There is trouble brewing in one of Belize’s nature reserves, the kind that could escalate as it has in the Chiquibul.  This time, it is the Bladen Reserve in Toledo facing millions of dollars in losses from extracted resources.  The reserve is a hundred thousand acres of forest that enjoys the highest status of protection in Belize where hunting, fishing, logging, tourism and agricultural activities are not allowed. But tonight, reporter Andrea Polanco tells us more about illegal logging in the Bladen Reserve. 

Andrea Polanco, Reporting

The Ya’axche Conservation Trust found out last month there are organized incursions happening deep inside the Bladen Nature Reserve. A team of the Y.C.T. rangers were on patrol in the Bladen in mid-February and that’s when they found out that the trees are cut down.

Christina Garcia, Executive Director, Ya’axche Conservation Trust

“The rangers found as many as five active hunting camps because hunting is one activity that notice over the years has increased significantly in the Bladen Nature Reserve. When the patrol moved a little bit deeper into the Bladen Nature Reserve they found a huge camp measuring fifteen by fifteen in length and the guys found a lot of cut trees – fell trees within the area. And we are talking about species such as rosewood and mahogany.”

Hunting has always been an issue – from the buffer communities in the south, as well as cross border villages. But the extraction of commercial species of wood is worrying. It’s a discovery that points directly to Guatemalans. And the Ya’axche believes this is an organized commercial operation.

Christina Garcia

“That, however, is a little bit strange because like I mentioned before we have seen activities such as hunting and a little bit of farming in some instances but never logging to this magnitude. The rangers basically found about fourteen big trees being felled – mahogany and rosewood to the point where the rangers basically stopped counting the amount of trees they found within the area. So, we believe the operation is very big and we are very worried because we know that we are going into the dry season and we know that there is sign that the loggers are going to come back within the area and what is really concerning for us is the evidence found as well at those camps all indicate that it is Guatemalans coming in to do that logging.”

It’s a remote area where it takes a week to get in and out. And so on this trip the rangers patrolled several spots and documented the evidence. There they found multiple hunting camps – including this big camp measuring fifteen by fifteen. At the camp site they found remains of wildlife hunted for food – as well as kitchen ware; packages from Guatemalan food items; among other things. This map shows that the areas where these illegal activities are happening are close to Belize-Guatemala border.

Said Gutierrez, Protected Areas Program Director, Ya’axche Conservation Trust

“Knowing where the location of these illegal activities is happening, we could look at it in reference to where the Belize Guatemalan border is.  In an area called the Burgos Plateau just south of the Chiquibul. It is still fairly rugged but it is a high fairly flat area.  The nearest community across the border is Las Lajas and the border itself moving towards the point from where the guys were collecting this information is somewhere about seven miles away from the border.”

Christina Garcia

“The proximity to Guatemala is very small so it makes it more accessible for them to move from Guatemala into that area. The camp is a fairly newly constructed camp. We found lots of pots; cups; chainsaw; chainsaw oil; fuel; gallons as well to store that fuel so we know that these people are coming back into the area.”

Inside the Bladen Nature Reserve there is widespread evidence of incursions – the rangers counted several camps and as many as ten different trails – but they have yet to explore all these trails to find out the extent of the incursions in the Bladen Nature Reserve.

Christina Garcia

“We have seen this level of activity in the Colombia River Forest Reserve as well but never had it occurred to us that it was going to happen that soon within the Bladen Nature Reserve. We know that there is more because when the rangers found that site they stopped counting the amount of trees found on the ground. We also found flitches at that site meaning that people go to cut those trees but also taking out some of those flitches. One thing to note is the number of horse trails, so we know they are taking out this timber utilizing horses.”

So, YCT is sounding the alarm on what could become another major transboundary issue with Guatemala. In the Bladen Nature Reserve there is a lot to lose. It is one of the most forested and untouched forests in Belize with a network of ecosystems, as well archaeological sites. It has the highest level of tree species in all of Central America; more than three hundred species of birds; over ninety species of mammals; as well as reptiles and fish. For now, the YCT team will continue to document the issues using technology but that can only do so much.

Said Gutierrez

“So, we are relying heavily on maybe one or two of these reconnaissance patrols a year however we would like to do many more a year. In the absence of more frequent patrols we have to find alternatives to monitoring and one of those is through the use of satellite imagery and combine it with the on ground data that the guys collect. The latest satellite imagery shows very little because you can’t see anything through the canopy but that is where the on the ground support is needed. There is a lot of natural and cultural heritage that should be protected and so far it has benefitted from being sandwiched from being between all these protected areas and so fortunately it has been shielded from these unfortunate activities that the Chiquibul for example has suffered over the last couple decades.”

So, they need the government’s support to strengthen enforcement in the Bladen Nature Reserve area.

Christina Garcia

“But also we need support from the Belize Defence Force and also the Forest Department. Because the area is very rugged – the guys took seven days to arrive to the Bladen Nature Reserve to the area where they found that extraction happening. It is very rugged and a tedious task so Ya’axche cannot do it on its own. We need the support of the regulatory agency to find out more what is happening there and to have more or less some presence within that area as well.”

Andrea Polanco

“Right – I was going to ask if you think one of the solutions would be a conservation post in that area as well?”

Christina Garcia

“Yes – absolutely. The discovery is quite alarming and that could be a potential solution to the issue that we are facing in that area.”

Channel 5