by Lee McLoughlin, Wildlife Conservation Society
“The greatest threat to future generations” (Barack Obama)
“The greatest threat that humanity has faced in a thousand years” (Sir David Attenborough)
“The biggest global health threat of the century” (World Health Organization)
They are talking about climate change, and today, these words are echoed by most world leaders, civil society activists and indigenous leaders. In 2016, Belize’s own Minister for Economic Development, Petroleum, Investment, Trade and Commerce, Hon. Erwin Contreras, highlighted the need to “bring economic, social, and environmental policies into synergistic balance, to increase resilience in the face of a volatile global economy and a changing global climate”. These words remain strong and for good reason - climate change will continue to hit home hard, we will continue to suffer hotter temperatures, longer droughts, less rainfall, more destructive and more frequent tropical storms, and we will continue to see rising sea levels inundating coastal urban areas. Right at this moment, we are experiencing the ‘El Niño’ effect, which means less rainfall and a much higher wildfire risk. Belize’s rainfall for the first 2 months of 2019 was almost 30% lower than average, and neighbouring Petén is already experiencing a drought and preparing for a severe and prolonged fire season (see map).
Drying out: Map of rainfall in Yucatan Peninsula, Belize and Peten from January to March 2019. The drier the area, the brighter the red colour on the map (WCS/GIZ/SELVA MAYA)
Our most powerful weapon?
What technology does Belize have to defend against this threat? Quite simply, a natural resource we take for granted: the humble tree and its forest home. But why? Why is forest really Belize’s MVP in the fight against Climate Change? (Hint – it has a lot to do with WATER).
1. Forests regulate stream flow - they intercept rainfall and absorb it into the soil, gradually releasing it downstream into our rivers. This holds water for longer, which helps Belize to cope with heavy and long rainstorms, AND helps us through the coming drought conditions.
2. The shade provided by the forest canopy conserves moisture in the soil. The tree roots make the soil more porous so water slowly enters the soil instead of immediately running off into channels, streams or rivers. Trees even act as windbreaks, reducing the force of drying and eroding winds at the ground level.
Belize, as any other country, is dependent upon reliable water supplies. We use water directly for consumption but also for the irrigation of crops that support Belize’s economy and food security. As Central America and the Caribbean adjusts to the ‘new normal’ of a rapidly changing and unpredictable climate, it is more important than ever that we do a good job managing our water cycle.
Belize’s Disappearing forests
An example of us destroying our precious forest: Two bulldozers hooked up to either end of this
massive chain before ploughing through Belize’s lowland forest in Stann Creek. Plants and wildlife not
able to run or fly are dragged into piles before being set on fire and incinerated (Photo: Tony Rath).
It’s no surprise that most forest clearance in Belize is due to agricultural practices; and it would be easy to blame farmers and tell them to stop clearing forests. However, we must remember that agriculture is one of the most important sectors in Belize’s economy. Providing 15% of our GDP, agriculture also contributes BZ$340m to Belize’s annual exports (86% of total). Agricultural employment accounts for 16% of Belize’s labour force (91% male). Although there is no available data, the contribution of agriculture to Belize’s food security is also significant. Considering this, how do we protect our forests while we continue to develop our agricultural sector? The answer is Climate Smart Agriculture.
Rapid change: These images show how just how quickly forests can be removed. Compare forest cover (green) with pasture/crop land (brown) over 30 years. The images on the left side (Cayo region with Spanish Lookout on the left and Valley of Peace and Santander on the right) are 30km across and the images on the right (Blue Creek) are 50km across (Google Earth)
According to Belize’s excellent report on 'Climate Smart Agriculture' (International Centre for Tropical Agriculture), Belize has a significant amount of Grade 1 and Grade 2 land (16% of total land area) that is suitable for mechanised agriculture for cultivating most food and cash crops. Currently 390,427 acres, 7% of the total land area, is used for agriculture, with 1.4% permanent crops, 2.2% permanent meadows, and 3.3% arable land. This means that there is land available for agriculture and there is opportunity for us to implement it ‘smartly’. What does Climate Smart Agriculture really mean? It may include the use of cover structures, installation of drip irrigation systems, application of nutrients through irrigation water (fertigation), use of water-harvesting techniques, adjustment of planting dates to match rainfall patterns, crop rotation, intercropping, planting of agroforestry systems, and adoption of drought- and heattolerant varieties. For livestock it includes adoption of improved animal breeds, improvement of pastures, and use of hay and silage for livestock production. Together all of this can mean increased production without need to clear more forest. The 2015 National Adaptation Strategy to Address Climate Change in the Agriculture Sector in Belize highlights that Belize is self-sufficient in staples (rice, corn, beans, and livestock products), as well as in seasonally available vegetables and fruits. But history has shown us that the agriculture sector can be hard hit by climate-related natural disasters. Between 2000-2016 agricultural losses due to hurricanes and tropical storms totalled more than US$ 232 million. In February 2018 alone, losses to the sector from excessive rain and flooding amounted to US$ 1.9 million. So, we can see that food security cannot be taken for granted, it will depend on our resilience to threats such as climate change. Therefore, as we move forward, food production and food security – both significantly affected by climate change - should not be taken for granted, we must actively protect it.
Heating and drying: Belize will see average temperature increases of around 2°C and up to 9% reduction
in rainfall! (WCS/GIZ/SELVA MAYA)
So, given it is the ‘greatest threat in 1000 years’, what are our options to stand up to climate change, economically and socially?” The following options may sound tough to achieve, but when compared to the costs of lost crops, food shortages, flooding, and reliance on expensive imported goods, they may be our safest and most strategic bet.
- Protecting existing healthy forests is our best way of making sure we continue to have enough water to serve our national needs – we must identify the most important water catchment areas and protect them for this purpose
- We need a comprehensive Land Use Plan that will guide where protected forest should be and where agriculture should be
- Climate Smart Agriculture must be adopted across all crop and livestock types. We can and must make existing cleared areas more productive rather than clearing more forest. We especially need to protect our flooded forests, savannas and wetlands
Climate change is here, and its effects are amplifying. We are already experiencing droughts and the Caribbean is already experiencing stronger hurricanes (14 storms predicted for the 2019 season, of which up to 4 will become hurricanes). Our agriculture industry will be threatened and we must adapt. Forests can help to avoid some of the worst effects, especially when combined with Climate Smart Agriculture practices which increases our production on already cleared land. Our greatest defence against climate change isn’t tree hugging, it is strategic action! We should be preserving trees/forests where we most need them, particularly in agriculturally unsuitable areas like flooded forests, savannahs and wetlands. Clearing, when it is necessary, should be calculated and pre-determined. Our land use decisions should make sense, not just be subject to political pressure or private sector companies driven by short term profits no matter the long-term cost. Countless national policies, consultancies, strategies, and action plans have highlighted the need for the completion and implementation of the National Land Use Policy and Integrated Planning Framework; to date this has not happened. This means use of our most powerful weapon against climate change, keeping our standing forests, is haphazard. As we head into the uncertain climate change impacted future, it is in the best interest of all of us to both make wise decisions and put pressure on decision makers and those in power to plan and implement climate change action. Belize alone does not have the power to stop global warming but we can protect ourselves from its devastating impacts, and survive this ‘climate apocalypse’.