Amandala, 8/10/2010
by: Russell Vellos

I always knew that I needed a break from work in the worst way, but I never thought that I would be spending a little over three days literally a stone’s throw from the Guatemalan border, in the jungle, at a place I’d never heard of, and that the holiday would be an unforgettable one.

See, all my holidays, if you could call it that, have been spent with my family in the US, or at the cayes, but I recently won second prize in a BTIA raffle, a 4-day holiday at La Milpa Field Station, home to Belize’s third largest archaeological site, the first and second largest being Caracol and Lamanai, respectively.

Being a workaholic, I was ordered by my wife, daughter and daughter-in-law to take advantage of my amazing luck. So, the four of us went.

I didn’t know much about Belize’s jungles until I went to La Milpa, a 260,000-acre research station/resort in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area. La Milpa is home to approximtely 390 species of birds, 25 per cent of which are migratory, and about 70 species of mammals, all protected within the reserve.

Northwest of La Milpa is Aguas Turbias National Park; west of La Milpa is the Guatemalan border; north is the Mennonite community of Blue Creek; the airstrip there is only 20 minutes away.

There is another field station called Hill Bank Field Station located in this same reserve, located on the banks of the New River Lagoon. Hill Bank was the center of the logging operations in the time of Belize Estate & Produce Company.

With that bit of technical information out of the way, let me give you my vibes about the place.

I haven’t been to any other resort, but I have the feeling that La Milpa is special. After 14 years as editor of this newspaper, I have a feel for subterfuge, for what is false, or a “put-on.” La Milpa, to me, seems to be the real deal if you want to see nature unspoilt, and even if you are not an “eco-tourist” and just want to leave this crazy world behind for a while.

I was told that La Milpa, while actually a beautifully-kept resort, caters more to the eco-tourist, nature oriented traveler and scientific community, at home and abroad, who come to take advantage of its remoteness, and its purity. It took me a while for it to soak in that there was no cell phone capability, no TV, and no radio at this place. Come to think of it, I didn’t even see a newspaper. There is one land line, and it’s in the dining room area.

When you listen, all you hear is the symphony of the wild creatures of the forest, and at night, and early morning, it’s at its best - you listen, and you say to yourself, I’ve never heard this music before.

It seems to me that the people at La Milpa, established in 1988, know that they are only visitors, recorders and investigators of nature who have been given permission by the citizens of the forest to live amongst them, to observe and marvel at their way of life, but to interfere with nothing, and to change nothing.

These are the laws observed by the staff at La Milpa - Vladimir Rodriguez, field station manager; Leticia Torres, assistant cook; and Roberto Blanco, who deals with maintenance. Vladimir, a gem among tour guides, took us up some of the trails to see wonders we had never seen before, and he has an amazing knowlege of nature. Leticia, who has a nice smile, kept us well fed, and Roberto’s handiwork in keeping the resort beautiful was remarkable.

In explaining the resort, Vladimir told us, “Here we have an opportunity in experiencing one of Belize’s most natural and wild places. It is important to support Programme for Belize because the natural environment provides our country with resources and essential services like watershed protection and a refugium for animals, some of which are used by locals for food.”

I prefer for pictures to tell a story, so I’ll cut this short. But before that, I need to say that I don’t know of anywhere else in this land that wild animals drift in and out of a resort, unharmed, unalarmed, at peace with the inhabitants of their land.

La Milpa is not a small place, but world-class golfers would find themselves in harmony with the well-kept greens, and bird lovers would love there. Birds of all kinds crowd the spot because of the many flowering trees there, and birds of prey seek the tall trees to perch and search for their victims.

And the forest is remarkable. We’ve seen 150-year old “King Mahogany” trees, and so many other exotic trees and plants, medicinal and ornamental, that I can’t even remember their names.

Hey, I’m going, but not without saying that after getting used to seeing so many 60 and 80-foot trees in the forest that surrounded us, it’s kind of a let-down getting on the regular highways and seeing scrub, weeds and 20-foot trees. Now I know why the “bush” is not the “forest.”
La Milpa is the kind of place everyone should go at least once in his or her lifetime. Really.

NOTES:

The RBCMA is an area of approximately 260,000 acres of forested land owned and managed by Programme for Belize (PfB),a non-profit Belizean corporation which is dedicated to preserving the biological diversity of Belize. All of this land was originally owned by the Belize Estate and Produce Company (BEC), discussed in the previous section.

A Belizean businessman purchased BEC in the mid 1980’s, and soon divided the land into three sections, selling one to an American partnership (theYalbac Ranch and Cattle Company), and one to Coca-Cola Foods. Of the third that remained, he sold roughly half to PfB.

Later, Coca-Cola Foods donated a total of 92,000 acres. Finally, in July of 1993, New River Enterprises completed an agreement to sell an additional 26,000 acres of land it had acquired from Coca-Cola Foods to PfB, bringing the current total to the 260,000 acres.

However, before it became a haven for wildlife of all forms, in Pre-Classic times the lands now known as the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area was home to Belize’s first inhabitants, the Maya. With the mysterious demise of the great Maya civilization around 1000 A.D., and the colonization of what we now call Belize, the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area was plundered for logwood and then mahogany for trade with Europe.

In 1988, the non-profit organization Programme for Belize (PfB) gained access to 90,000 acres of land in the Orange Walk District. This donation from Coca Cola Inc marked the start of PfB’s flagship project, the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area.

The RBCMA is also home to 200 species of trees, 390 species of birds (25 migratory species), 70 species of mammals and 39 species of conservation concern, including the Jaguar, Puma, Margay, Ocelot, the Howler and Spider Monkeys.

The RBCMA is the largest private reserve in Belize, the largest protected area and the largest non-government land-holding in Northern Belize and the second largest single protected area in the country. In all, it covers 4% of the national land area. The RBCMA therefore plays a significant part in biodiversity conservation on a national scale, in the role of private reserves within the national protected area network and the economy of the region.

At the regional level, the RBCMA is part of the Maya lowlands which is comprised of Peten, Selva Lacondon, Belize, southern Quintana Roo and Campeche. The Campechean and Yucatan Biogeographical Provinces are recognized centers for biodiversity. It connects with the Maya Biosphere Reserve (Peten, Guatemala) and the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (Campeche, Mexico) covering 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) forming the largest protected area complex in Central America and one of the most important in the Neo Tropical region.

The extent of the landscape, its connectivity with the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, through the Maya Biosphere Reserve and Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, and its management has made it possible for the RBCMA to have the highest density of jaguars in Belize and perhaps the region. It was rated the best managed protected area under the recent assessment within the National Protected Area System Project.

Due to its rich diversity, efficient protection and a healthy prey base, the RBCMA has been selected as the release site for the restoration of the globally threatened Harpy Eagle (Harpia Harpyja) in 2005.