Over the years we've taken you into Chiquibul more than a few times. And that's because the vast forest - more than four times the size of Barbados - is the pristine protected area where Guatemalan poachers go to gather Xate, hunt wildlife, extract timber, and now, pan for gold. We've visited many parts of this rugged hinterland, but we've never gone to the extremely remote Ceibo Chico - which is the current flashpoint area for Guatemalan gold panners.
And so, on Friday, special correspondent Janelle Chanona and Cameraman Codie Norales left out before dawn to head into the wilds of Chiquibul. Tonight, they'll take us to areas where no camera has been before in part one of a two part series on the Ceibo Chico and the grueling journey to get there. Janelle Chanona reports:
Janelle Chanona Reporting
In any other part of Belize, a tractor is a standard piece of farm equipment. But in the Chiquibul Forest, it's a life line. The machine has turned a gruelling two day hike into an arduous six hour journey.
Every two weeks, members of the Belize Defence Force, police officers and park rangers from the environmental group Friends for Conservation and Development, pile into the tractor's trailer and travel from Tapir Camp to the Ciebo Chico Conservation Post in the Chiquibul National Park.
Derrick Chan - Ranger, Friends for Conservation and Development "Same distance from Belize City to Belmopan would take you 40 minutes. Here it takes us six hours because it's really bad."
Bad is actually the understatement of the year. Even the considerable horsepower of the John Deere-code name "Jumping Viper"- is no match for formidable features of the Chiquibul in the wet season. Three times the mud stops us in our tracks. And when winching isn't even enough, we have to resort to pushing.
The trip is an adventure for visitors but this is the hard-core reality for the members of the South Chiquibul Enforcement Unit stationed at the Ciebo Chico Conservation Post.
The location is certainly the edge of Belize but this is the frontline of the war against illegal activity.
Lieutenant G. Gonzalez - Soldier, BDF "Our main task here at Ciebo Chico is to deter the xateros who are conducting gold panning in the area, which has been the most recent thing that has been happening out here. Apart from that, we still cover the xate leaves, illegal logging, and legal hunting."
Run-ins between the perpetrators of the illegal activity and the Belizean military are tense at best. In 2012, one encounter, which coincidentally occurred less than a ½ mile from the Ciebo Chico outpost, became an international incident when it resulted in a Guatemalan fatality.
Within such life and death scenarios, security is a 24 hour concern that weighs heavily on the minds of the men
Jose Guzman - Soldier, Belize Defence Force "Mostly, they are Guatemalan civilians who cross the border and come to Belize. Most of them have a military background. Some of them are very dangerous-armed with high powered weapons. If our lives get endangered, and the threat of loss of life is high, anybody would do the same thing. Your life comes first. We are in Belize. They are coming come cross here. We are the only people out here. This is a job, and somebody has to do it. We are the ones out here."
Lieutenant G. Gonzalez "We are here by ourselves. We just 6 soldiers here and, nearest friendly forces we have is about 4 or 5 hours hike light weight. That is at Rio Blanco CP. Apart from that, we don't have any other friendly forces, maybe at Tapir Camp. You see that the road is about a 6 hour's tractor ride. So, during the day, we have the persons providing security. That's just observation up to 200 - 500 yards. That's basically all around that we can see. At night time, we have 2 sentries minding the OP while the rest are taking a rest, and then we rotate the shifts."
P.C. Allistair Casey - Special Patrol Unit "The Guatemalans are brave people. Our security is always on 24-hour high alert, out here."
But if park rangers felt that the xateros were being brave before, to venture so far into Belize to collect the xate palm, they are all too aware of the lengths these people will go to collect a far greater commodity-gold. Despite the presence of Belizean military and police officials in this area, patrols often find signs of illegal mining along the Ciebo Chico Creek.
Derrick Chan "They just felt ownership of the place. We started speaking to them. They wouldn't respond that. They are needy people so they will take all opportunity that they can get to."
And to get to the valuable mineral, the illegal miners carve huge chunks out of the banks of the creeks, creating significant erosion; not to mention extracting notable amounts of the resource.
Desperate to stop the gold rush, and curb illegal activity on a whole, FCD put together the multi-agency unit and with funding from the Protected Areas Conservation Trust, established the Ciebo Chico outpost in July 2012.
Derrick Chan "We immediately bumped into a lot of them-groups of 30. We would call them together and speak to them and tell them, "Leave now." Make sure they pack up; destroy camps; whatever we can and whatever they can take and they were leaving. In July, like 2nd or 3rd week, we came back and whoever we found here, we arrested them."
After six months of operation, co-managers say constant presence at Ciebo Chico is making a positive difference in the three major threats: illegal logging, xate harvesting and gold mining.
Rafael Manzanero - Executive Director, Friends for Conservation and Development "We have learnt more about how these people operate. We have been able to detain people. We have been able to intervene in many of these activities. But the sheer number of people that we find along the Western Border from the Guatemalan communities is of course, a lot so it's really a complicated issue. We started to look at the number of people from those communities that are actively engaged in illegal activities."
Derrick Chan "We look at a tree and say, 'what a beautiful tree, birds, etc.' While if you are needy, you look at a tree and see, that's 2000 board feet of lumber and cut it. So we will have those problems so long as on the other side we have poverty."
Rafael Manzanero "We need to be much bolder; much more forceful in terms of implementation of the law; learn much more about evidence taking; ensure more mechanisms in place of how to also be successful in court in terms of detaining, and processing people in court."
And while FCD is concentrating on enforcing Belize's laws, the organization is also partnering with Guatemalan counter-parts to support environmental awareness campaigns, promote alternative livelihoods and regulate the movement of resources across the border.
Rafael Manzanero "A lot of people might tend to believe that the Chiquibul is a forest under siege alone. But somehow we lose the fact of why it is important to maintain it as a part of our country in terms of its integrity and stability."
Tune in next week for the second part of this series where Janelle looks into the natural and manmade difficulties of managing this embattled area.
Last week, in part one of our Chiquibul series, we took you to the western edge of Belize, the South Chiquibul Enforcement Unit stationed at the Ciebo Chico Conservation Post.
That first story focused on the law enforcement pressures facing the area - as Guatemalans continue to press into Belize for Xate, timber, farm land…and now, gold.
But amidst all the enforcement pressures and the treacherous terrain are the impressive natural wonders of a place few Belizeans ever get to see. Janelle Chanona made the arduous trek and along with camera-man Codie Norales, she captured the raw beauty of Chiquibul:
Janelle Chanona Reporting
Any novice nature guide will tell you a noisy tractor is not the best way to spot wildlife but in the Chiquibul Forest, it is one of the limited options.
From our wobbly vantage point, we spot the brown blur of an agouti; a sunning boa constrictor; more than a handful of turtles; dining deer; the spectacular scene of colourful scarlet macaws in the tree tops; an apparently lost wood stork; fresh jaguar tracks; and towering Cieba trees-all set against the misty Maya mountains.
The Chiquibul Forest boasts majestic features which many Belizeans will never behold with their own eyes. Case in point-Puente Natural, the Natural Arch.
Rising one hundred and fifty feet above the Chiquibul River, the stone bridge is the remnant of a collapsed cave. The unique karstic feature is as picturesque as it is mesmerizing.
The Chiquibul Forest is also home to one of the largest cave systems in Central America; its chambers are filled with countless Maya artefacts and dripstone formations.
The Chiquibul National Park is Belize's largest protected area, measuring more than 260,000 acres in size; that's more than half the Cayo district.
Managing the bountiful resources of the forest presents distinct management challenges to the park's co-managers: Friends for Conservation and Development.
The foremost issue is accessibility. This is the only "road" into the park, although it looks like a swamp in more places than not. The trip to the Ciebo Chico Conservation Outpost used to be a gruelling 2 day hike. Now, it's a back-breaking six hour tractor ride along ancient logging trails.
Then there's the sheer size of area versus the number of boots on the ground guarding the resources. The personnel is simply not enough.
Over the last decade, FCD estimates millions of dollars' worth of Belizean hardwood, xate palms and game meat have been illegally extracted from the Chiquibul Forest. The illegal mining of gold has been the latest threat against the Chiquibul.
Derrick Chan - Ranger, Friends for Conservation and Development "It's a very simple method, not a lot of investment like in logging or xate where you have to bring a horse and a chainsaw. In this case you just bring a little pan, like where you use to knead your tortilla, a pan and a shovel. Shovel some mud and you wash it and because gold is heavy, it goes to the bottom and allows all the mud and you find about a gram of gold in about five pan you will do."
In July 2012, the Ciebo Chico Conservation Post was established in direct response to the surge of illegal activity in the Chiquibul Forest.
Nayari Diaz Perez - Senior Grants Officer, Protected Areas Conservation Trust "The majority of Belizeans don't get a sense of the magnitude of the work that it takes to conserve the natural resources of this area."
Or the magnitude of the machines it takes to even get into the area. "Jumping viper" was bought with PACT funding. According to Nayari Diaz Perez, field visits to the Chiquibul are simultaneously back breaking and eye opening.
Nayari Diaz Perez "When I go back to Belmopan, it makes the process of decision making, more informed because I've been here. So I know what it takes. So, when FCD wants a bigger tractor or trailer, I know why. It's a constant and continuous adaptive management that has to be done. Together with FCD, we've partnered invest in resources that have now made it a little bit easier to do their job, but we're still a long way from the optimum scenario. So, as the funding agency and partner to FCD and the Ministry in the conservation of the Chiquibul National Park, we're always looking at how best we can support with our investments to make it a little bit easier."
PACT also provided funds to help build the conservation post which houses the South Chiquibul Enforcement Unit.
Accommodations are spartan; the routine rigorous, but six months in, FCD says the unit is making an impact.
Rafael Manzanero - Executive Director, Friends for Conservation and Development "Where there is no presence, it provides a high level of in-governance. So, having a presence, we already know that is going to deter the illegal extractors in this area."
FCD's Rafael Manzanero says conserving the Chiquibul is compounded by the apparent disinterest from the general public; even though the area provides substantial environmental goods and services to the rest of the country.
Rafael Manzanero "Right here we are right on the head waters of the Chiquibul River. This river, and particularly because of these mountains, it is able to provide over 45% of the people of Belize depends on this water, from right here in these mountains. In reality there is so much that we can talk about; how to really bring down the story to the Belizean public is tough because unless you really come and see it here, then you can understand clearly the importance of these areas."
Improving the road conditions would allow more Belizeans to access and appreciate the area's resources. It would also boost the park's potential to generate income through tourism. But environmentalists say greater accessibility into the Chiquibul Forest could be a catch 22.
Nayari Diaz Perez "Opening up roads and making them easier to travel can bring advantages and disadvantages, so it's not something that you just want to get out there. It has to be something that carefully thought out because need to be able to contain the issues of access by the people we don't want to access the area. So, opening it up more actually opens it up for everybody, not just Belizeans, but illegal activity which we don't want. So, once you put it on the map, so to speak, it's out there, so it just means then once you do that, you have to invest a lot more in effective management of the area in order to get your end objective, which is to conserve the resources."
However, "effective" management will do little to lessen the pressures of illegal activity. FCD is all too aware that unless poverty issues are addressed across the border, the Chiquibul Forest will face costly and constant threats.
Derrick Chan "As long as there are people on the other side and they don't have jobs; don't have land; what they need to sustain themselves, they will turn to the closest resource. If the pressures continue, we could end up with an empty forest-just trees and no wildlife."
When you start talking about the challenges confronting the Chiquibul, the long list includes a lack of personnell and resources; the constant threat of illegal logging, poaching and now illegal mining. But there is a hope here-in the patrols that defend the border and in the men and women that are speaking up for the environment.
Janelle's two day trek was Channel 7's sixth trip into the Chiquibul since 2005.
And tonight, we go back into our archives for another look at the complex issued bedeviling the Chiquibul forest. In July of 2013, Daniel Ortiz and Codie Norales went into the Chiquibul to see a 100 plus acre Guatemalan milpa farm within Belize. It's only a microcosm of the larger problem which Daniel took the hard road to find out about:..
Posted (July 25, 2013)
It’s not quite like climbing Victoria Peak, but when you go into the Chiquibul, all the way to the Western Border, half the story is just getting there! Tonight Daniel Ortiz dedicates a whole story to that. As we showed you last night, he and camera-man Codie Norales went there, and it’s important to note because it sort of explains why the place is so abstract, because it’s so darn far! Here’s his story-
Daniel Ortiz reporting
The environment inside the Chiquibul knows no sense of urgency, it is lost in time, immune to everyday exigencies; in fact, time is just a means of measurement which the guides use to estimate how far they’ve travelled, and how much further they have to go.
For us in the media, time is always of the essence, and being sucked into the tangle of green on a deadline day, was, at first disorienting.
But, in place of time’s dictates, we had another kind of pressure: an early morning ride through the Chiquibul on this John Deer tractor – or jumping viper – which the FCD rangers use as the main means of transportation.
And on every move they make in the forest, they are joined by BDF Soldiers and police officers.
Being so close to so many firearms, trigger fingers at the ready in case of any armed threat, is enough to unsettle anyone, but this has become the reality of the men who work inside the national park.
So, on this day, we accompanied them on one of their patrols to a part of the forest inundated by increasing Guatemalan incursions.
Our journey was 11 Kilometers – or 6.8 miles – the first part being deceptively simple, resembling passengers hitching a ride in the back of a pickup.
But as soon as we hit off-road, on a far less travelled path, the real situation started to unfold.
Yes, and as our camera witnessed, branches from all sides of the tightly wound, and resilient jungle came flying out at the passengers, leaving behind pain, a sense of embarrassment and souvenirs such as prickles, needles, small critters or dust and debris – sometimes even a combination.
We adapted quickly to those nuisances, and while being thrown around in the trailer was tough – it was inevitable – as the tractor plowed through the muddy terrain sinking as much as a foot into the earth at times.
All around, the canopy shielded us from the sun further separating us from the passage of time, increasing the disconnection the deeper we got into the remote location.
And while we felt out of place, the rangers and the BDF, seemed to be enjoying it – just another day at the office, even if it is a 400 thousand acre office.
And then, after an hour and half on the tractor –we had to hike the final 2 kilometers. The rangers and the BDF led the way, with us in the middle, and soldiers bringing up the rear, guns at the ready.
Getting to that final location was no easy task, fraught with steep uphill climbs, uneven terrain, dangerous plants, and unsteady foot paths likely to trip up the most experienced hikers.
And the unwanted Guatemalan visitors weren’t making it easy either, it wasn’t uncommon to find trees cut down specifically to block the path.
The deeper we travelled, the more signs we saw of illegal activities inside the Chiquibul, like this tree which was cut down, and the timber harvested.
But by this time, I was exhausted, and grateful for a bite of a fruit, a little quick boost of energy and chance to rest. We also started recognizing the huge gap in fitness levels between ourselves and our escorts.
My camera man and I were slowing down the hiking party forcing them to stop more often than they needed to, and we got left behind a few times. We could barely catch our breaths after trudging up steep hills, but everyone else seem relaxed, just a stroll through the park – in this case the Chiquibul National Park.
And then, they broke the news to us, we weren’t even half way to our location. And from then on, it became a matter of just putting one foot in front of the other, trying not to be discouraged by how far yet we had to go, and ignoring the pain.
An hour and a half later, after running on E, willpower alone fueling us, our escorts told us they heard gunshots from a hunting rifle, and to avoid confronting anyone armed, they told us to back track – in this case up a hill we had just walked down. 20 minutes after that, after being covered for so long by the forest, the vast change in environment surprised us.
We arrived at the first of 2 milpa farms in the Chiquibul, and the devastation to the forest was immediately clear.
Jose Sierra – Ranger, FCD "About 400 meters or less than that while we were coming we heard a gunshot south from us so that shows us that someone is in the area - however, we have not seen anybody since we're here. Approximately traveled 11km to right where we are right now."
After that difficult but productive hike, it was time to backtrack through the difficult terrain to the jumping viper.
Channel 7 has a video showing the trek into Cayo's Chiquibul Forest Reserve. The huge tractor they use has a hard time getting in and out. Big thanks to the BDF and the Friends of Conservation and Development for doing all they can to keep the Chiquibul safe.
Chiquibul National Park, Belize -- Gold is an alluring color, whether woven into the feathers of a Scarlet macaw winging through the Maya Mountains rainforest or mixed in the gravels of streams that thread beneath the understory of Chiquibul National Park in the Belizean highlands.
You hear the macaws before you see them. These magnificent birds, nearly 3 feet long from beak to tail feathers, give themselves away with their raucous squawking as they fly in groups to a roost. The flecks of gold in the soils of Chiquibul, the largest protected area in this Central American country, are not as easy to spot. But they're equally precious. And both birds and metals lie at the root of illegal activities that are poking holes in the park's faunal assemblage and streambeds.
Endangered Scarlet macaws nest in Chiquibul National Park...but also are trapped illegally./Protected Areas Conservation Trust, Friends for Conservation and Development
Encompassing 416 square miles, Chiquibul is said to contain mountainous landscapes undisturbed since the Maya lived here centuries ago. Within the forests are Scarlet macaws, an endangered species that breeds in the park, Spider monkeys, and toucans, while beneath the forests the Chiquibul Cave System worms through the karst geology. It is thought to be the largest cave system in Belize and the longest in Central America.
With such rich biodiversity, and gold within the forest floor, the park draws Guatemalans across the border in search of a living, regardless of legality. Once in Chiquibul, they might clear small plots for farms, trap wildlife for sale, or placer mine.
"Some of the southern reserves which border with Guatemala are under very high pressure as some Guatemalans who have depleted the natural resources on their side, are now spilling into Belize for our rich biodiversity and cultural heritage," says Roni Martinez, conservation officer at the Blancaneaux Lodge, a resort in the Mountain Pine District. "The Columbia River Forest Reserve, Chiquibul Forest, and Vaca Forest Reserve are now areas of very high illegal activity, all by Guatemalans. They come in to poach endangered Scarlet macaws, shoot many endangered mammals for sale as bush meat, cut millions of dollars’ worth of lumber, pan gold illegally while destroying the watershed, plus so many other things."
Two years ago Mr. Martinez, also a member of the Belize Raptor Research Institute, and four rangers were in the park monitoring Scarlet macaw nests when they heard screeching macaws down river. They hesitated to leave the nests they were guarding, and discovered the next day that the ruckus was from wildlife poachers.
"A local builder who was collecting bush sticks and bay leaves for work at a private residence, mentioned to us later that while he was collecting bush sticks, a Guatemalan man passed by his workmen and stopped to talk a bit. He even showed them the two 'parrots' he had just poached and for which he already had buyers in Guatemala," Mr. Martinez recounted. "We were only able to pin down the village and neighborhood where the guy came from, but the macaw chicks… those are gone forever."
Understanding these behaviors, which would be wholly unacceptable and illegal in the U.S. National Park System, requires short lessons on history and subsistance. Much of the problem dates back more than 150 years, as there remain longstanding border differences between Guatemala and Belize that date to when the British ruled what was known at the time as British Honduras. As long ago as 1839 Guatemala claimed Belize. Time and again -- in 1945, 1972, 1975, and 1977 -- Guatemala threatened to invade its neighbor, only to stand down in the face of British military power.
The political disputes continue today. In January, the two countries signed an agreement, Roadmap for Strengthening Bilateral Relations, that is hoped to lead to a resolution of their differences. It can't come too soon, as Guatemalan incursions into Chiquibul have been rampant. According to an article in Tropical Conservation Science, in 2007 "satellite imagery indicated that in the Chiquibul National Park alone, 3,126 hectares of tropical forest have disappeared."
Contributing to the festering geopolitical problem are population and economic pressures, largely, if not wholly, from Guatemala. While roughly 40 percent of Belize is protected in some form -- national park, forest reserve, private reserve -- the same can't be said of neighboring Guatemala. There population pressures (the country has an estimated population of 15+ million, vs. Belize's 325,000 residents) are forcing some to look elsewhere for food, natural resources, and materials with economic value.
Illegal gold panning in the park damages streams./FCD
"Land scarcity has led to an expansion of communities within the Chiquibul-Montanas Mayas biosphere reserve in Guatemala, followed by growth across the border into protected areas in Belize," Katherine Groff, a researcher at Michigan State University, wrote in an article published in Conservation and Society late last year. "The lack of human settlement on the Belizean side of the border means that resource extraction is primarily driven by Guatemalan communities. Guatemalans reguarly cross the border to clear land for agriculture, extract timber, poach wildlife, and cut xate, the leaf of a certain Chamaedorea palms used in the global floral industry."
To fully understand the problem, appreciate that few countries have a national park service to oversee management of their parks and enforcement of laws and regulations in the same fashion as the U.S. National Park Service does.
"When you consider a park like Yellowstone probably has a budget equivalent to, if not more than, the entire system budgets of most countries around the world, it puts things into a little bit more perspective," says Jonathan Putnam, an international cooperation specialist at the National Park Service Office of International Affairs. "And staffing. What does Yellowstone have, 300 or 400 permanent employees? I’m not sure what the situation is at Chiquibul is, but I’d be surprised if they have more than a handful.”
In Belize, overseeing protected areas often falls, at least in part, on local communities and non-governmental organizations. At Chiquibul, since 2007 the Friends for Conservation and Development has co-managed the park with the country's Forest Department. Part of FCD's mission is to patrol the national park to thwart poachers, gold panners, and other illegal activities in the park.
A ranger documents illegal logging in the park./FCD
"The Chiquibul/Maya Mountains is one of the three most critical areas for Belize to safeguard," Rafael Manzanero, FCD's executive director, says. "Yet, the Chiquibul National Park has posed considerable challenges on how to protect it due to the 11 threats facing it. All the threats are from a trans-boundary nature, which makes it extremely sensitive and complex. The three top threats to date (16th Feb, 2014) are: Gold extraction, illegal logging and Chamaedorean extraction (xate)."
FCD which has an annual operating budget of just $230,000, works in a variety of ways to safeguard Chiquibul's resources, from establishing conservation posts in the park and utilizing weekly patrols to combat poaching and other resource extraction to encouraging bi-national cooperation and raising visibility, nationally and internationally, of the park and its wonders.
While the thought of patrolling a national park might sound glamorous, it can be anything but in Chiquibul, particularly when your staff counts just nine rangers.
"Poaching is across the range of the Chiquibul Park and our study of April 2013 shows that hunting is not only for subsistence but also commercial," said Mr. Manzanero. "There have been encounters as more people have firearms in the area. Unfortunately some have been fatal. Over the last 1.5 years, two incidents have been fatal in the Chiquibul, and one across the Main Divide (Columbia River Forest Reserve). All incidents have been in self-defence where the military have fatally injured Guatemalan locals. These have been severely investigated by both Guatemalan and Belizean authorities, together with OAS (Organization of American States) personnel."
Then, too, there are the cultural differences and the fact the Belize today is a developing country.
Rick Anderson, a National Park Service employee who works in Everglades National Park, did graduate work in Belize in the 1980s and developed a love for the country. He returns regularly, on his own time and expense, to share his knowledge on using fire as a landscape tool.
During a phone conversation in which we discussed Chiquibul's problems with poaching and illegal resource extraction, Mr. Anderson acknowledged that, "Those problems are very common. And, of course Chiquibul, being exposed to the Guatemala border, and being mostly very remote and not roaded at all, it is the pit of the 'wild West' down there.”
"Milpas," illegal farming plots, are in areas of Chiquibul./FCD
Key to combatting the problems and protecting the health of Chiquibul, he said, are groups such as FCD.
“What I’ve seen is a pattern in Belize. If outside entities, whether they’re an individual or an NGO, develops an interest, and starts getting the government’s attention, then there’s hope," said Mr. Anderson. "But it takes repeated efforts. So, unless somebody pays attention to it, and again I go back to the (FCD) NGO, that’s probably the most promising thing I’ve heard for Chiquibul. At least an NGO is interested in the place. That’s promising.”
Making up some eight per cent of Belize’s land mass, and over four times the size of Barbados, the Chiquibul national forest epitomises Belize’s Wild West.
Comprising 1,073 square kilometres, (414 sq mi) of rugged, pristine forest, the Chiquibul National Park contains The ancient Maya metropolis of Caracol, a Belizean wonder in its own right. And as the dense environment has daunted explorers for centuries, who knows what ancient Maya wonders are still waiting to be discovered?
Originally part of the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, which was marked out in 1956, the park was set aside after intense lobbying by conservationists in 1991, with the current borders drawn up in 1995 to protect the area and ensure that Caracol remained surrounded by a park. Thanks to such forward thinking action, the area has been saved from much of the ecological depredation seen in neighbouring countries.
However – and there always seems to be a however when it comes to the environment – illegal incursions by foreign nationals seeking to harvest gold, game, lumber, xate palm leaves, and other valuable natural resources are increasingly becoming a problem. But more on that later.
Even with these unfortunate incursions, the Chiquibul isn’t much different than it was when the ancient Maya were busy settling the area and hunting for game, plants, minerals and construction materials. The forest also contains the longest cave network in the Americas; the sprawling Chiquibul Cave System, carved out of limestone by the Chiquibul River, which flows though Belize, goes underground through the cave system and resurfaces in neighbouring Guatemala.
The same flora and fauna that attracted the Maya centuries ago still abounds within the Chiquibul. Tapirs, monkeys, Ocellated turkeys and other animals put food on the table, while the many birds including scarlet macaws, parrots and motmots joined ocelots, jaguars, margays and other animals for the supply of materials to fashion prized adornments.
The Chiquibul’s rich biodiversity is legendary, and continues to attract botanists and other researchers looking for undiscovered species. One botanist in 1993, for example, discovered 130 plant species never before recorded in Belize, three of which had never been reported in Central America.
Who knows what else awaits?
As we’ve reported previously, LiDAR, drones and other new technologies are showing great promise in revealing potential archaeological treasures hidden beneath the forest canopy Technology Meets Archaeology in Belize, 5 August 2014.
Some explorers even suggest that, given the presence of gold in the Chiquibul, the legendary Eldorado may be hidden away in the previously impenetrable forest.
In fact, as mentioned above, gold is actively sought in the Chiquibul today, presenting a major environmental, border security and law enforcement problem for Belize.
The Chiquibul borders Guatemala, and for generations people have been illegally crossing the border to hunt and harvest xate leaves, pan for gold and cut timber.
Xate fronds, which can stay viable 45 days after cutting, are prized by the floral industry for use in arrangements, and are so prized that an estimated 400 million xate stems are imported into North America and Europe each year, with an estimated 30 million fronds exported to the US and Canada for Palm Sunday alone. With no known plantations in existence, the only source of the plants is the wild, and as the forests of Guatemala and Mexico become depleted, xateros are venturing further afield into Belize, causing significant ecological damage.
Along with increasing numbers of people panning for gold and logging the valuable timber species found in the Chiquibul, Belize Defence Force personnel have their hands full trying to protect this immense yet fragile resource.
We’ll be posting more about the problem of xate, gold and timber harvesting, as well as efforts to contain it, at a later date. For now, it’s enough to highlight the efforts of the Belize government, NGOs such as Friends for Conservation and Development and others in protecting this beautiful, vast and delicate natural paradise that makes up such a large part of Belize.
With careful management, the Chiquibul will be around for thousands of years into the future, providing our children’s children and their offspring with a living example of how the world looked before the first people ventured into it.
Powerful article, with some amazing pictures, from Tony Rath, chronicling the adventure to the deepest parts of the Chiquibul Forest Reserve. Excellent read. Based upon all the evidence of xateros taking over the Chiquibul, he entitled the article, 'Belize is at War.'
BELIZE IS AT WAR
and doesn't even know it
The distant sound of gunfire in the rain forests of Belize is rare but not unheard of, usually a far off solitary hunter. But a 9mm unexpectedly going off close by in the middle of a jungle where there should only be bird calls and monkey howls is personal shock and awe.
A few seconds earlier myself, 2 fellow explorers and two rangers were climbing, single file on what should have been a small, almost imperceptible trail in what I believed was one of the most remote, pristine and wild regions of Belize. But instead the trail was a 12 foot wide highway of horse hoofs, boot prints and trash up a steep saddle between two huge elevated sinkholes in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve of the southern Cayo District. Without warning, the ranger behind shoved me aside, anxiously whispered “get down, Xateros!“ and in a single fluid motion slipped off his backpack, drew his 9 millimeter pistol and charged up the hill.
There is a tunneling of perception - the shrinking of peripheral vision, a quickening of heartbeat and breath, a general slowing of motion - when the moment takes an unexpected and sudden turn. As my mind struggled to make sense of the situation - the adrenaline-fueled sound of the ranger’s voice; his firm push; the kicked up stones and leaves from his boots as he flew uphill; angry shouting of “Alto! Manos Arriba!“ and then the gunfire - fear, anger and instinct kicked in. Holding my camera close to my body so it would not swing on the shoulder strap, I ran uphill in a crouched position a good 20 yards behind the ranger just now disappearing over the saddle.
I was taking part in a reconnaissance expedition into the deepest part of the Chiquibul National Park (Chiquibul) to lay the groundwork for a larger expedition next year. The Chiquibul is the largest protected area in Belize covering more than 265,000 acres of tropical broadleaf forests in the southern Cayo District. To the east lies the nearly 150,000 acre Chiquibul Forest Reserve, and to the south is the 100,000 acre Bladen Nature Reserve. The great Maya site of Caracol lies in the middle of the park. Doyle‘s Delight, the highest point in Belize (3675 feet), occurs on the southern edge of the park. The Chiquibul is also home to one of the last nesting sites of the scarlet macaw in Belize. And an estimated 540,000-square-foot Chiquibul Cave System, the largest in Belize and the longest in Central America, is a treasure trove of geological and archaeological wonders. In 2007, the Belize Forest Department and a local non-governmental organization (NGO) - Friends of Conservation and Development (FCD) - entered into a co-management agreement signifying for the first time an actual management of this unique and pristine landscape.
Renowned Belizean photographer Tony Rath documents Guatemalan incursion on Chiquibul
Guatemalan incursion into Belizean territory continues inside the Chiquibul Forest Reserve in the southern portion of the Cayo District and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of stopping it in the near future. The illegal Guatemalans are tearing apart Belize’s pristine forest without any fear for Belize’s authority. It is a national issue that was experienced firsthand by Tony Rath, one of Belize’s most well-known and respected professional photographers. Rath publicized an article on his experience, and it paints a very descriptive encounter of the illegal activities within Belize’s territory. It is an experience that indicates that “Belize is at War, without even knowing it”.
According to Rath, he joined a few rangers from the Friends for Conservation and Development into the Chiquibul National Park on a reconnaissance mission for a larger project being planned in the future. But the photographer’s mission gave him the opportunity to experience an encounter between illegal Guatemalans and the small group of seven rangers, who are tasked with guarding 1073 square kilometers of Belizean territory.
“Without warning, the ranger behind shoved me aside, anxiously whispered ‘get down, Xateros!’ and in a single fluid motion slipped off his backpack, drew his 8 millimeter pistol and charged up the hill. BAM! BAM! There is a tunneling of perception – the shrinking of peripheral vision, a quickening of heartbeat and breath, a general slowing of motion – when the moment takes an unexpected and sudden turn. As my mind struggles to make sense of the situation – the adrenaline-fueled sound of the ranger’s voice; his push; the kicked up stones and leaves from his boots as he flew uphill; angry shouting of ‘Alto Manos Arriba! (freeze, put your hands in the air) and then the gunfire-fear, anger and instinct kicked in,” detailed Rath of the encounters between illegal Xateros (those who hunt for Xate palms) and Belize’s law enforcement agents.
The illegal activities include the clearing of Belize’s forest for logging, the killing of wild animals such as the endangered scarlet macaw and other species, the cutting of precious Xate leaves for export, and now gold mining. Combined, the illegal activities are raping Belize’s forest of its natural resources.
Rath’s words resonated to every Belizean who is proud of her natural beauty and heritage. “The Chiquibul is one of the most biologically diverse and pristine natural environments in Belize. But the web of life is fragile. Unless protected and managed, the scarlet macaws, the jaguars, the monkeys, the mahogany and the countless other creatures and habitats and wonders that are Belize will be destroyed. Even more fundamental though is the protection of our national sovereignty. One of the prime responsibilities of any government is to establish and protect borders… what is more important? The economy? Gang warfare? Jobs? None of these mean anything if we become the 23rd Department of Guatemala,” continued an impassioned Rath.
Rath said that the activities in the Chiquibul, and the regular encounters deep in Belize’s jungle between Belizean authorities and heavily armed illegal Guatemalans are a very clear indication that “Belize is at war without even knowing it.” He hopes that with his article detailing his experience, it would raise awareness and get Belizeans involved to demand that the Government of Belize do whatever it takes to protect the country’s sovereignty.
The incursion into the Chiquibul is a major challenge for Belizean authorities, who have brought it to the attention of the international community at the last General Assembly of the United Nations. To read Tony Rath’s interesting and detailed article, visit http://tonyrath.exposure.co/belize-is-at-war.
This is a blast from the past. This great video from Daniel Velazquez was recently uploaded for everyone to enjoy.
"2005 expedition into the Chiquibul, to create awareness on the wildlife poaching and looting issue by Guatemalans from Peten, funded by Pact, coordinated by FCD, documented by The Fosters wildlife films produced by Carol Foster shot by Richard Foster and Daniel Velazquez, expedition leader Lenny Gentle."
Discussion on incursions into the Chiquibul Forest, on the heels of the shooting near Caracol. On Open Your Eyes, with Rafael Manzanero, Executive Director of Friends For Conservation and Development, Lt. Colonel Raymond Sheppard Chief of Staff of the Belize Defense Force, and Joe Awe, president of the Cayo Tour Guide Association and vice president of the BTIA in Cayo.
Friends of Conservation Advises G.O.B. to Crack Down on Incursions
According to Manzanero, all the entities that are regularly on the ground have gotten the wake-up call a long time ago, and the murder of Danny Conorquie is their worst fears realized. With the murder of the Special Constable, the new fear is that the killing will escalate if the government decides to waffle on the matter. Manzanero told News Five that government must get serious where border encroachments are concerned.
Rafael Manzanero, Executive Director, FCD
“From all the reports it was a cold blooded murder and I think it shows the level of aggression that people can impose upon Belize. It has happened before on wildlife and trees, and it is still continuing on right now as we speak…you know the illegal logging, so there is no way for us to take this lightly. We have been saying this…it goes to a next level of aggression now I think. If we can just learn now from this and be able to put the components that we have been saying for quite some time…I fear that this is just a beginning to demonstrate that if we are not serious, practically they can get rid of life, and Belize is almost non-respondent on how to deal with this, so I would hope that we can demonstrate that we also have the veracity to deal with such matters. But that is left to the government machinery. It is not only one sector of government. I think we need to look at the general machinery of government and what we need to do and of course from the private sector and the population at large. We are really dealing with a front now that we need to be much more serious and disciplined in dealing with this.”
And tonight we go back into our archives again to continue our in depth look into the many issues at play in the Chiquibul. In 2009 we went into the depths of the National Park but not overland, instead we took the scenic route by river where many of the issues can be appreciated from up close. Here's a look back at that story:..
Jules Vasquez Reporting,
Here at Chalillo where the wide span, 420 feet of the 150 foot high containment
wall holds in and harnesses the upper branch of the Macal, one can truly appreciate
the sharp juxtaposition of what’s probably Belize's greatest civil engineering
feat buttressed against nature's finest creation, the broad breathtaking landscape
of Chiquibul. Jarring but compelling, as the coppery tones of the boulders blasted
to clear the land for the dam - form a neat contrast against the still waters of the reservoir and the lush green hills on the horizon.
Taking us inside Chiquibul are two Friends of Conservation and Development
rangers and the organization’s director Rafael Manzanero and the Scarlet
Macaw project field biologist Lenny Gentle. The reservoir covers 2,347 acres,
9.5 square kilometres of an area whose topography has been radically re-shaped
by Chalillo. To understand this vast body of water we're on, it is the upper
Macal, but engorged by Chalillo which inundated eight square kilometers of forest
almost two thousand acres of forest to create the dam reservoir.
Looking at it from the other side, here at the head, the depth is well over
100 feet, depths unheard of in a river. But it is still a river albeit widened
and deepened by the reservoir. It cuts a wide swathe through the Chiquibul that
we see crowding the horizon beyond the boat's prow. To understand how deeper
and wider the Upper Macal and its tributaries are, you'd have to see these drowned
patches of forest, areas that used be dry land before the creation of the reservoir
inundated the area. The pallid color of the branches set against the lush,
thriving green of the surroundings make for a jarring juxtaposition - and now only the their bare and barren branches seem to reach up helplessly to the skies
for deliverance, as the river that so long fed them, now smothers their roots
somewhere beneath the depths.
But that same reservoir widened river carries us smoothly and snag free through
to the interior of the Chiquibul National Park, areas that would have been largely
Today the rangers are in a motorboat, but usually they paddle up this wide
waterway to conduct their patrols. Cormorants or what most people call a sheg
lead the way. But it's not the common sheg, we're looking for today, it's the
scarlet Macaw, the prize of Chiquibul – there’s an estimated population
of about 200. Lenny Gentle explains.
Larry Gentle, Scarlet Macaw Project Field Biologist “This is where we are on the Macal River. So we are heading towards
the Rascapulo Branch which is the main territory for the Macaw. The Macaws are
not only in the reservoir, they are also outside living all about the forest
but there is a high concentration of nests around this area.”
And he's right, within minutes after we set off, we sight a flock of scarlet
Macaws in the wild, a special moment, as the brilliant colours of their wings
lead a dance above the forest canopy, and they disappear into the cover, diving
into green. The macaws live nearby in Quamwood trees on the river bank.
They depend on the soft wood and the forces of nature to make a home for them
Larry Gentle, “The macaws don’t know to make cavities and so they depend on
nature to make cavities for them.”
Like this one - where you can saw the Macaw's colourful beak peering out. And
those high trees where they make their nests added to the clamour they create
make them an easy target for poachers - which is an increasing problem for FCD.
Larry Gentle, “What we’re founding since over the last two years we have a lot of the Guatemalan xatero poachers who basically cross the border and they
come almost 15 miles to collect their chicks and also we’ve been finding
some places where they actually cut the trees down with chainsaws, cut them
down with machetes or axes to get to the chicks if they cannot climb.”
There are also other problems that Guatemalan encroachers create like these
burnt trees. This tree used to be the nesting area for a pair of macaws, but
now it's as burnt and destitute as a solitary matchstick. This quamwood tree
shows the trail of climbing spurs, meaning someone has clambered up to capture
the macaws. It's a sore sight and an unbelievable activity for an endangered
bird in a national park, but it’s real and it is economics.
Larry Gentle, “For me it is definitely frustrating after being out here for the
last five years. I’ve seen a lot of damage, you know the flooding of the
dam and now we have poaching. This is unprecedented poaching. Basically we have
lost about ten macaw nests cavities so far. Ten, and now we have reports that
these things are being sold in Guatemala for about 3,000 quetzals.”
And while that's a sore sight, those are in the minority those who traverse
the Chiquibul, be they Xateros or wide eyed sightseer like me, will inevitably
encounter natural wonders like this, natural, year round spring, a juvenile
tapir, feasting on fresh grass. He seemed shy but not too disturbed, as he made a slight retreat - but we still found him through the thicket maybe even posing
for us. His business finished, he rushed along. Later on, in another area, we
spotted a slightly larger juvenile gamely navigating this tangle of limbs.
But the Tapir's have company, and we don’t mean us. These rafts
are what the Xateros use to cross the river after coming from the west through
dense difficult forests.
Larry Gentle, “At first they were not around here because we actually are about
15 miles from the border but now they have penetrated our forest so far, it
is unbelievable to know how far they are now extracting xate. This is considered
like a core conservation area.”
Core conservation in the heart of the Maya Mountain range, but fair grounds
for Xateros. In just a few minutes we come across half a dozen rafts all on
the west side of the river, parked there and ready to take the Xateros east
where the plant is plentiful. Eventually it’s too much, and the
FCD rangers take the decision to disable the rafts. It's fairly simple
and just requires detaching the cross member or severing the tying wire with
a machete. The rafts are not much, two logs nailed or tied together but
the Guatemalans who use them just need something to flat them across the river
- and some judging from the size of this monster could float a family across.
It's just one sign of a battle FCD continues to fight even if only symbolically.
Rafael Manzanero, Director - Friends of Conservation and Development “The cutting of the raft or the tine material used for the rafts,
at least it means that people can get the feeling that there is a presence,
that people are around that area. But it has to be much more consistent.”
That story again was from June of 2009.
One of the major taskings of FCD Forest Rangers is to studiously track the nests of Scarlet Macaws. Published Reports say the "2013 breeding season added 5 fledglings to the wild population from 24 eggs laid in 11 monitored nests."