Illegal logging in Chiquibul costing Belize at least $15 million
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Executive Director of Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), Rafael Manzanero, said Tuesday that preliminary estimates put the value of Belizean hardwoods illegally harvested from the Chiquibul Forest at around $15 million. The main tree being extracted, according to Manzanero, is the national tree – mahogany.

In the mid-week edition of Amandala, we reported on concerns over the milpa farming inside protected areas, allegedly by Guatemalan farmers who habitually slash, burn and plant corn, beans and squash inside Belize every year.

Ambassador David Gibson, a member of the Belize-Guatemala negotiating team, and the founder and coordinator of the Centre for Strategic Studies Policy Analysis and Research (CSSPAR), a virtual think tank, who supports the work of FCD, warns that the situation on the border is actually getting worse, with narcotics entering into the formula.

The question of settlement of the territorial dispute between Belize and Guatemala is on the back burner, and there are, he said, confidence building measures in place, but, he noted, “...it’s a question of how effective are they?”

There are “good noises” made on various fronts, but on the ground there is a problem—a big problem for both Belize and Guatemala to solve, said Ambassador Gibson.

He noted that the Peten population (right next door to Belize’s western border) is growing fast, and there are many poor people there who lack land. They look to where farmland is—Belize—and they are coming into Belize, he added.

“The Guatemalan problem is further aggravated by narcotics and the presence of major rival narcotics trafficking gangs there. The massacre on Sunday [by Los Zetas] is a reflection of that,” said Gibson.

Whereas Belize is clearly at risk of feeling the spillover of narcotics-related violence through our porous borders, there are concerns that there is simply not enough manpower on the ground to even stave off the current wave of illegal activities happening out in western Belize.

Manzanero said that the problem is not just the milpa incursions, as we detailed in our mid-week edition: “We can talk about illegal logging, poaching of wild animals – scarlet macaws. There is the looting of archeological remains and more recently...gold panning,” he indicated.

He said that Belize is unmistakably losing millions every year from these activities.

Manzanero specifically pointed to the rapid increase—over the last year or so—of illegal logging.

Over a span of 55,000 acres and up to 10 kilometers or about 7 miles into Belize, they have observed the illegal harvest of mahogany, cedar and other woods.

“It is possible we have lost over 15 million dollars worth of timber alone,” said Manzanero, affirming that none of that stays in Belize.

According to Manzanero, since three years ago, they have registered in the Chiquibul Forest alone, the loss of 8,000 acres. While they don’t yet have the full figures for 2011, they have observed about 300 acres already cleaned, as a result of fires burned in the area. Vast tracks of lands are denuded; top soil is eroded and wildlife has vanished. The areas destroyed are even difficult to hike through.

During the past year, Manzanero indicated, about 40 persons were detained inside Belize for illegal entry and illegal activities; but only some of those cases actually result in court procedures.

Manzanero noted that parts of Belize that had not previously been exploited by milpa and other incursions are now being accessed. The Cebada zone —which contains one of the entrance points of the Chiquibul Cave System — is now being more highlighted, he said. Activities there have increased over the last 8 or so months, based on satellite imagery, he said.

From Arenal, Cayo, down to our southern border, there are 65 communities on the Guatemalan side, very close to the Belize border. Three areas in Belize come under serious pressure: Rio Blanco, Machaquilha and Valentin. These, said Gibson, are potential flashpoints – pressure points that need to be more closely monitored. Belize needs to have strengthened and improved measures to prevent further conflicts in those areas, he indicated.

The area is policed by the Chiquibul Forest Joint Enforcement Unit, which includes Belize Defence Force and Special Police Unit officers, said Manzanero. Both Gibson and Manzanero underscored the need to have more law enforcement manpower on the ground.

Gibson furthermore believes Belize needs cooperation from Guatemala for any enforcement program to really work. He also pointed to the need for alternate employment opportunities for those Guatemalan laborers who seek greener pastures here to make a living. Possible interventions go beyond strengthening law enforcement, he asserted.

“It’s a question of how do you stop [the illegal activity],” Gibson indicated.

He pointed to a model initiative – a Mopan Watershed program with FCD and its Guatemalan NGO partners across the border, which engages riverside communities both in Belize and Guatemala to help stop the denudation of forests.

Ambassador Gibson also warned that an increase in military presence alone is not enough to combat the problem. He said that there also have to be programs geared at environmental education, in addition to employment programs. If nothing is done, it’s going to get worse, he declared.

Gibson noted that there are Guatemalan communities now accosting BDF – civilians, who are demanding back their horses, when confiscated.

To highlight the escalating problem, Manzanero said one of the key phrases he has used more recently is “a progressive level of activity taking place.”

Authorities also have to be mindful, he said, that in addressing the activities inside the Chiquibul, “there can be a flushing of that problem somewhere else; so the programs have to be coordinated” with those in other nearby protected areas.

The threat and the dangers are out there, said Manzanero, and authorities have to realize the importance of addressing them now.

Ambassador Gibson also underscored the need for the public to be aware of this matter, and diplomatically expressed the view that more should be done.

He commended the FDC, the BDF, as well as the police and all enforcement agencies who man the ground, noting that in the face of overwhelming circumstances, they are holding up and are as effective as they can be with limited resources.

He added, however, that “there is always the expectation that more can be done...”

(From the Tuesday, May 17, 2011, edition of The Adele Ramos Show. Images of illegal logs and map courtesy FCD.)

Amandala