The Chiquibul Forest covers four hundred and thirty-seven thousand acres, which is about seven point seven percent of the entire landmass of Belize. This area encompasses the Chiquibul National Park, Chiquibul Forest Reserve and the Caracol Archaeological Reserve; all protected areas. The national park, however, has come under unrelenting plundering by organized, illegal loggers who have advanced into Belizean territory. To capture the devastation, News Five's Andrea Polanco trekked to the Chiquibul with Friends of Conservation and Development and she has returned with this report.
Andrea Polanco, Reporting
The Chiquibul forms part of the Tri-National Maya Forest Ecosystem and plays a vital role in the preservation of the flora and fauna endemic to the area. But since 2005, the forest has come under systematic devastation primarily by illegal Guatemalan loggers. According to the Friends of Conservation and Development, nowhere in Meso-America has there been such a large scale pillage of natural and cultural resources. From the outside, the forest appears untouched and unspoiled, but deep inside there are clear signs that the loggers are operating with wanton abuse.
Boris Arrevalo, Friends of Conservation and Development
"Illegal activities going on around this area, the Cohune Ridge Area but it will take us about forty-five minutes hike to take us to get to the first illegally cut trees in this area."
We set out on the Cohune Ridge track, accompanied by FCD and the BDF. Along this main path, there are many small trails leading to other paths. Some twenty minutes into the forest, just off the main path, we encountered the first evidence of the illegal activities. The flitches and chunks of wood lay scattered; the smell of freshly cut timber permeates the air, signaling that the loggers were recently here. They leave behind a mass of waste.
Rafael Manzanero, Executive Director, Friends of Conservation and Development
"In this case here we are seeing one of the cedar trees that have been removed. You can see the flitches that they have already been converted to and in some of the slabs have already been removed and taken away. But you will be able to observe is a lot of the waste. In fact we consider that about seventy percent of a tree is normally left and just abandoned on the sites. So what you see here area really the boulders that have been left of the trunk."
A single incursion yields thousands of dollars for the loggers. To date the economic value of the illegal logging of mahogany and cedar trees is in excess of fifteen million dollars. The systematic raids are taxing the Chiquibul:
"What we are seeing here is a freshly cut cedar tree, and the way these people are operating in the forest is, it appears to be a quite organized activity. Because first they will send a tree hunter for them and this tree hunter will walk the forest and when he finds trees with of nice diameter to be logged, he will actually mark the trees as we are seeing in this case it has the machete marks, so the hunter was here, marked the trees and ready to log. And then the loggers with the chainsaws will come and do the felling of the trees. And this tree is a one hundred percent waste, we will call it; because these guys came and fell the tree and when the tree was fell, and actually before a tree is fell you can know it is not good for timber. In this case the tree has a big hole, a rotten section of it and because it is rotten we cannot get any timber of it."
"Just off the main track we followed one of the trails. There is evidence of the plunder. Several cedar trees have been cut down in recent weeks; they represent just a fraction of the devastation."
"Yeah, that is one big problem that we are observing and it has a lot of impact on the natural vegetation, as we are able to observe here, this is producing deforestation, we will type that as deforestation. And when the trees are fell, the trees are in thick forest and are covered in thick lianas and when they are fell, they will bring down other trees with them nuh. The first assessment did not consider the ecological impact, this second assessment, apart from the volume and economic loss, we will try to quantify the true ecological impact, how many other tree species are being affected, how many trees themselves the abundance of the trees are being affected by just cutting down a cedar or a mahogany tree."
At this illegal site, the trespassers, who travel on horses, leave behind the remnants of a fire and food supplies. Empty juice cans, made in Guatemala, are strewn nearby. The majority are farmers from bordering communities who organize in small groups. But how is it that the Guatemalans gain access to the Chiquibul?
"The way how they are able to extract it is via chainsaws. Of course, these are big chainsaws; each of them may be worth five to six thousand dollars Belize. They would come in small groups, probably about three to four of them working on a given tree. So these are not really big crowds of people but they operate in different kinds of units; in other words, there is one which cuts, there is one set that are only observing and conducting surveillance, there is the other guys who come in just to collect the flitches and they transport it out. What even makes it much more difficult for the joint forces unit here in Chiquibul, is that they operate at night? So operating at night under the darkness, of course you require special equipment. You require also to be better in terms of taking the risks. And as how I noted earlier, these guys would have also some of the guys conducting the surveillance. So it is very important to understand the activity and to really put in the operations for enforcement."
The escalation of illegal activities pushed the FCD team to lobby for an enforcement unit to conduct patrols and security operations. In July of 2010, the FCD, BDF and Police formed the Chiquibul Forest Joint Enforcement Unit:
Derek Chan, Friends for Conservation and Development
"We have to carry all our ration, five day ration, all your clothes, your water. Where we are going now, there is little water, so it's gonna be rough but we have to carry it out, rain or shine. We have to go in there."
"Okay, on this five day operation, how far are you guys expecting to go inside Forest?"
"We are going right now, walking about two hours, it's possibly like about ten kilometers I think, maybe under ten kilometers and we are going to camp and then tomorrow we are actually going to start going into the jungle to look at the situation."
On November 17th, the unit sets out in the Tunkul Area, located 10 kilometers from the western border, south west of the Caracol Archaeological Reserve. They intercepted a group of loggers comprising of about eight men. In this video, the sounds of chainsaws hacking away can be heard from a distance. When the unit approaches the area, the loggers, except for one, disappear among the trees, leaving behind a chainsaw still cutting through a tree.
The unit questions the intruder, Evelio Adelso Romero. He admits he was cutting lumber to transport to Nueva Armenia in Guatemala. According to Romero, he is paid one hundred and twenty-five quetzales per day (approximately thirty-four dollars and twenty-five cents Belize dollars) for cutting the logs into flitches.
[Video: Operation in Chiquibul 17, Nov]
Romero, one of the few who has been arrested and jailed, is spending two years in prison. The CFJEU also found Romero with a rifle and ammunition and at the site they found a twelve gauge shotgun and four chainsaws.
The illegal logging from Guatemalans in the Chiquibul Forest was first recorded in 2005 in Rio Blanco, Chiquibul National Park. By 2007, the BDF and FCD detected that mahogany and cedar trees were being extracted illegally but for local consumption purposes. However, an evaluation a year later would conclude otherwise. An operation in the Columbia River Reserve discovered that an area of nine thousand acres was being pillaged. An assessment showed that the preliminary area covered twelve thousand hectares in mid-2010 and by the end of that year it had increased to eighteen thousand one hundred and sixty seven. In mid 2011, a third assessment showed that the loggers had increased their operations to twenty-six thousand six hundred and forty-two hectares. To date, the Guatemalans have steadily advanced up to twelve miles into Belize.
"This is basically only twenty minutes walking from the main highway where tourists are travelling everyday going to Caracol. So we refer to this thing as a time bomb. We refer to this as already the Guatemalans know the routes; they already know the operations taking place along that highway, which leads to Caracol Archaeological Reserve."
The CFJEU has had little success, in its first year, thirty loggers were detained but most weren't charged due to improper documentation and lack of representation from the appropriate agencies. In 2011, CFJEU detained eleven Guatemalans and took custody of thirty-two horses and at least five chainsaws, clearly illustrating, the persistence and regularity of the Guatemalan incursions. Reporting for News Five, I'm Andrea Polanco.