. In this area – Belize’s security forces destroyed the corn fields last year. And this area at the edge of Caracol is the one we visited last week – remarkable, isn’t it? How different it looks from up here? O the ground the area is gnarled and rough, the mood tense but from the air – it’s just one more cleared area.

After a while actually it become almost monotonous, rich verdant green punctured suddenly by another Guatemalan clearing. And when you look beyond the green, west to the horizon, you can understand why – see those bald hills? That’s Guatemalan territory. They’re agrarian communities and they live off the land – the difference is that on their side of the border.

As this map shows, the Guatemalan side is full of communities and though they are protected areas denoted by the gradations in colour – it is not widely observed or enforced.

Derek Chan, FCD Ranger
“The same density, the same forests that you see in Belize is what it used to be in Guatemala and I think I showed you the map too some weeks ago showing how Guatemalans have been building roads and the building of roads have actually brought agriculture and people migrating into these roads and expanding agriculture.”

And indeed there are mass clearings and communities on the Guatemalan side of the border. The only Belizean presence we saw was this BDF camp at Rio Blanco a lone military outpost on a border under pressure. And in the VACA we saw Belizean farmers in a de-reserved area.

Our flight path took us right along the border – on the right is Guatemala. And flying below the tree line – that was a sure signal we had entered the Maya Mountain Range – its grandeur hidden in the clouds – as we navigated through silhouettes of mountains looming like ghosts.

Those clouds rolling in forced us to beat a retreat at the middle divide. That’s the mountain span that bridges the boundary of the Cayo and Toledo districts. Chan – who’s been on this aerial survey many many times, gave us his conclusions.

Derek Chan,
“There is no new clearing right now, no new clearing but there is active fields, active corn fields but the new clearings are what alarm us more because it is expanding into the park. I recorded over 30 areas but it is not 30 fields, it is thirty clusters and some clusters could be 300 to 400 acres and some clusters like in the area of savannah you can see that they are sparse and higher in the mountains.”

And even for those areas that have not been cleared and looks so green, so beautiful form above, the lesson is that what is up there is not down here.

Derek Chan,
“In some areas I can safely say, and you witnessed it, that there is no wildlife; small birds, black birds but the big mammals and the big predators they are practically disappearing.

These areas are considered to have high biodiversity but people just hunting and hacking and even when they come they take bird’s nest and eggs, so they take a life and if you are killing, biodiversity is in equilibrium. Let’s just say for example wildlife, if get rid of all like the peccaries and the gibnuts and the deers then you are talking about jaguars who will be in problem because they won’t have food.”

It is a difficult fight to preserve Belize’s territory and its biodiversity – and with such a vast area under so much pressure form Guatemalans pushing east – it can seem overwhelming.

Derek Chan,
“We are not going to pack and go home. It is a challenge, it is hard work, but we continue to do it and somebody at the end of the day has to do the work.”

Chan said that they expect that the new fields which are now dormant will be planted or re-planted in January. While flying over we did see traces of human habitation – makeshift camps, actually, at one site. There is another long standing incursion in the Caracol Archaeological Reserve – where the Guatemalan farmer now has cattle freely roaming and has been there over 15 years.

Before we close off on this story, we got back briefly to that meeting in Washington DC between the Foreign Ministers of Belize and Guatemala. Guatemala’s Prensa Libre newspaper reports that Guatemala maintains its 1860 claim to 12,700 square kilometers of territory which works out to about half of Belize.

Channel 7