Cool video -- 8:46 minutes. They check for illegal gold panning and other activities near the border and in the adjacency zone.

Plus news got an aerial tour of the Chiquibul National Park. The Park was originally part of Chiquibul Forest Reserve, which was designated in 1956. In 1991, due to lobbying from environmentalist, three-quarters of the forest reserve that did not have active logging concessions was re-designated as a national park under Belize’s National Parks System Act. Plus TV’s Jesse Mendoza got an above ground look at the illegal logging, farming, mining and other activities taking place within the Park. Here’s that report

vlcsnap-2013-02-23-10h28m18s51The Chiquibul National Park is Belize’s largest national Park. It is over 260 thousand acres of Primary Forest, and borders with Guatemala along a stretch of almost 28miles making it just about two times the size of Barbados. We joined up with Friends for Conservation and Development and took an aerial tour of the Park to look at the ongoing incursions. The fly over was provided by Light Hawk; which is an NGO that supports environmental studies. Bill Rush, our volunteer Pilot for the trip spoke to us about the organization.

Bill Rush – Pilot:
vlcsnap-2013-02-23-10h25m34s167Lighthawk is an NGO that’s based in the United States and there’s approximately 200 volunteer pilots. The whole purpose of Lighthawk is th champion Environmental studies and Environmental Research.  We provide flights for no cost to groups that apply, and we’re happy to give the aircraft and the time.  Each of the volunteer poilots donate their time, and Lighthawk as an organization donates the plane and the fuel.  We fly it with the doors off.  We’ll be flying at approximately 300 meters over the Chiquibul Forest to do surveys of the border and to see if we can come up with any additional logging or mining up there.

While Bill readied the light aircraft, we sat down and spoke with FCD’s Manager of the Chiquibul National Park Mr. Derrick Chan.

Derrick Chan – Manager of the Chiquibul National Park:
vlcsnap-2013-02-23-10h28m31s185This morning we’re going to do a flight over the Chiquibul National Park, particularly along the border between Belize and Guatemala.  We are going to be flying the Adjacency Zone, where we have the incursions from Guatemala settlements into the Chiquibul National Park. We will also be flying over the Maya Mountain Main Divide in the area of the Sabor Creeks and the South Chiquibul River, where illegal gold panning is taking place.

As is customary, Friends for Conservation and Development does a preliminary assessment of the park within the initial two months of each year as the month of February marks the beginning of the slash and burning season.

Derrick Chan – Manager of the Chiquibul National Park:
vlcsnap-2013-02-23-10h50m37s206February, the begining of Summer, also marks the beginning of the Slash and Burning Season.  Every year we have been able to log and map to detect these clearings from the Lighthawk. Whatever is found within our limits, we could see them from our GPS.  We will record this, take pictures.  Then we’ll be able to go on the ground and verify them, and take the actions then, to either destroy them, stop them, or inform the proper authorities across in Guatemala, the OAS etcétera.

In this report we will be taking a closer look at the illegal gold panning taking place within the Park. Chan told us how we would be able to detect such activity.

Derrick Chan – Manager of the Chiquibul National Park:
vlcsnap-2013-02-23-11h07m23s70In the case of illegal gold panning, we can see when thew water is dirty in the river.  Then we know there is activity happening there.  We take the GPS point again,  Then we send our patrols directly to that point to arrest that matter.

With the pointers given, we now knew what we would be looking for. We all boarded the 1976 CESSNA and took off from the Central Farm airstrip with our Pilot Bill Rush at the Yoke. The flight would take a total of one hour and 20 minutes and within 15minutes of takeoff we would be in the Park. We crossed over the community of Arenal which borders Guatemala being one of the tell tales that we would be entering the park shortly. Within minutes of entering the park we observed land clearing but we were not here for that today. After 30 minutes into our flight Chan pointed out the tributaries below where illegal gold mining was taking place.

Derrick Chan – Manager of the Chiquibul National Park:
If you noticed when we were flying over most of the rivers, you can see the water is crystal clear, you can see the bottom of the river from the plane.  vlcsnap-2013-02-23-11h16m13s143Whenever there is disturbance in the water, particularly gold panning, it is a process where you dig the soil from the river banks.  You actually wash that soil.  That’s what gold panning is.All this dirt and sediment that is being washed in the river creates a line of dirty, murky water, like when a river is flooded.  We can usually see the beginning of this disturbance in the water.  We can see it very clearly from the plane. At the point where the disturbance starts, that’s where gold panning is occurring.

In July and August of last year we here at Plus news reported groups of Guatemalans numbering in the hundreds who were extracting the mineral from within the Chiquibul. According to Chan, those numbers have decreased drastically.

Derrick Chan – Manager of the Chiquibul National Park:
I can safely say that it has reduced dramatically from when we started in June/July conducting this operation. Now we can find groups of five/three and they’re sparse. [We have] 20/30 people working right now. We are addressing them every week.  Right now, we saw the spot here from the plane, I am going to call today and send people to work in that area, Rangers to operate in that area as quick as possible, [it] could be today or tomorrow.  

We asked Chan about what happens to the gold that is found and about the charges these persons would face.

Derrick Chan – Manager of the Chiquibul National Park:
The prople that we have arrested, we have not been able to really find the gold on them, very little amounts. The reasoning is because gold is so tiny and you can dash it in the river, and then you don’t really find the person. The law is strict, as long as you are seen in the water and you have your tools and we saw you, we took pictures of you digging, you’re already guilty, although you didn’t have it on you.  When we find these people, we do arrest them.  We take them.  We bring them out.
The charges are actually laid by the Department in the Government, the relevant Department, which would be the Geology and Minerals Department. In the case if they have a gun, that’s taken care [of] by the Police. If they have a dead bird or a dead deer, like hunting, in that case it’s the Forest Department.

Interestingly though, while FCD has detained persons on numerous occasions, none have been charged for illegal gold panning.

Derrick Chan – Manager of the Chiquibul National Park:
I know that nobody has been charged yet for illegal gold panning, although the people that we have detained gold panning, they have been charged for other charges, but not for gold panning.

And while the NGO has been one of the vanguards for the preservation of the forest, Chan says, he believes that more needs to be done by the Government.

Derrick Chan – Manager of the Chiquibul National Park:
We really have to look at these things.  When I say we, it’s us, the country, the Government, [but] this is not happening.  The same thing happens with logging.  Usually we bring the people, and they are not charged, for one reason or another.  The Police usually charge them for the firearms and drugs, but in terms of forestry and minerals, I have not seen any successful charge yet.