Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve Officially Opened

Headquarters at Bacalar Chico-
the concrete pillars are from the
former Pinkerton house

Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve was officially opened Friday, August 23, 1996. A gathering of 50 persons joined Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Hon. Russell Garcia at the ceremony which took place at San Juan, the northernmost tip of Ambergris Caye overlooking the Bay of Chetumal and Mexico. The new national park is currently accessible only by sea. Those who attended were Minister Garcia, Department of Fisheries staff and officials, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Mr. Lindsey Belisle, Mr. Jose Morgada of the European Union, Janet Gibson, International Tropical Conservation Foundation, members of Coral Caye Conservation, San Pedro Town Deputy Mayor Fidel Ancona, Mr. Jose Perez of Coastal Zone Management Unit, Mexican Port authorities, officials of the town of X'calak, Mexico, members of the Tourguide Associations of Sarteneja and San Pedro and the press.

Aurial Samos, the terrestial ranger at the reserve met the boat loads of guests and guided them up the concrete pathway to the new ranger station and headquarters. The concrete jetty and walkway are a remnant of the Pinkerton Estate, as is the vast 50 X 80 foot concrete foundation of the headquarters. Samos turned back to the sea and pointed out a rocky circle about 100 feet from the shore. He said that former owner Pinkerton had taken rock from the San Juan ruins and ringed the approach to the site to protect the coast from waves created by northers. Remnants of the ruins still remain in the clearing around the headquarters.

Minister Garcia in his opening remarks said he was honoured that so many were present at the historic occasion of the inauguration of Bacalar Chico as a link in Belize's ecological network. He congratulated the communities of Sarteneja and San Pedro for their input and effort. "The local communities have a vested interest in preserving and protecting this physical and biological resource. Those here first (Pinkerton) took away much of the archaeological value. Preserving this area is a challenge to all and we will strengthen our collaboration with Mexico in eco-tourism and eco sur."

Garcia continued by citing Bacalar Chico as an exemplary relationship between the public sector, ministries, NGO's, and international organizations. "It is a blending of mandates and resources. A joining of arms to protect and preserve, to create a saleable commodity locally and internationally. This beautiful area is targeted for development, which makes the need greater to protect it now. It will serve us well for education, it is a unique place under the sun. So you see with multi-sectoral collaboration we will achieve cultural, economic and nationalistic goals. I urge you to continue to act with purpose, determination and imagination."

Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Natural Resources Lindsey Belisle, expressed regret from Minister Eduardo Juan saying that a previous commitment kept him from being present for the occasion. Belisle said the Ministry of Natural Resources had a positive approach to national preserves. It began in the 1920's to develop reserves/preserves and 20% of the country is now protected. "With development comes problems," Belisle said. "Marine pollution, clearing of forests - all of our protected areas are under-resourced. To move from 'paper' parks to reality is challenging. We need 6 million U.S. dollars to provide the needed services, and annual recurring expenses of 2.5 U.S. million to continue. We have started PACT (Preserved Areas Conservation Trust), but it is not enough. We need to create income to sustain our preserves otherwise pressures will come from other sources to use the areas differently. Economic development and environmental protection are at odds. We must ensure we pursue a path of conservation and prevent over-exploitation."

The vote of thanks was given by Janet Gibson. Gibson said thanks should be given to Fernando Alamilla of Sarteneja who wrote many years ago asking that this area be preserved such as Hol Chan. With the help of the European Union, Bacalar Chico Advisory Committee, San Pedro and Sarteneja, Forestry and Fisheries, Coastal Zone Management and Coral Caye Conservation, Bacalar Chico is the first example of multiple collaboration. This Bacalar Chico Reserve is the cornerstone in the network of protected marine areas. There are three special people missing today who have been instrumental in making this dream a reality - Melanie Dotherow McField, Dylan Gomez and James Azueta. We thank them for their dedication, for having a vision and helping to accomplish the goal.

Minister Garcia cut the ribbon and a tour of the headquarters and grounds commenced. Ranger Samos led the expedition through the jungle. The peninsula is 15 to 20 feet above sea level. The rich black soil supports dense vegetation and trees including sour orange and a thirty foot high grapefruit tree. Broad leaf philodendrons with foot wide leaves climb to the top of the forest canopy. Papayas thrive, and the forest floor is dense with fern and tropical vegetation. Watermelons, cucumbers and tomatoes are thriving in a plot in front of the headquarters. The recently completed headquarters provides office space for 1 marine biologist, 1 terrestrial biologist and 2 marine rangers. The staff rotates with each man on duty for a month followed by one week off.

A planned trip to the Maya ruin of Chac-balam was canceled due to the heavy rainfall earlier in the week. The rangers advised that the ruins were knee to waist deep in water. Likewise the trip to the reef at Rocky Point, where the reef touches the shore, was canceled due to choppy seas.

Arriving in X'calak - the lighthouse

Off to X'calak
Officials from X'calak invited the group to view the new Port of X'calak ferry landing on the Bay of Chetumal. Three boats set out for the adventure through the channel cut 1500 years ago by the Mayas north to X'calak. Travelling through the channel was a surprise to most of the visitors. Most had imagined the Mayas digging the channel to connect the bay to the sea, when in fact the area is solid mangrove. The Mayas cleared the mangrove wide enough for their dugouts to pass. Currently the rangers at Bacalar Chico and the Mexican officials are collaborating on widening the channel to allow for larger modern-day boat traffic and to give better visibility in the winding channel.

The trip to X'calak was about 25 minutes. We landed on a community pier. The concrete pier, about 300 feet long, was well constructed and maintained. Armed border guards met the visitors. Minister Garcia was introduced to the guards by Suzy Lopez, a member of the border patrol who was accompanying the delegation. The minister vouched for everyone and the group strolled down the beach and were hosted at a local cantina while a bus was arranged for the trip to the port.

The village of X'calak has around 350 residents. At one time it was larger than San Pedro, but after a hurricane hit, many residents left. Wind generators have been recently installed and are creating electricity. Many of the buildings are abandoned, yet there is new construction here and there and many of the buildings have been recently painted with vibrant colors. The bus arrived and we headed west on a newly constructed road through the mangroves. In spite of the heavy downpour from Hurricane Dolly the previous week, the road was dry and smooth. Officials explained it was a three phase road. First a rock bed was laid, drainage was established, then the road was built up and graded. Silver mangroves dot the roadside. The new port is nearly completed. Finishing touches are being made to the customs office and the pier has been completed. It has several extensions for docking smaller boats. The ferry landing is complete with a ramp to on and off load automobiles and trucks. Minor dredging of the channel was underway. The ferry trip from Chetumal will take approximately 4 hours. Service is expected to commence shortly. The link to Chetumal is a part of the Costa Maya Project that is currently underway.

On the bus ride back much discussion occurred between the Mexican and Belizeans about the cutting of mangroves. The Mexicans said that mangroves are protected by law - everyone in Mexico is a policeman and damaged mangroves are reported to the authorities. They also pointed out that Mexico is a large country with lots of land. People don't need the land the mangroves live on, the birds and fish do. The conversation continued about the development of X'calak with the creation of Costa Maya. A group of residents were planning a visit to San Pedro to visit Hol Chan Marine Reserve, and to see San Pedro's garbage disposal solutions. They explained that they know growth is coming to their village and they want to plan for water, garbage and a marine reserve before an increased population brings problems.

The boat trip back was a bit rough on the choppy seas. The wet travelers enjoyed a late lunch and coconut water beverages. The villagers from X'calak said they provided the coconuts and that they had a witch in X'calak that put spells on all the coconuts so that once someone drank the coconut water they would return.

In the late afternoon sun, new friends from all parts of Belize and Mexico said goodbye and promised to return soon to enjoy the beauty of Bacalar Chico.




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San Pedro Town, Ambergris Caye, Belize News