Belize’s border forest threatened
Whereas Belize is lauded internationally for its exemplary forest preservation efforts, its immediate western neighbor, Guatemala, is grappling with one of the highest deforestation rates in Central America, and as anticipated, the escalating deforestation problem is extending into Belizean forests, as Amandala, supported by Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), had highlighted in a May 2011 special report featuring massive land clearings, slashed and burned for illegal plantings by Guatemalans in the Chiquibul—a spillover of activities in the fast-growing Peten which features very high poverty rates. (See photo accompanying this article.)
As things now stand, Belize’s forests, when viewed aerially or via satellite imagery, form a nearly perfect natural border between Belize and Guatemala, but continued encroachments into Belizean territory, which includes massive land clearings for farms year-in, year-out, point to a scenario where Belize’s western forests could be lost in a matter of about three decades if the current deforestation pattern is allowed to persist.
The issue, which has yet to receive the kind of attention it deserves, is in the public forefront once again, and Terra-i, a collaboration between the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT - DAPA, based in Colombia), the Nature Conservancy (TNC, based in the US), the School of Business and Engineering (HEIG-VD, based in Switzerland) and King’s College London (KCL, based in the UK), this week issued a report highlighting the escalating deforestation on the Belize-Guatemala border, and the long-term implications for Belize if nothing is done to tackle the problem.
The report, authored by Alejandro Coca, an agricultural engineer from National University of Colombia, along with Louis Reymondin and Andreea Nowak, notes that, “Traditional subsistence farming of corn, marrow and beans by the indigenous Q’eqchi are the main drivers of deforestation in the Petén department...” However, there is a warning being sounded for Belize.
“Across the border, in Belize, illegal activities (selective logging, timber harvesting, animal and plant poaching and gold mining), increased oil explorations (the majority of potential oil reserves are located within protected areas) and infrastructure improvement projects are the most common threats to the natural habitat,” said the Terra-I report. “For example, the Southern Highway (Mile 14)- Belize/Guatemala Border Road Project is under construction and will facilitate communication within Belize as well as connections with Guatemala and Honduras. Such infrastructural improvements could increase the risk of negative impact on natural and cultural resources as has already occurred in other places in Latin America, reconfirming the importance of integrating broader road construction projects with comprehensive sustainable development planning.”
Amandala contacted Forestry Minister Lisel Alamilla to find out if she knew of the Terra-i report but she told us that she did not and asked us to forward a copy for her perusal. However, she declined to comment, for the time being, on the increasingly problematic trend of deforestation that has been affecting Belize.
Lee McLoughlin, Protected Areas Manager of Ya’axché Conservation Trust (YCT), said: “One only has to look at the maps comparing forest cover 1975 to 2010 to see what we risk 35 years into the future.”
He said that in YCT’s outreach work with local communities, they highlight that Belize has the chance to be an example to the world of sustainable forest management.
“Those countries that have already lost the majority of their forest and are acutely overpopulated do not have that choice,” McLoughlin added.
In tracking the deforestation, Terra-i analyzed deforestation on the Guatemala-Belize border. It particularly looked at the Petén department in Guatemala and adjacent lands in the Cayo, Orange Walk and Toledo districts in Belize between 2004 and 2010.
The assessment noted that “...85% of the deforestation that occurred in Belize was located within these three districts adjacent to Guatemala.”
It added that, “On the other side, 74% of the deforestation rates in Guatemala have been located in the Petén department, which also holds the highest annual rate of population growth in the country.”
The loss of Belizean forest increased more than five-fold between 2004 and 2010, while there was much more aggressive deforestation in Guatemalan—double the rate of deforestation in Belize—over the same period of time.
“In the Belize districts of Cayo, Orange Walk and Toledo Terra-i detected a 338 ha loss in 2004 and 1875 ha in 2010 (an increase of 455%). Within the same period, a total of 6,375 ha of natural vegetative cover were lost, which is equivalent to an annual average of 911 ha/year,” said the Terra-I report. “In the Guatemalan Petén, about 1,569 ha were lost in 2004 and 16,500 ha in 2010 (an increase of 952%). During this time, the registered natural habitat loss equaled 95,769 ha (an average rate of change of 13,681 ha/year).”
The Terra-i alliance said the recent assessment reinforces the findings of another recent NASA study, tracking deforestation between 2000 and 2010 in the two neighboring countries.
In October 2010, Amandala featured an article captioned “Belize forests vanishing,” in which we pointed to concerns that “...25,000 acres of Belizean forest are cleared each year, equivalent to about 9,000 football fields.”
A September 2010 report, Forest Cover and Deforestation in Belize: 1980-2010, pointed to a largely deforested area on a 2010 map, which was densely forested before Independence in 1980. The report was produced by a team of scientists led by Emil A. Cherrington, Senior Scientist, Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America & the Caribbean (CATHALAC – Centro del Agua del Trópico Húmedo para América Latina y El Caribe); along with Dan Irwin of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the US); Edgar Ek; Percival Cho and others.
It said, “Belize’s forest cover has declined from 75.9% in 1980 to 62.7% as of late February 2010.”
Amandala was notified today that the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC), in collaboration with the Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries, and Sustainable Development of the Government of Belize, Lancaster University of the UK and the Environmental Research Institute of the University of Belize, has just developed the first version of a 2012 forest cover map of Belize and that study, citing slightly different data, indicates that Belize’s forest cover declined from 62.8% in early 2010 to approximately 61.6% in early 2012.
Terra-i notes that in 2010, the forest cover in Guatemala is only 31%.