Guats hack 6,000 Chiquibul acres!

Posted: 05/10/2007 - 10:39 AM
Author: Adele Ramos

For the past three weeks we have kept the issue of the illegal incursion of 102 Guatemalans at Santa Rosa on the front burner, but reports to our newspaper this week indicate that the problem of encroachment by Guatemalans into Belizean territory has been far more pervasive than had previously been disclosed to the public.

Not only have those incursions included illegal settlements of Guatemalans in protected areas on the Belize side of the border, but also the illegal clearing of a total acreage bigger than the country's largest metropolis - Belize City. The estimate is over 8,000 acres (12.5 square miles) of land cleared to plant crops, the main one being corn. Reports to our newspaper indicate that as recently as August there was another attempt by a sizeable group of Guatemalans to settle on the Belize side of the border.

Rafael Manzanero, executive director of Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD) and program director of the Chiquibul Maya Mountain Massif Program (led by FCD along with other partner agencies), informed us that he has been working with both the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Belizean Government to try and stem the tide of illegal incursions into Belize.

Manzanero, whose NGO co-manages the Chiquibul National Park, said that when the FCD took over the park's management just over a year ago, they estimated that they would have found about 1,000 acres of illegally hacked lands, but that figure turned out to be a shocking 6,000 acres, 1,000 acres being fresh cultivation done within the last 8 months or so.

We checked with the Belize City Council today to find out the size of Belize City - for comparison's sake - and the valuation department's calculations indicated that Belize City spans 6,038 acres, roughly the same size as the total acreage hacked in the Chiquibul National Park alone.

Over 2,000 acres more have been hacked away in the Caracol Archaeological Reserve, Manzanero further informed.

As we had reported in the last issue of our newspaper, illegal incursions of Guatemalans reached a peak in 2001, when a series of settlements cropped up in the same protected areas where the recent hacking has been reported. They include Machaquilla, where there were 221 illegal Guatemalans discovered in the Chiquibul National Park in Belize in January 2001; Rio Blanco, where 104 Guatemalans were found to settle, also inside Chiquibul, after October 2000; and a third settlement near Valentin Camp (inside the Caracol Archaeological Reserve).

Poverty along the borderline is a big factor, he said, adding that there are 64 communities along the border, placing high pressure on the land.

Indications from the few people who have been caught red-handed in the area are that business interests in Guatemala, who fully know that they are intruding into Belizean territory, encourage them. Some have even claimed they have purchased plots of land in the areas of the national park they have found to be cultivating - which could not be true, Manzanero told us.

Incursions have been registered up to four kilometers (roughly 2.5 miles) into Belize, he added.

Even though the vast majority of the clearing is for corn plantations - some of them substantial - other crops such as watermelons and tomatoes are also planted in the area.

According to Manzanero, a small group of Belize Defence Force officers have been out in the area during the last two months clearing away the illegal plantations. Park rangers themselves have been cautious with their patrols in the area, because it is "sensitive and highly dangerous," he explained.

The literature has indicated that most of the incursions have been systematically ongoing and escalating since the mid-1980's, when roughly 24 acres were reportedly hacked for illegal farming. Satellite maps have been developed showing the areas that have been illegally farmed.

The Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence have been fully informed of what has been taking place, Manzanero indicated, adding that they have been meeting to address the matter.

The plan is to do an aerial flight to update their assessment next week, and they would later forward the information obtained to the Forestry Department, so that it could be formulated into a Cabinet Paper for Government action, Manzanero said.

He told us that FCD met recently with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and they plan to meet next week with ambassadors of four countries from the Group of Friends of Belize and Guatemala: Germany, Holland, the United Kingdom and the United States, who are financing the impending relocation project along the Belize-Guatemala border.

According to Manzanero, his organization has reported the matter to the OAS, and they have signed a bilateral agreement with Guatemalan counterparts - CONAP - Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas (National Council for Protected Areas) and Mesa de Recursos Nacional in Poptun, the parallel to the Belize Forestry Department.

Even though there are currently no illegal settlements registered in the park, CONAP did indicate that only two months ago they had to stop 80 to 90 Guatemalan farmers, who were believed to have migrated from the Guatemalan highlands, from settling in the Chiquibul National Reserve, he also informed.

The OAS has been apprised of the growing intrusions in protected areas along the border, as well as recent reports of another possible incursion at the Benque border.

Herman Morris, general manager of the Border Management Agency (BMA) at the Benque border, told our newspaper this week that while all appears above board with a project for a US$80,000 OIRSA quarantine facility along the Belize-Guatemala border, he strongly believes that the parking lot for a new administration building to house the Guatemala Customs, Immigration and agricultural quarantine facilities, is sitting partially on Belizean land.

Morris explained that there is really no clear demarcation along the border. A year ago he made a request of the OAS to establish exactly where the borderline falls, because he wanted to set up a fence for the BMA, but he has delayed construction because he does not want to be conversely accused of building on Guatemalan territory. The OAS did not immediately send anyone to look into the matter, and since then the issue with Guatemala's parking lot has emerged.

In response to his request to the OAS, a team of officials from PAIGH (The Pan-American Institute of Geography and History) in Mexico, an OAS affiliate, recently visited Belize to survey the area, but he has yet to be informed of their findings. He said that the information would likely be channeled to him through the Belize Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The major problem, he said, is that there is still an imaginary line at the border, and there is the need for a clear demarcation of where the border between Belize and Guatemala lies.

Morris explained, however, that even though the OIRSA facility is being built on Belizean soil and funded by OIRSA Guatemala, that was the design of the project based on an agreement between Belize and Guatemala.

That facility will consist mainly of a tunnel for spraying vehicles passing from one side of the border to the other, and is for the benefit of both countries, he told us.

According to a report on the Benque issue carried by Channel 5 News on Monday, October 1, the Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Amalia Mai, had indicated to the news station that at a meeting of Belize and Guatemala scheduled for late October at the OAS Headquarters in Washington, DC, a recommendation could result that the Guatemalan claim over Belizean territory be settled in court-meaning the International Court of Justice.

Even though the Belize-Guatemala border is not properly demarcated, the territory of Belize is clearly defined under the Belize Constitution. The Referendum Act dictates that any proposed settlement of the Belize-Guatemala dispute must first be put to the people of Belize via a national referendum.

Live and let live