BELIZE CITY, Tues. Aug. 23, 2016–The Chiquibul Forest—the largest expanse within the Maya Mountain Massif—and particularly the area spanning the Belize-Guatemala border, has been under sustained pressure from illegal activities for over a decade, and today, the Government of Belize finally announced an “unprecedented investment” aimed at curbing the pillaging of Belize’s natural and cultural patrimony by Guatemalans who illegally enter into Belize to exploit the area.

Dr. Omar Figueroa, Minister of State in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry, Environment, Sustainable Development and Climate Change, announced the launch of the Chiquibul Forest Investment Initiative (CFII) at formal ceremonies held at the Best Western Belize Biltmore Plaza this afternoon, adding that they hope to have a measurable impact on the ground.

Figueroa—who described the Chiquibul as “the Crown Jewel of Belize’s protected area system”—said that over $15.8 million, coming from grants and loan funds, as well as direct co-financing from the recipient organizations, will be invested over the next two years in five contiguous protected areas: the Vaca Forest Reserve, the Chiquibul National Park, the Caracol Archaeological Reserve, the Bladen Nature Reserve and the Columbia River Forest Reserve, located in the Cayo and Toledo Districts.

According to Figueroa, the Maya Mountain Massif is comprised of 14 contiguous protected areas, spanning 45 kilometers along the Belize-Guatemala border—a total of 1.2 million acres, and he said that the enforcement of Belize’s laws there has proved to be “extremely challenging.”

“These protected areas, besides being adjacent to the Belize-Guatemala border, have been selected because of the high levels of threats and encroachments currently ongoing,” Figueroa commented.

He announced that $2.5 million out of the $15.8 million will be invested by the Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT) and the Environmental Management Fund, operated by the Department of the Environment. The monies will finance the imminent construction of two additional conservation posts at Caballo and Cabada—the latter of which has been targeted by Guatemalans for illegal farming of crops and marijuana. Two access roads will be built to those new posts.

Furthermore, funds will pay salaries for rangers deployed by the three of the managing authorities which oversee the protected areas: Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), Ya’axche Conservation Trust (YCT) and the Forest Department. The entities will also receive funds to cover transportation, equipment, training and capacity building, communication equipment, and procurement of drones to assist with the monitoring the area.

Dr. Colin Young, Chief Executive Officer in the ministry, said that the Chiquibul is one of the most difficult and one of the most dangerous areas to manage, and he is grateful that they were able to leverage funds for what he described as “an unprecedented investment.”

FCD’s executive director, Rafael Manzanero, demonstrated the extent of the encroachments in western Belize. He noted that agricultural frontier expansion has increased from about 240 acres since the 1980s to over 10,000 acres today. Over the last year alone, 338 hectares (835 acres) have been lost in the Chiquibul National Park and the Caracol Archaeological Reserve alone.

Manzanero said that one of the major trends is now cattle ranching by Guatemalans on the Belize side of the border, and he hopes that the new investment will enable them to halt this trend. The planting of marijuana by Guatemalans on the Belize side of the border is another major problem, he said. Gold mining by Guatemalans is another major threat, he added. One of the key interventions, he said, is putting more boots on the ground, to curb the encroachments.

Christina Garcia, YCT’s executive director, said that incursions have been documented in both the Columbia River Forest Reserve and the Bladen Nature Reserve. Illegal logging has been one of the biggest concerns in the area, where illegal settlements have also been detected in the past.

“This investment will create more boots on the ground,” Garcia said.

She said that due to monitoring limitations, they do not know of any illegal activities in the deep western portion of Bladen, the largest terrestrial nature reserve, and the initiative should boost their capacity to conduct assessment patrols with government agencies.

The big question is, what will happen after the two-year initiative ends? How will the Government sustain the Chiquibul initiative? Figueroa proposed two solutions.

First, he said, a “willingness to pay” study will be undertaken to canvass views on the increase of the US$3.75 conservation fee charged to tourists, which he said has remained virtually unchanged since 1996. Earlier reviews indicated that tourists may be willing to pay as much as US$20, he said.

The second solution is issuing concessions for harvesting timber and non-timber resources from the Chiquibul, and a portion of the profits would be reinvested into preserving and protecting the area.

“The time has come to think outside the box,” Figueroa said.

Amandala