We have reported on a number of Ya'axche Conservation Trust initiatives. They are well known for their work with the Trio Farmers Association in cacao harvesting in the Maya Mountain North Forest Reserve. Well, the group has been suffering in silence as squatters take over the land in the reserve. It has been happening for years and it is only getting worse. The Trust invited the media to get a first hand look at the real situation at the reserve. Courtney Weatherburne reports.

Courtney Weatherburne
"We are in an area within the Maya Mountain North Forest Reserve, 7 miles from Trio Village. It buffers the Bladen Nature Reserve and Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. It's the only reserve in the country that has agro-forestry concession. But over the last 3 years' squatters have settled in this area and their activities are a direct threat to that concession agreement. As you can see here they have planted plaintains and pineapples. Cattle ranching is also a major problem and what's even more disturbing is that nothing has been done to get these squatters out."

Courtney Weatherburne, reporting
And it's the Lands department's responsibility to regulate the de-reserved area which is only one section of the 34,000-acre reserve. But the squatters don't respect any part it. They have invaded and illegally cultivated over 3,000 acres of land over the past 3 years.

The Yax'che Conservation Trust team took us on a tour today and the severity of the encroachments were striking.

Christina Garcia, Executive Director, Ya'axche Conservation Trust
"You have milpa farming, you have burning occurring, the usage of pesticides and chemicals that drift into the area and now you have a problem with the cattle coming into the area and sometimes some of these cattle escape and they go into the agro-forestry concession and trample some of the plants and eat some of the plants. So it is a very serious issue that we have within the area. As you can see behind me there is a fencing that falls within the river. Basically, from what I gathered is that the farmer wants to put in sheep and cows within that area and he doesn't have an area where the cows could actually go and drink water, so he is using this to allow the cow to come down and drink water. But at the same time posing a threat to the water here, because now you have an issue of contamination and then you have an issue of people that depend on this water shed and this source that lives down stream for their own consumption. So obviously this person is not really thinking about the consequences that the fencing has on the river and on the people that depend on it."

"They actually have people that come and look after the cattle and you also have people that lives in the area. There are houses of people that lives in the area to look after the cattle."

All this unregulated activity threatens the livelihood of these Trio farmers. They plant and harvest cacao and other crops in the area under the concession agreement.

Christina Garcia, Executive Director, Ya'axche Conservation Trust
"The concession was established in June 2015 and its a formal agreement that we have with the forest department, Ya'axche and the Trio Farmers Cacao Growers Association, which is an association of 31 farmers that we work with. Basically, what the farmers are practicing here is agro-forestry and they are planting cacao within a 936 acres' plot. Its sub-divided into an agro-forestry plots, it's also sub-divided into conservation zone and an annual crop section area where the farmers produced plaintains, vegetables and other crops. The main think that they are producing right now is cacao. So it is impacting the livelihoods of these farmers in terms of the production of cacao. Also, the farmers have to go through a certification process every year with their agro-forestry concession and that certification isn't cheap, but again, the certification requires certain standards and certain criteria for the farmers to meet. For example, you cannot use any chemicals, if there is a drift in chemicals it affects the certification that the farmers received. That is really the challenge that we face."

The Ya'ache Conservation Trust has been trying to engage the Lands and Forestry Department but Executive Director Christina Garcia says all their requests and suggestions have gone unanswered.

Christina Garcia
"We have not received any response from the lands department as to why they haven't move and do something about what is happening within the area. Ya'axche, like I mentioned has gone to the extent of providing a land use plan, that basically outlines where your buffer zone should go, some of the practices that could be used within the area, but that has gone on deaf ears and its really frustrating over the past 3 years, because we have farmers that are doing best agricultural practices within an area and then you have the de-reservation that buffers that area where you see all these illegal activities occurring. So it has been frustrating not only for Ya'axche, but the Trio Farmers Cacao Growers Association that are trying to make a livelihood out of the agro-forestry concession. One thing that we are asking the lands department to do is to place buffers zones. The buffer zones are very necessary to get some sort of control. Secondly, we know that the area has not been parcelled out to anyone, so we are asking them to outline to us what is the plan for parcelling within the area, because then we have incidents of one individual just grabbing hundreds of acres of land. Is that really fair to the distribution that they had intended in the beginning? I don't think that is fair. So they need to put in a buffer zone and they need to really decide what is it that is going to happen with this acreage of land. The other option they can do is to develop plan - follow the plan that Ya'axche shared with them to implement some of these sustainable practices within the area, because like it or not, this is a reserve. There are certain things that affects a protected area and we are seeing the effects of that already. There must be some level of control placed, if not, we will definitely lose this forest reserve."

Courtney Weatherburne
"It's a grave situation here and the Ya'axche Conservation Trust is demanding action now."

Encroachment Taking Its Toll on Wildlife

All this activity is also snuffing out the possibility of having a rich wildlife population in the reserve. Community Outreach Director at Ya'axche Conservation Trust told us more about this reality.

Gustavo Requena, Community Outreach and Livelihoods Director
"Also the great potential for other income generating activities such as ecotourism in this area, because there is a lot of biodiversity. Prior to having this concession, we had timber extraction and that was a direct threat to the biodiversity. Now, because of the sustainable agricultural practices that are being implemented in this area, we have the scarlet macaw, tapir, jaguar, monkeys - all coming back and that in itself I think highlights the full potential of what this concession, what this model can do for the rest of protected areas in this country."

The Trust hopes that the government takes a serious look at this concession model and implements it in other forest reserves since it has been a success in Maya Mountain North, of course this is aside from the squatters situation that the Trust hopes will now be addressed.

Channel 7