trade is a multi-million-dollar industry for Guatemala and Mexico, and even though Belize’s forests have been prided as one of the last stores of this internationally famous ornamental palm, conservationists report that Belize’s wild stock—illegally overexploited by Guatemalans—is fast disappearing.
Seeds, leaves and entire plants are harvested (in Belize, mostly illegally) to fill demands in the US and European markets, which peak around Christmas and Easter.
A report to our newspaper from Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), which co-manages the Chiquibul Forest Reserve in Cayo, along with the Forest Department, says the stock in that forest—the largest and last standing continuous broadleaf forest in the country—is gone.
Based on the information reaching conservationists, the xaté resources in Belize’s western and southern forests could be decimated in five years.
A summary titled “Palms of Belize,” published by partners from the Southern Illinois University (USA) and the Natural History Museum of London, indicated that there are 11 species of xaté palms in Belize, which usually thrive in the shade of the tropical forests and which play an important ecological role.
With foreign demand so high, wild stocks in Belize’s forests are threatened, and conservationists are encouraging farming projects to ease the pressure on the natural resources.
Rafael Manzanero, executive director of Friends for Conservation and Development, told Amandala, “Last year , we documented Guatemalans even collecting seeds and extracting entire xaté plants. We considered this was being done as a result of the regulations coming into place in Guatemala and buyers then preparing for xaté plantations.”
“In the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, due to the multiple stresses on the natural environment and lack of stock, we consider that no permits should be entertained,” said Manzanero. “Studies have shown that the xaté stock is no longer there.”
Last week, Lisel Alamilla, executive director of the Ya’axche Conservation Trust (YCT), conveyed information from the Ministry of Natural Resources that two of three xaté licenses had been “frozen,” though the government thinks that the xaté harvesting can be allowed with monitoring.
The reason given for the issuance of the licenses is that “somebody will harvest the xaté, so we may as well try and make some money off it,” Alamilla told us. She said, however, that opening up the trade places protected areas’ rangers and Belizean soldiers at greater risk, as the xatéros are often armed and aggressive.
“In the Chiquibul forest, the harvesters have traditionally been Guatemalans. Even under a permit, the labor force has been primarily from Guatemala,” Manzanero replied, when we asked him who has been reaping the xaté.
More than that, a Toledo activist told our newspaper last week that when one of the licensed xatéros was questioned recently, he said that he was being paid by a man in Guatemala, indicating that even though the licenses were issued to Belizeans, the ultimate boss, at least in this case, was Guatemalan.
The concerns go beyond illegal harvesting of the palm, though: “Our main problem we face is the poaching (hunting of wildlife–ranging from curassows, quams, and macaws to deer and peccaries etc.), looting (extraction of cultural features and destruction of artifacts), pollution (littering of the forest with garbage, plastics, cans, and the defacing of Belize’s jewel through the myriad of illegal trails and camps),” said Manzanero.
He also expressed: “We are also afraid that with such a permit, it opens doors for the concessionaire to move into the Chiquibul National Park–which is a prohibited area for harvesting of any product.”
Another problem conservationists found was that copies of legitimate documentation were being duplicated illegally and used by xatéros inside Belize’s protected areas, continuing the unbridled raping of the forestry resources.
“Due to the domino effect, the xatéro activity is devastating and extremely serious. There is urgency for curbing this activity,” Manzanero told us. “We do not even know how much has been lost at the hands of xatéros; however, we are certain that it is a price tag in the millions of dollars, due to the intensity and extensiveness of the illegal activity in our forested areas.”
One of the licenses was reportedly given to Ignacio Chuc of San Ignacio, another to Rueben Hernandez of Cotton Tree.
Manzanero said that the licenses, to his knowledge, cover the Swasey Bladen Forest Reserve and Columbia River Forest Reserve.
A third license was given to Gosen Products Company Limited for the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, which had suspended its operations but is due to begin again within the next few weeks.
The license, said Manzanero, allows the harvesting of four species of xaté leaves: Chamaedorea tepejilote, Chamaedorea elegans, Chamaedorea oblongata and Chamaedorea ernesti-agustii.
The primary leaf sought, said Manzanero, is the fishtail, scientific name C. ernesti-agustii. (See photo.) It is scarce in Guatemala and has one of the best prices on the international market.
Manzanero said that “...the Chiquibul Forest (comprised of three areas) representing 7.7% of the national territory, is under serious peril and we need to prevent any further degradation. …The defacing of a large portion of Belize needs to have more serious interventions.”
We asked Manzanero to make some recommendations that would improve the protection of Belize’s forestry resources, and he listed seven:
1. Terminate all existing xaté permits in the country until a time when a national xaté utilization and management strategy is developed and put into place.
2. Conduct stock surveys to understand the feasibility of collecting xaté from the wild.
3. Strengthen mechanisms of control and management of non-timber forest products.
4. Trademark Belize xaté as an eco-friendly and sustainable tropical product, and identify a market for export.
5. Promote a type of social forestry where communities are intricately connected to the protection, and benefit from the sharing of the resource for local economic improvement.
6. Strengthen inter-agency coordination and support.
7. Increase manpower to patrol, protect and conduct surveillance
“Belize does not have a sound regulatory or monitoring system in place to oversee the extraction of xaté in the forest—and since it is big business, you can be assured that people will take advantage of these loopholes, thus creating an added problem for our rangers, who have already had a handful of illegal threats to deal with,” the FCD executive director said.
Xaté farming, which would ease pressures on the wild stock, is a viable option, but Belizeans have to do their homework, Manzanero urged.
“This means that Belize ought to identify a solid market for export; expertise would need to be installed for how to maintain and keep a farm together, certification for xaté will need to be contemplated, and regulations for seed collection, maintenance of farms, and trade would need to be devised,” he explained.
It takes about three years for a plant to begin producing leaves for the market. The plant produces 10-12 leaves, which can be harvested 3-4 times a year to reap them in a sustainable way.
“I would encourage xaté farming among Guatemalan communities, as we perceive that it could reduce the illegal activities in the Chiquibul forest,” Manzanero proposed. “In the past, an initiative developed by Mundo Justo (Just World) aimed to do this, and there still exists a pilot program at Suculte, Peten, based on this concept. Unfortunately, the project did not mature enough.”
Manzanero believes that illegal incursions by xatéros can be curbed: “The Chiquibul National Park Management Plan has an aim of reducing illegal xatéro incursions and associated activities by 75 percent by the year 2013. Of course, we believe that it can be done, but we do need a concerted plan of action, as well as continued support from multiple agencies and institutions, both nationally and regionally.”
(At press time, Amandala was still awaiting responses from the Chief Forest Officer Wilber Sabido on this and other issues we had e-mailed him on Friday, having previously failed to reach him via phone.)