The illegal extraction of rosewood in seven Maya communities in the Toledo District has become too rampant to ignore. The Maya Leaders Alliance is taking on the fight to stop the extraction because the precious wood is under threat of extinction. The MLA alleges there is official facilitation to the illegality. News Five’s Isani Cayetano headed down south and files this report.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
Supply and demand for the much sought after rosewood, an endangered tropical specie in Belize used in the manufacture of luxury furniture, is at an all time high. With that comes great controversy as the dark wood tree is being harvested illegally for sale on the foreign market. In Toledo members of the wider Mayan community are once again at an economic crossroad, one that finds them in a proverbial catch twenty-two.
While there is said to be a prohibition on the logging of rosewood, residents of seven Mayan communities in the district are purportedly being encouraged by high level government officials to extract the rare timber. Ligorio Coy, Chairman of the Maya Leaders Alliance, begins by sharing his concerns about illegal logging operations within these villages.
Ligorio Coy, Chairman, Maya Leaders Alliance
“The situation with this illegal rosewood [logging] has begun a number of times from now and I think that there was control of this logging issue within the Forestry Department. However, there are some organizations [that] have made complains over the radio which embarks on our land issue here in Toledo and from there then we have started to investigate the situation whereby we have found out that there is intensive logging in the Toledo District.”
On one hand the harvesting of rosewood, albeit illegally, provides meager income for loggers and their families. On the other, there aren’t sufficient economic opportunities for residents to take advantage of. Either way it presents a problem which is amplified by allegations that a family member of the Minister of Natural Resources, Gaspar Vega, is said to be in the front and center of the sale of rosewood abroad.
Samuel Edwards, Rosewood Dealer
“If dehn no stop di cutting a rosewood then don’t ask fi no rosewood next year. There won’t be any. But because Vega wants all, he wants twenty-five containers a month if ih could get it, ih just cut free. Even when the Forestry Department says “no let us come and…” I don’t know if Vega wah hear you know, I don’t know but I am just saying how it is. What is good for Peter is good for Paul. I couldn’t buy no more until when that man started to buy day before yesterday. For the whole week it was stopped. I couldn’t buy.”
“Who say you couldn’t buy?”
Samuel Edwards is one of four rosewood dealers in the south. He is a former forestry officer now in the business of rosewood sales. Edwards is direct competition for other exporters but his business is being stifled, he says, because of ministerial influence.
“So you sell to a Chiney Man or to Vega?”
“No, that’s why I can sell because I noh sell to Vega.”
“So if you noh sell to Vega you can’t sell to nobody?”
“You noh di get no export license, maybe once a month you get one, maybe none at all. You sih dehn log back ya da from last year October.”
“…and you can sell them?”
“…because yo have to sell to Vega?”
“Mr. Vega he ready, ih say ih could bring ten containers right now and load this right now. He has no limit. Those things are wrong.”
While the practice supposedly outlawed Coy says that verbal consent was granted to a number of tree cutters from various communities including Crique Sarco, Midway, Sunday Wood, San Benito Poite, Corazon, Otoxa and Laguna to proceed with extraction.
“The minister came and said that you can [harvest rosewood] and I clearly understood [because] I was at that present meeting when he did say that you should apply but none of this has come true and I think that is what rode all of these logging issues. And again we stand together as Mayan people in some of the villages knowing that we have that Maya land right judgment delivered to the Mayan people.”
To further understand the magnitude of the situation one has to consider the many intricacies involved. First there is an issue regarding the use of communal lands. On June 28th, 2010 the Supreme Court delivered a breakthrough decision affirming the ancestral rights of thirty-eight Mayan villages. While that ruling remains it allows the players free reign in taking advantage of it.
“The government was ordered that we should put a mechanism in place [as to] how we should work along with the government, especially when it comes to harvesting these resources in the forest. And there is no time that we have sat with these people, with these government officials to try and see how we can put a mechanism in place, how we can manage our forest.”
The catch, MLA says, is that loggers are being encouraged to harvest rosewood from ancestral lands; and, in the absence of a waybill they claim forestry officials, in carrying out their duty, have broken the law by allowing the shipment of rosewood from these communities to dealers without first being stamped. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.