(Above: A forest ranger patrols the Central River in the Maya Mountains, Toledo District, Southern Belize (Photo courtesy of Ya’axché Conservation Trust)
By Lee McLoughlin
Editor’s note: I visited the Maya Mountains, San Miguel and San Pedro Colombia in March of this year and the natural beauty of the area took my breath away. I was distressed to hear of plans to build a hydroelectric dam here and had hoped the community organizing efforts had put a stop to it. Unfortunately, Lee McLoughlin of the Ya’axché Conservation Trust contacted me recently to let me know that the project is a destructive reality, and one that the community and the conservation trust have teamed up to fight. What follows is a guest article by Lee and three excellent videos sponsored by the Ya’axché Conservation Trust. – Tracy L. Barnett
MAYA MOUNTAINS, Belize – The Toledo District of southern Belize is blessed with rich natural and cultural resources. Along its spine runs the rugged Maya Mountains, a largely uninhabited refuge for a wide variety of threatened and endangered species including jaguar, Baird’s tapir, howler monkey and the iconic scarlet macaw. The Maya Mountains are part of the last remaining relatively intact block of forest within the region – The Selva Maya – stretching from Belize to Guatemala and Mexico.
Central River in Bladen Nature Reserve (Photo courtesy of Ya’axché Conservation Trust)
In addition to the Maya Mountains’ value as a conservation area for threatened, endangered and endemic species it also provides services such as clean air and of course fresh, limestone filtered water to rural communities. To help protect these freshwater resources a large portion of the Maya Mountains are under some form of protection. The most strictly protected area in this block is the Bladen Nature Reserve which is co-managed by Ya’axché Conservation Trust and Belize Forest Department. Bladen protects the headwaters of the Monkey River and the Central River (Rio Grande tributary) where the river drops through sinkholes and emerges out of springs as it makes its way through the underground limestone cave systems on its way through indigenous Mayan communities and then coastal Creole communities before reaching Belize’s World Heritage Barrier Reef. The communities of San Pedro Columbia and San Miguel, in the upper Rio Grande watershed, are particularly dependent on these rivers as a source of drinking water, for washing and for irrigation for subsistence agriculture.
In November of last year Ya’axché Conservation Trust discovered that Belize Hydroelectric Development (BHD) had conducted an illegal ‘feasibility study’ for a proposed hydroelectric dam within the pristine, strictly protected Bladen Nature Reserve. This development was taking place without any prior consultation with the communities that would be affected by the dam and in addition Ya’axché, as co-managers of Bladen, were not informed. The communities of San Pedro Columbia and San Miguel mobilized to form a commitee and numerous meetings were held to allow people to voice their opinions. People were overwhelmingly against the development, especially since the same company had previously established a dam on the San Miguel river on community land without any tangible community benefit. Ya’axché decided to take the community opposition a step further and is now involved in litigation against BHD and the Forest Department who granted them the permit.
Community meeting in San Pedro Columbia (Photo courtesy of Ya’axché Conservation Trust)
What this illegal development showed was a complete disregard for the human rights of the indigenous communities living downstream and the rich ecology of the Maya Mountains. Ya’axché realized that it was necessary to give a voice to those communities who would be most affected by developments such as this. To ensure this voice is heard Ya’axché enlisted local filmmakers Ajax Films to create two films.
Saving Paradise from Ya'axché Conservation Trust on Vimeo.
The first film, ‘Saving Paradise’, is the story of the opposition of Toledo communities to the proposed hydro dam and the five-day expedition to the site of the ‘development’ in the remote upper reaches of the Maya Mountains. It enabled the community members and Ya’axché to show those who could not make the long trek, the damage that had been caused by the developers. This included the bulldozing of a road, clearing forested slopes, blocking waterways and creeks and clearing helicopter landing pads. ‘Saving Paradise’ also shows the series of community meetings which followed the ‘feasibility study’ and particularly the passion and organization of the communities in opposition to this dam.
The second film, ‘River to Reef’, is all about the relationship of modern Belizeans to their water resources, it highlights the impacts that we have on our watersheds on individual, community and commercial levels. Importantly it not only demonstrates the negative impacts but also shows those committed individuals who are making small changes in their community to achieve healthy watersheds and coastal reefs for future generations. The film is currently being shown on Belizean Television, on the internet and, most importantly, in schools and communities.
River to Reef from Ya'axché Conservation Trust on Vimeo.
For more information on the fight against the dam please check out the blog, Let Our River Flow. For more information about the activities and protected areas of Ya’axche Conservation Trust, including the 100,000-acre Bladen Nature Reserve and the 15,000-acre Golden Stream Corridor Preserve please visit the Ya’axche Conservation Trust website at www.yaaxche.org or write to [email protected] or [email protected] And to lend your voice to the cause, write to Belize Prime Minister Dean Barrow at [email protected], or call him at (501) 822-0399; and write a letter to the newspapers, Amandala ([email protected]
And to close the subject with a smile, check out this short video by a group of Toledo High School students, Damn the Dam! It’s priceless.
Damn the Dam! from Ya'axché Conservation Trust on Vimeo.