There is nothing like looking down at the world from the seat of an airplane. Suddenly the landscape unfolds before you, unveiling views of areas that you thought you knew well by land, only to discover a new geographical feature just miles away that you had no idea was even there. From a birds eye view you gain a whole new prospective of the area that surrounds you. For scientists, biologists and conservationists who are engaged in learning about and protecting specific areas, or the flora and fauna that subside there, an aerial survey can provide invaluable information. Most non-profit conservation organizations operate on limited funding and hiring such a service can be cost prohibitive and often such a service is not even available to them. This is where LightHawk, a volunteer-based environmental aviation organization based in the United States comes into play. For a few conservation- based non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in Belize, their dream of observing their areas of interest from the sky were realized this last week thanks to LightHawk. With volunteer LightHawk pilot David Cole at the helm, vital aerial surveys were conducted throughout Belize, from the southern Toledo district of Belize to Ambergris Caye and areas in-between.

Two of the conservation based NGO's who benefited from this opportunity were the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE), and the American Crocodile Education Sanctuary (ACES).
TIDE, located in Punta Gorda, is a leader in ecosystems management and biodiversity conservation. It fosters community development and empowers communities to sustainably manage and use the natural resources in the Toledo District of Belize. The health of the region is connected by water; - the rivers, streams, watersheds, and the sea - and includes the natural resources and people of the region.

The Maya Mountain Marine Corridor is of key concern, and assessing the health of the ecosystem of the Marine Corridor is essential when making informed management decisions. According to TIDE Program Manager, Joseph Villafranco, the LightHawk aerial survey allowed them to observe six major watersheds that empty into a marine reserve. From the air, they documented the area both by video and still photography and were able to gain an understanding of how land is being used in the area. They were surprised to see farms and clearings in previously pristine areas, especially in northern Toledo near the Cayo district. They also observed increased agricultural areas in the Monkey River area; and the impact this unregulated growth can have on the surrounding environment carries some concern, especially when land clearing practices such as slash and burn are incorporated. Villafranco stated that TIDE is assisting in developing a National Land Use Policy that regulates responsible land use. With the information they have gathered from this aerial survey they can help draft policy, guidelines and regulations for responsible and sustainable land use within the country.

San Pedro Sun