The Chiquibul Forest in the west has come under sustained plunder. We’ve seen the images of the illegal logging taking place and tonight, we’ll look at the lucrative xate trade. Xate are leaves from three Chamaedorea palm species. The palms grow naturally, in abundance and are harvested in the forests of Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala. In recent years, the forests west of Belize in Guatemala have been facing depletion due to the unsustainable harvesting of the palms. The Guatemalan Xateros have since turned to the Chiquibul Forest, where they illegally harvest the leaves for the export market. Smack in our national park, the forests are rapidly been denuded of the xate that yields millions of dollars to the exporters. In part two of our special report on the Chiquibul, News Five Andrea Polanco follows the trail of the Guatemalans engaged in the illicit extraction of the xate.

Andrea Polanco, Reporting

Xate’s commercial demand in neighboring Guatemala is high. As far back as 2000, Guatemalan Xateros have been plying the Chiquibul Forest for this precious plant that is then exported to Europe and other lucrative markets. Their operation in the Chiquibul is marked by a maze of Xate trails where the three species grow in abundance. The trails take you across the border.

Rafael Manzanero, Executive Director, FCD

“If you follow this trail, you will end up in the Guatemalan communities, particularly one that is named ‘La Rejolla’, so that is really one of the key hot spots areas where Guatemalans nationals are living in that villages, across in Guatemalan and they will start off and come into Belize. As we can see in this one, you can see only one trail and then as you go further in, it actually fans out.”

Andrea Polanco

“Like a network?”

Rafael Manzanero

“And that’s what makes it really complicated because we can assume that you can easily arrest them or detain them. They actually will come here and then they cross this highway and they will continue on, if you can see there, the trail also continues. These are already constructed by a network by the Xateros as they are seeking the Xate leaves. In here, you will see a couple of the Xate, but these are not the primary ones that are being sought, but this is one of the species.”

This highly sought xate is known as the fishtail. Commonly used for flower arrangements, the palms are valuable to the floral industry because the attractive leaves last up to six weeks after they are cut. In one trail, we were able to find only a single fishtail left from the illegal harvesting.

Rafael Manzanero

“But this is really the primary one; this is the fishtail and the reason for collecting it is of course for export, not from Belize of course but from Guatemala. This one is not really a healthy one and maybe that is why it was left. But the way how it’s done, is that the person would come and they would cut it, as you see, one has already been cut. So these leaves are the ones that are then bundled up. In reality, they would bundle them in about forty leaves per a batch of them.”

In the period of 2000 to 2005, thirty seven point eight million Xate leaves were extracted illegally; a value of one million Belize dollars. Records show that since 2007, one thousand five hundred Xateros were operating inside the forest. On a single trip to the Chiquibul, a Xatero may collect thousands of leaves. The rate of harvesting has caused the (complete) depletion of Xate palms in parts of the Chiquibul:

Rafael Manzanero

“The people come in, which are the collectors, the collectors would stay in the deep of the jungle, so they stay there for one or two weeks at time and the people out here, they already know when the stocks would already be ready to be picked. The leaves are transported via horses, in fact the horses are really piled up as much as they can, we have found dead horses on the roads because of the amount that they actually are bringing out. So in the past, over the years, we have heard about Xatero, I mean, perhaps even the Belize City people probably have heard about Xateros because this became really a major problem. In fact two years ago it was even of a national security concern because of the amount of people operating under these jungles trying to seek these leaves. Are they still operating in Chiquibul? Yes, they are still operating in Chiquibul. As we move closer to the border, of course, you will not find much of the stock and that is why they dare to go further into the Chiquibul Forest, where there will still be stocks left. So if we go here and more closer to the western border, of course you will not find that quantity of Xate, more than likely it’s already depleted and that’s why they are venturing to come more further into Belize.”

As recent as November eighteenth, the Chiquibul Joint Enforcement Unit caught this Guatemalan Xatero, a minor, deep inside Belize. He tells the unit that he was cutting Xate in the Monkey Tail area, which is some thirty-five kilometers inside Belize. He had three horses loaded with twelve thousand Xate leaves.

{Video: Minor caught with Xate dated November 18th}

But why would a Xatero risk trespassing on Belizean soil, even though he earns a meager ten dollars Belize a day?

Rafael Manzanero

“It is a business and Xate is a big business. The demand is there any day, from the U.S and from the European countries, so Xate is a big endeavor. In fact, some of the studies being done in Petén, it registers that in some of the villages up to seventy percent of the men depend upon Xate for survival of their families, so it’s really a big business.”

In reality, the Xate leaves regenerate if they are cut in a sustainable manner. But inside the Chiquibul, the operations of the Xatero are anything but sustainable. Reporting for News Five, I’m Andrea Polanco.

Channel 5