Bladden Nature Reserve under threat from xate poachers

A fly-over of the Bladen Nature Reserve, bordering with Guatemala, provides a bird's eye view of the rich vegetation of our tropical forests. The protected area, however, is being systematically plundered by those engaged in export of the lucrative xate and by poachers looking for exotic wildlife. But it's not limited to those two threats; there is another even more serious risk looming from the proposed construction of a hydroelectric plant. News Five's Isani Cayetano teamed up with Ya'axche Conservation for a reconnaissance flight and has this report.

Isani Cayetano, Reporting

The stretch of land in the northwest corner of the Toledo District, a hundred thousand acres comprising the Bladen Nature Reserve, is lush tropical woodland teeming with exotic wildlife and botany. The expansive acreage which sits on the edge of the Belize/Guatemala border is the most protected area in the country yet it remains under constant threat from poachers and developers both in and outside of its confines. For years this territory has been used for illegal hunting and harvesting. Despite joint efforts by conservationists and various government agencies incursion by xateros is unavoidable.

Today the Ya'axche Conservation Trust is flying over the area to determine the extent to which deforestation is taking place. The organization has teamed up with Light Hawk, an elite corps of pilots and environmentalists operating within Mesoamerica, to gather information from above.

Leading the mission is retired airline pilot David Cole.

David Cole, Pilot, Light Hawk

David Cole

"The work we do is to help provide an aerial platform so that people on both sides of issues can see what that issue is from the aerial perspective and that will perhaps provide a tipping point. But as you know you can't hide from the air what you can hide on the ground by putting a false front on something."

Although an above ground look proves the extent to which trees are being cleared trekking this vast spread also provides solid evidence that the Bladen Nature Reserve is under attack. On the forest floor lies the carcass of a curassow; hunted and killed for its colorful plumes.

Lee Mcloughlin

Lee McLoughlin, Protected Areas Manager, Ya'axche

"Last week we went on an expedition where the mission was to determine how much xateros, these illegal collectors of the xate palm, predominantly from Guatemala but some from Belize as well, the extent to which they've moved across Bladen Nature Reserve."

Along with a group of BDF soldiers they ventured into the wild and came across a cave which is part of a widespread system created by xateros to access the area.

Lee McLoughlin

"What we found was extensive incursions, [an] extensive trail of network, network of trails of the xateros through particularly Columbia River Forest Reserve and also now Bladen Nature Reserve moving across [and] up the Maya Divide, across the mountains and well into Bladen Nature Reserve. We need to; we need an extended patrol time, probably about two-week patrols to see just how far they got in."

While additional patrol time can aid in data collection or provide an opportunity to confront xateros they are working with limited resources. For that reason today's flyover is crucial.

Along with wildlife conservationist Bartolo Teul the pilot charts the coordinates of key areas on a global positioning system. The single engine aircraft is then thoroughly checked before taking off in flight.

From the air it is apparent that below the mountains and valleys are illegal activities taking place within the park.

Bartolo Teul, Wildlife Conservationist, Ya'axche

Bartolo Teul

"In the Bladen Nature Reserve for us that is the highest category of protected area in this country and we see it as a genetic stock for not only plants but for wildlife. That if we have any area [where] plants and animals could regenerate, could replenish then the communities that live in this buffer would be able to enjoy these natural resources."

Among those many natural resources is the xate plant, long coveted by illegal harvesters for export to the foreign market. To reap its palm xateros setup makeshift camps, as seen here, where leaves are gathered, stripped and bagged. Elsewhere soil erosion is destroying much of the pristine forest.

David Cole

"Along the river bottoms because of the deforestation and the runoff from the heavy rains the rivers are silting up and it's especially visible at the Monkey River settlement with the sandbars as they came out of the ocean. And eventually those things will dry up carry less water and provide less sustenance for the communities along the river."

Similarly risky is the proposed construction of a hydroelectric plant along the Central River in the heart of Bladen. Permission had been granted to HydroMaya to conduct research and despite an injunction filed against such activity the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the company.

Lisel Alamilla, Executive Director, Ya'axche

Lisel Alamilla

"Why are we granting someone a permit to study it for commercial interest when you're saying that these commercial activities can, in fact, not be allowed in these areas? So what is the long term intent? Is it to then de-reserve these areas and allow these commercial developments to happen?"

They are burning questions that the Ministry of Natural Resources will, at some point, need to address. Until then enough data is being gathered to show that our neighbors west of the border are plundering Belize's wealth with no regard for its territorial sovereignty. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.