Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary under threatLionel "Chocolate" Heredia Left Shaky
As we reported last night, the Ministry of Natural Resources has granted
permission to survey three properties on Mapp Caye which is a mangrove island
the eastern edge of the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary. Now there are some
nature reserves like the one in Corozal Bay that only protect the water –
but we’ve checked, and Swallow Caye isn’t one of them.
The law enacting the Swallow Caye Sanctuary states that it is comprised
by, quote, “all that piece or parcel of land and water east of Belize
City in the Belize District in including Swallow Caye and Mapps Cay, comprising
of approximately 8,970.13 acres.” So it covers land and water and
by the coordinates we’ve pegged in – the property is on Mapp’s
Caye – within the reserve. That means that giving the permission to survey
the properties is hopefully, an error and one the Ministry of Natural Resources
would have to correct. If they do intend to correct it, they would have to give
the three persons who’ve been given permission to survey property somewhere
else. As we reported last night, the three parcels of land were designated as
compensation for island property that Sharon Fraser, Wayne Fraser and Rurico
Alvarado lost on the Montego Bay Development when the last government conveyed
that to a developer with close ties to the PUP.
But right now we don’t know for sure what the Ministry of Natural
Resources will do because we were unable to reach the Minister who just returned
to the country today, or the CEO who won’t be in until next week. We did
speak with the Public Relations Officer who promised to get back to us but at
news time, had not. And that uncertainty is rattling the man who set up the reserve, Lionel “Chocolate'” Heredia. The reserve is his passion
and he’s worked for going on two decades to get it established. Now that
a portion is on the block – the 79 year old says it’s driving him
Lionel “Chocolate'” Heredia, Activist
“In five days it is my birthday, I will complete 80 years but I left
kinda of shaky. Why? Because if you don’t have a government that minds
our natural resources and the mangroves, it is very important those mangroves,
if they would ever get out there, the Minister, I would take him and show him
what is in those mangroves and thing. I would do it so they have more courage
to save the mangroves especially. Belize is rich in a lot of natural resources.”
When you meet with the Minister you will ask him to please not grant title or
lease on that property?
Lionel “Chocolate'” Heredia,
“Jules you what I even will do, I will get down from my chair and
kneel down and say please Minister don’t do that. I worked hard many years
for this place.”
Right now how are the manatee populations in that area?
Lionel “Chocolate'” Heredia,
“The biggest population is there and then you can go right there and
you don’t have to chase them, they come around the boat. So beautiful,
there is not another place like Swallow Caye in Belize.”
Chocolate' hopes he can have that meeting with the Minister by next
week when his wife – who helped him set up the sanctuary – returns
from the United States. We’ll keep you posted.
Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary
In order to discuss Swallow Caye, it is necessary to know that it is a haven for the West Indian Manatee and that over the years, it was established as a sanctuary through the efforts of a group of people. The most well-known and tireless champion of these was Lionel “Chocolate” Heredia. The story of how it came about is quite interesting. A native of San Pedro, Mr. Heredia moved to Caye Caulker in the 1970’s. At first, he worked Water Taxis and later self-trained in Manatee Tour Guiding. At that time, it came about quite by chance, that Richard Foster, a well-known American photojournalist, invited Chocolate to visit an undiscovered place where manatees were abundant. This was a place where manatees could always be seen, and the idea was born for Chocolate to start bringing tours to see this rare, gentle mammal of the sea.
Practically on his own, Heredia embarked on the cause of protecting the manatees in this Belize City area. The Sanctuary has been identified as an area which forms a semi-circle from Francis Cayes in the west-northwest to the Colson Cayes in the south, as well as the area known as Belize City and its attendant cayes. These cayes share a long and intriguing history through their geology across time, to the rise of the Maya Civilization, through the colonial era and now in present-day modern Belize.
Realizing the multiple reasons to conserve and safeguard this area, Chocolate persevered in his crusade, which started in the 1980’s. Eventually, he succeeded with the organization of the association called, Friends of Swallow Caye in 2002. This was quite an endeavor because he needed to prove that there was a broad base of support for the idea. Furthermore, scientific information was required and, as luck would have it, in the 1990’s, Ms. Janet Gibson had been conducting her doctoral thesis on Manatees of the area. The Coastal Zone Management Institute, with Ms. Gibson at the helm, was focusing on a comprehensive Manatee research program. The UNDP, GEF, and the CZMP program began in August of 1996 and was carried out to examine the status of the manatee for the first time, on a countrywide and long-term basis.
For hundreds of years, these cayes had made up the center of what used to be known as the Maya Trade Routes. Later, the colonists used them as shipping routes. Today they are the hub of fishing grounds, shipping, and a rapidly growing tourism industry. Fortunately, along with the last few decades of growth, there has also been a rise in environmental protection and trends toward conservation. There are now several protected areas. This small Swallow Caye, which lies directly in front of Belize City, has been witness to its long history, as well as a key player in providing protection to Belize City and also providing seafood and a safe and convenient anchorage to shipping. Of vital importance is the fact that, while protecting the Manatees, the sanctuary also protects other species of sea life, under the same umbrella, so to speak.
According to historical evidence, the caye was named after a Royal Navy ship HMS Swallow, which frequented the area. Its captain, Samuel Axe used this caye as his favorite anchorage because it was convenient for him to replenish his stores in Belize City, as well as its proximity to Turneffe, where he could tend his tobacco crop.
Swallow Caye is readily accessible by boat. Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary is one of Belize’s very handy, natural heritage tourist attractions and is popular with visitors from all over the world. Access is easy from all points, from north to south; from Ambergris Caye to St. George’s Caye and Placencia.