Over the years, we’ve reported on the transboundary threats to the Chiquibul Forest – the illicit activities that were carried out exclusively by Guatemalans. Those activities include illegal logging, cattle ranching, and poaching – and over the years, Friends for Conservation and Development have employed a number of strategies to address these incursions. Now, they are gearing up to prepare for new threats on the horizon – this time, these threats are not cross-border – these threats are internal and very local in nature.  News Five joined the F.C.D. and government officials for a two-day trip to the Chiquibul to learn more about why this protected area could be facing new threats and what government can do to help. Here’s the report.

Andrea Polanco, Reporting

The Chiquibul National Park is the largest protected area in Belize and for years Guatemalans have been the biggest threat to this protected area. As co-manager of this protected area, the Friends for Conservation and Development has been tackling the illicit activities carried out by Guatemalans. While they haven’t been able to eradicate the activities, they have been able to drastically reduce illegal logging and xate extraction, agricultural expansion, gold panning, among other illicit activities. But with the FCD’s handle on the Guatemalan incursions, they are now preparing to take on a new set of threats once the Caracol Road is built.

Raphael Manzanero, Executive Director, F.C.D.

“The opening and the upgrade of the road to Caracol – that is certainly going to open up the area that for a long time has been more inaccessible; the Chiquibul; natural arch; Ceibo Chico. So, accessibility can bring other challenges if it is really unregulated.”

The Chiquibul Forest accounts for some seven point seven percent of Belize’s landmass. Most of it is unexplored and rich in resources – covered in thick jungles where F.C.D. rangers and B.D.F. soldiers enforce the laws in the jungles. So, it is safe to say that most Belizeans have never visited this site that is tucked away in Western Belize. Director of F.C.D. Raphael Manzanero is concerned that the multi-million dollar Caracol Road Project may bring problems for this protected area.

Raphael Manzanero

“You can get more people coming in from either doing illicit actions, like hunting and poaching, visitation can bring forest fires if they are not properly well regulated. So, those are some of the challenges now that we can face and also the other people who are coming in and looking at other values that this forest would have. So, in reality, there are more internal issues now that we would have to start to think and plan and put in interventions.”

And Manzanero hopes that the government will be able to put some of those measures in place and so to highlight the challenges and show the value of this forest, Minister Orlando Habet and C.E.O. Kenrick Williams of the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction visited the Chiquibul this weekend. The government officials visited the nesting sites of endangered scarlet macaws along the Chalillo Lake, toured the Las Cuevas Research Station, among other activities.

Orlando Habet, Minister of Sustainable Dev., Climate Change & Disaster Risk Reduction

“Certainly the interest of the Ministry is to make sure that these lands and properties – our resources– are managed efficiently for the larger good of the Belizean people. I can see that coming in when we reach the Pine Ridge area before we reach the Chiquibul there is a lot of denuding of the forest and we are losing a lot of our biodiversity and so as a government we need to make certain that this biodiversity is maintained.”

But that balance between conservation and economic interests can become blurred – especially for a developing country whose economy has been weakened by COVID-19 and being led by a new government with no money to make good on their election promises. With the road, this area will open up – the sale of the real estate in the Mountain Pine Ridge area is bound to bring tourism and other development projects in the next couple years – the F.C.D. is worried about those possibilities and what they may mean for this protected area.

Raphael Manzanero

“We are highly concerned of course because it is really a thin line – sustainable development and then how do you do the protection of the key resources that one has. If we look at water resources, for example, how much value is the country really willing to put into that for the long haul? Here we are standing on a main key headwater for the Macal and other sub-water sheds. So, do we want a development that is more open ground like this or do we want to capture it as true head water? So, those are the questions that will require some savvy movement in terms of making that blending as best as possible but understanding that we have to make compromise and I think in the compromise – it is what will really is going to take more – it is the economic values in the short term or is it more the kind of long term the benefits that one would want to accrue from these resources?”

C.E.O. Kenrick Williams says that the sustainable development plan for the Chiquibul Complex will help to guide the use of these resources. The governance framework outlines all the interests and how these will be managed harmoniously. And a key part of that is the agreement between the co-managers – like F.C.D. and government.

Kenrick Williams, C.E.O., Ministry of Sustainable Dev., Climate Change & Disaster Risk Reduction

“The trip – the on the ground experience brings into focus several key things – the real issues being experienced by our co-management partner like F.C.D. We see the threats; the challenges they experience daily. The Government of Belize is a partner in co-management and so we have to ensure that we have the requisite resources support for our co-manager partners like F.C.D.  So, one of the key things that we have been working on at the Ministry is looking at the commitment that is required in terms of the government of Belize and the support that is required – several of them don’t have an official tenure ship – they don’t have an official co-management agreement in place with government. So, we are re-looking at some of those frameworks, the specific agreements and the support we can provide to entities like F.C.D. to be able to adequately do their work.”

Channel 5