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Residents Not Grieving Its Loss

The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary - established in 1984, it's one of Belize's first major reserves, and is one of only two sites in the country designated as "Wetlands of International Importance," what are known as RAMSAR sites. But, behind all those fancy titles, there's long been friction the ideal of preservation and the practical realities of traditional fishing and hunting practices. Basically, many residents of Crooked Tree "hold grudge" against the Audubon for cramping their long established patterns of using the land to eat. And that's why the community isn't exactly grieving after the Audubon Society building went up in flames this weekend. Daniel Ortiz has more on the fire and the background to it:...

Daniel Ortiz reporting
On Saturday morning, after 17 years of overlooking the Crooked Tree Lagoon, the Belize Audubon Society's Visitor's Center was completely destroyed by fire.

It was rather poor timing for the residents of Crooked Tree. Cashew Fest, the biggest event for this community, was ongoing, and they could have done without the negative publicity around the blaze.

Amanda Burgos Acosta - Executive Director, Belize Audubon Society
"Around 3:30 on Saturday morning I had gotten a call from the site manager Mr. Hendy, informing me that the building was on fire. We have 2 staff that lives on island, so they are local from Crooked Tree and they had also been calling to inform me that the building was on fire."

"By 3:30 it was already fully engulfed in flames and there was nothing much we could do."

Steven Anthony - Crooked Tree Villager
"The timing, I was very saddened by the timing. The visitor center is right at the entrance to Crooked Tree and as everybody knows we have cashew fest this weekend. So the timing on a whole was unfortunate."

Orin Smith - Station Manager, National Fire Service
"National Fire Services received and responded to a call of a structural fire in Crooked Tree. On arrival on the scene, a40x40 wooden and concrete structure was seen destroyed by fire. The remaining fires were put out."

"Investigation into the cause of that fire is still presently ongoing."

Amanda Burgos Acosta - Executive Director, Belize Audubon Society
"I think a replacement value is what I can give, it was a 40x40 kind of Mennonite structure, along with the artworks and the displays of what it would be in is anywhere in the area on $60,000-$70,000 to replace it."

So, was fire caused naturally, or did someone want to send a message to Audubon by burning it down intentionally? The Fire Department will have to investigate the cause of the fire to determine that, at this time, however, the village council doesn't think that someone intentionally lit it on fire

Dean Tillett - PR Officer, Crooked Tree Village Council
"I believe in terms of our people, despite all the things that we have heard and all the I guess the satisfaction in regards to Belize Audubon managing the resource here in Crooked Tree, I really wouldn't see any of our villages doing something like that intentionally to set the visitor center on fire. We are hoping that that is something that may have happen due to some natural cause."

But the people of Crooked Tree aren't exactly mourning the loss of the Visitor's Center either.

Steven Anthony - Crooked Tree Villager
"Whatever the reason was, I feel saddened that it happened. Actually because it was a beautiful building, a lot of effort went into making the building that way. The problem I believe - on the other side the conflict is I do feel that Audubon could have done more for Crooked Tree."

"I respect the name, I respect what they put out, but I feel like in Crooked Tree, Audubon had lost focus on what they were actually here to do. Besides birding, they took up the job of fish police, wood police and general just putting regulations down on our fisher people that been doing this for over 250 years we'd been fishing and we are still arguing about fish. So it's not going to go anywhere. We are arguing about lumber. It's not going to go anywhere. We don't have to argue about birds, because we all love the birds."

Dean Tillett - PR Officer, Crooked Tree Village Council
"Definitely, there has been concerns and we will not dismiss the fact. We have continuously been having issues, because our council is here to represent our people first and foremost. While we enjoy a more healthier relationship at this time with Belize Audubon, our mandate is primarily first to address the concerns of our people and that comes first and we will not dismiss the fact that there is some concern like Steve mentions in regard to the local fishermen - in regards of the lot of things that are put in place in terms of the government policies that Belize Audubon has to manage."

We certainly saw some of those concerns back in November of 2012 when villagers banded together to protest against Audubon and the regulations against fishing, logging and hunting. They were convinced that the enforcement was stifling their way of life:

"Audubon must go because we run things - things don't run we. Everything you do, you have to do it properly in my village Crooked Tree number one."

Dudley Tillett, Villager
"They are taking away our livelihood. We used to hunt for a living; we used to hunt armadillo and gibnut for a living. I educate my little sisters from that - they have master's degree right now from hunting for armadillo and gibnut. They want to take that away from us."

Dudley Tillett
"They are taking our livelihood away from me. They don't want us to fish or hunt."

James Dawson, Villager
"Wildlife means everything that moves in the village - they wants to control. That is what the village is upset about because the village lives off the fish. We have cattle and we have to cut posts for our fence."

And that dissatisfaction for Audubon has not cooled off over the nearly 4 and a half years since then

Steven Anthony - Crooked Tree Villager
"We in Crooked Tree are very conservation minded people. We could do this the same way that Burrell Boom does it, the way SATIIM does it, the same way TIDE does it, the same way a whole bunch of other places decided to run their own sanctuary. I believe this may be the only sanctuary in the country that does charge an entrance fee to come in. That should change."

"I feel like we have qualified people in this village. We have qualified tour guides in this village. We have qualified people that work in environmental protection in this village. We have people that held big position in Audubon that lives in this village. So I feel like we could do this."

Amanda Burgos Acosta - Executive Director, Belize Audubon Society
"Designation of that protected area has been a bone of contention and I say it is the designation, because the designation is that it's a wildlife sanctuary. A wildlife sanctuary by law does not allow any extraction at all. We have worked with the village and the villagers over the years and we as Belize Audubon have tried to figure something out that is kind of amenable to everybody, because you don't do conservation in a bubble, we do have to consider livelihoods and people's bread and butter situation. It's difficult to work in a situation where there is no guidance, there is no roles. The best we were doing is saying people had to have fisher folk licenses. We've had meetings trying to determine where should be not - like a no take area - where they are spawning grounds and we should leave those. So we've had meetings in the past and we've tried to kind of work those details out, but there was no legal framework as to how to address this issue."

Steven Anthony - Crooked Tree Villager
"Audubon wants to rebuild and they have every right to. If they want to rebuild, I would hope that they sit down and talk with the people, not just one short meeting. Not just meet in front of Audubon, sit down and have meetings and meetings and listen to what the fisher folks want."

"You can't come in a place that we have been living off for so long and tell us to change; stop making money off this and give us an alternative."

Amanda Burgos Acosta
"Now as of October 2015, so about a year and a half now, there has been the national protected areas system act which has passed and what that has does is it allows for a wildlife sanctuary too which allows for wise usage and tradition usage of the resources. That would then give legal allowance to extraction of resources. However, it does have to have guidelines and it has to have some kind of structure."

Audubon told us that they have a temporary fix for the destruction of the building, which is to move a small structure to the property. The Executive Director says that there obviously needs to be a dialog with the community to figure out exactly what how they move past this fire.

Channel 7

Fire Destroys Historic Audubon Building in Crooked Tree

Within hours of the kick-off of the popular cashew fest in the village of Crooked Tree, a fire broke out at the offices of the Belize Audubon Society. The wooden structure was quickly devoured by the blaze over the weekend and by the time the Fire Department responded, there was little they could do. �The organization lost everything housed inside the building including maps to equipment. �The origin of the fire is still under investigation. News Five's Duane Moody reports.

Duane Moody, Reporting

Just after three a.m. on Saturday, as residents prepared for day-one of the annual Crooked Tree Cashew Festival, the unlikely would happen. The elevated wooden structure at the entrance of the village that housed the office of the Belize Audubon Society went up in flames. Executive Director Amanda Acosta says that she was notified by Site Manager Derek Hendy sometime after three-thirty about the incident.

Amanda Acosta, Executive Director, Belize Audubon Society

"When he called me at three-thirty, he was already getting calls from staff; two of the staff that we have actually live in Crooked Tree and Mister Hendy actually commutes on a daily basis. So when he called me, I asked him about the status-was it a controllable fire or was it out of control? The response was that it was already engulfed."

Firefighters from the Ladyville substation responded to the scene, but by then the building was already destroyed and nothing could be saved.

Orin Smith, Station Officer, National Fire Service

"On arrival on the scene, a forty-by-forty wooden and concrete structure was seen destroyed by fire. The remaining fires were put out. Investigation into the cause of that fire still presently ongoing."


"What's the preliminary find?"

Orin Smith

"That I wouldn't want to speculate at this time."

While those results are pending, it is no secret that there has been contention between the Audubon Society and residents who do not want to adhere to sustainable harvesting of fish and wildlife within the protected area. So is it a case of arson?

Amanda Acosta

"The truth is that we have had contention in the past; it has been covered by the media. However, as of recent, there had not been any feelings of animosity that we had been getting. Of course, there are always undercurrents, but there had been no threats as far as we have known. We do work with the village council and we work through the school as well and like I said, the relationship is only contentious with certain groups within the community. So as far as we knew, we have no real suspects or anything. Like I said, for all we know it could be electrical."

While the physical structure, equipment and material lost in the blaze is set at about eighty thousand dollars, it is considered much more valuable.� The building has been there almost two decades, but has been operational as co-managers of the protected area since the 1980's when the village was designated as a protected area.

Amanda Acosta

"We actually were operational on the other side of the causeway. During Hurricane Mitch which was '98, it had been flooded and we actually were looking to relocate the building. We relocated the building to that property that belongs to a village person who we rent it from-the property is not ours, but the building was. When we moved it, we actually expanded it and over the years we've invested in putting a really nice display in there; they had a lovely boardwalk imitation and birds; we had done a lot of maps. We had a profession from the United States did a whole exhibition on the value of Crooked Tree, the history of Crooked Tree and the products of Crooked Tree. So we had also had that exhibit in it. We also have summer programs, so we get groups going there. It is one of our nature school sites; so Belizean school kids, about a thousand kids go through that site."

Several pieces of equipment such as binoculars and scopes, tools for the educational programs were also lost in the fire. But during flood situations, the building also housed members of the Belize National Coastguard, who service the community transporting them across the lagoon. So how does the Audubon replace all that has been lost?

Amanda Acosta

"We do have employees that we have to consider, so one of the things that we are looking at is a quick ray to remedy it. If anyone has gone to Saint Herman's recently, they've known that we've had some PACT grants that have really improved the infrastructure there and we have some wooden structures that we are looking at perhaps mobilizing one of those just in terms of getting an information center. It would not be of the caliber or of the ability to host groups the way the previous one was. We will have to access really can we handle summer camp or school groups for the rest of the year there. So it has set us back in that regard."

Duane Moody for News Five.

There was another fire on Saturday, but in the south, that has left a family of four without a roof over their heads. Around eleven a.m., police responded to a house on fire in Bella Vista Village, Toledo. The wooden structure with thatched roof was home to Elvira Peck and her three children-ages two, six, and sixteen. According to Peck, she left the house around seven a.m. that morning, leaving her children at home.� A neighbor was alerted by smoke coming from the house and rescued the children, who escaped unhurt. Investigations have since revealed that the fire was caused by one of the children, who was playing with a lighter. The building and its contents were completely destroyed by fire.

Channel 5

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Marty Offline OP
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Crooked Tree, Both Sides Now

Last night, we showed you the back and forth between former Crooked Tree Vice Chairman, Steve Anthony, and the Executive Director of the Belize Audubon Society. As we told you, the Audubon Society's Visitor Center burned down on Saturday morning, and there are residents within Crooked Tree who are saying, "good riddance".

That's because the Belize Audubon and members of the community haven't exactly seen eye to eye, and this destruction has started a conversation on whether or not Audubon must go. Their concern is that the Audubon Society has been too strict in their enforcement against the villagers who depend on fishing, hunting and logging to survive.

Well, today, APAMO came out in support of the Belize Audubon Society.

In a release sent today, APAMO said, quote, "The Association of Protected Areas Management Organizations (APAMO), wishes to express its solidarity with its member, the Belize Audubon Society (BAS)... It is important to note that this facility was instrumental in supporting management activities of this critical RAMSAR site of not only national but global significance. For many years it also served as an exemplary landmark of the community of Crooked Tree Village." End quote.

Acknowledging the dispute with some of the villagers, APAMO says, "We also note the voices of discontent against the presence of the BAS efforts to properly manage the flora and fauna of the sanctuary and their concerns must be addressed if there is to be meaningful community participation in the protection of our national patrimony."

So, what are the core elements of each side's arguments? We have managed to put together the points and counterpoints for and against the Audubon's strict observance of the law. Here's that back and forth:

Steven Anthony - Crooked Tree Villager
"I would really hope that the people of Crooked Tree really consider if we really want Audubon back. We should put out a petition, I'm pretty sure the chairman and the village council will do something to that effect and find out what the people think. Whatever the people think, that's where we're going to go. If they want Audubon back, well welcome back Audubon. If they don't, then we have the capability to run this better than Audubon did."

Amanda Burgos Acosta - Executive Director, Belize Audubon Society
"I do think it's an unfair statement. I think if you look at our audited financials, Crooked Tree has not benefited Audubon as a society, but we are committed to working there because it has ecological value. It has value in terms of the water shed role that it plays. We have contributed to Crooked Tree through the school, we work with the school in different ways and we do work through the village council. We have supported the bird and fish festival along with then and it aligns with our mandate. We try to assist where we can and we do have conversations and agreements that we work on with village council."

Steven Anthony - Crooked Tree Villager
"I feel like we did try to work with Audubon. I personally tried to work with Audubon, but it ended up where it seems like they felt that the invitation that we gave them was like Dracula. You invite us in and we run the place now, no. They're still a guest and one of the things we need to re-negotiate is how much money the village of Crooked Tree get from Audubon annually."

Amanda Burgos Acosta - Executive Director, Belize Audubon Society
"I don't think every individual can benefit, I think in terms of the entrance fees, the fees collected are not nominal and 10% goes back to village council who then has to account for it to the villagers. But it is not that the Belize Audubon is making mountains of money off of that site. As any dramatic event in our life we do take a step back and we take a moment to recuperate. In terms of rebuilding, we would have to talk that through and see what it means, costs and how we would financially write a grant and how we would move forward with that. There is an immediate solution that we're looking at. I think there's bigger conversations to have with the village. I do think that this incident brought up a whole series of emotions, both good and bad. I think we have to move forward very cautiously as to what would be a win-win for everybody."

We're told that the council may be considering a sort of poll from the villagers to gauge their feelings on welcoming Audubon's rebuilding of the facility.

Channel 7

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Marty Offline OP
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Crooked Tree Fire Was Arson

And while that fire was a case of arson, so too it appears with the Audubon Society's Visitor's Center at the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary.  Orin Smith filled us in:

Orin Smith - Station Officer, National Fire Service
"The Crooked Tree fire investigation determined that fire to be incendiary."

"Give us more details."

Orin Smith
"There were trailers found on the step leading to a veranda, trailers are usually devices whether liquid or materialize that is used to lead a fire into an area you want it to go and that was discovered on one of the staircase that led to a veranda and eventually to the structure itself."

As we have told you, many in the Crooked Tree community are bitterly opposed to the Audubon Society which it claims curtails their traditional hunting and fishing practices.

Channel 7

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