By Kurt Repanshek
Chiquibul National Park, Belize -- Gold is an alluring color, whether woven into the feathers of a Scarlet macaw winging through the Maya Mountains rainforest or mixed in the gravels of streams that thread beneath the understory of Chiquibul National Park in the Belizean highlands.
You hear the macaws before you see them. These magnificent birds, nearly 3 feet long from beak to tail feathers, give themselves away with their raucous squawking as they fly in groups to a roost. The flecks of gold in the soils of Chiquibul, the largest protected area in this Central American country, are not as easy to spot. But they're equally precious. And both birds and metals lie at the root of illegal activities that are poking holes in the park's faunal assemblage and streambeds.
Encompassing 416 square miles, Chiquibul is said to contain mountainous landscapes undisturbed since the Maya lived here centuries ago. Within the forests are Scarlet macaws, an endangered species that breeds in the park, Spider monkeys, and toucans, while beneath the forests the Chiquibul Cave System worms through the karst geology. It is thought to be the largest cave system in Belize and the longest in Central America.
With such rich biodiversity, and gold within the forest floor, the park draws Guatemalans across the border in search of a living, regardless of legality. Once in Chiquibul, they might clear small plots for farms, trap wildlife for sale, or placer mine.
"Some of the southern reserves which border with Guatemala are under very high pressure as some Guatemalans who have depleted the natural resources on their side, are now spilling into Belize for our rich biodiversity and cultural heritage," says Roni Martinez, conservation officer at the Blancaneaux Lodge, a resort in the Mountain Pine District. "The Columbia River Forest Reserve, Chiquibul Forest, and Vaca Forest Reserve are now areas of very high illegal activity, all by Guatemalans. They come in to poach endangered Scarlet macaws, shoot many endangered mammals for sale as bush meat, cut millions of dollars’ worth of lumber, pan gold illegally while destroying the watershed, plus so many other things."
Two years ago Mr. Martinez, also a member of the Belize Raptor Research Institute, and four rangers were in the park monitoring Scarlet macaw nests when they heard screeching macaws down river. They hesitated to leave the nests they were guarding, and discovered the next day that the ruckus was from wildlife poachers.
"A local builder who was collecting bush sticks and bay leaves for work at a private residence, mentioned to us later that while he was collecting bush sticks, a Guatemalan man passed by his workmen and stopped to talk a bit. He even showed them the two 'parrots' he had just poached and for which he already had buyers in Guatemala," Mr. Martinez recounted. "We were only able to pin down the village and neighborhood where the guy came from, but the macaw chicks… those are gone forever."
Understanding these behaviors, which would be wholly unacceptable and illegal in the U.S. National Park System, requires short lessons on history and subsistence. Much of the problem dates back more than 150 years, as there remain longstanding border differences between Guatemala and Belize that date to when the British ruled what was known at the time as British Honduras. As long ago as 1839 Guatemala claimed Belize. Time and again -- in 1945, 1972, 1975, and 1977 -- Guatemala threatened to invade its neighbor, only to stand down in the face of British military power.
The political disputes continue today. In January, the two countries signed an agreement, Roadmap for Strengthening Bilateral Relations, that is hoped to lead to a resolution of their differences. It can't come too soon, as Guatemalan incursions into Chiquibul have been rampant. According to an article in Tropical Conservation Science, in 2007 "satellite imagery indicated that in the Chiquibul National Park alone, 3,126 hectares of tropical forest have disappeared."
Contributing to the festering geopolitical problem are population and economic pressures, largely, if not wholly, from Guatemala. While roughly 40 percent of Belize is protected in some form -- national park, forest reserve, private reserve -- the same can't be said of neighboring Guatemala. There population pressures (the country has an estimated population of 15+ million, vs. Belize's 325,000 residents) are forcing some to look elsewhere for food, natural resources, and materials with economic value.
"Land scarcity has led to an expansion of communities within the Chiquibul-Montanas Mayas biosphere reserve in Guatemala, followed by growth across the border into protected areas in Belize," Katherine Groff, a researcher at Michigan State University, wrote in an article published in Conservation and Society late last year. "The lack of human settlement on the Belizean side of the border means that resource extraction is primarily driven by Guatemalan communities. Guatemalans regularly cross the border to clear land for agriculture, extract timber, poach wildlife, and cut xate, the leaf of a certain Chamaedorea palms used in the global floral industry."
To fully understand the problem, appreciate that few countries have a national park service to oversee management of their parks and enforcement of laws and regulations in the same fashion as the U.S. National Park Service does.
"When you consider a park like Yellowstone probably has a budget equivalent to, if not more than, the entire system budgets of most countries around the world, it puts things into a little bit more perspective," says Jonathan Putnam, an international cooperation specialist at the National Park Service Office of International Affairs. "And staffing. What does Yellowstone have, 300 or 400 permanent employees? I’m not sure what the situation is at Chiquibul is, but I’d be surprised if they have more than a handful.”
In Belize, overseeing protected areas often falls, at least in part, on local communities and non-governmental organizations. At Chiquibul, since 2007 the Friends for Conservation and Development has co-managed the park with the country's Forest Department. Part of FCD's mission is to patrol the national park to thwart poachers, gold panners, and other illegal activities in the park.
"The Chiquibul/Maya Mountains is one of the three most critical areas for Belize to safeguard," Rafael Manzanero, FCD's executive director, says. "Yet, the Chiquibul National Park has posed considerable challenges on how to protect it due to the 11 threats facing it. All the threats are from a trans-boundary nature, which makes it extremely sensitive and complex. The three top threats to date (16th Feb, 2014) are: Gold extraction, illegal logging and Chamaedorean extraction (xate)."
FCD which has an annual operating budget of just $230,000, works in a variety of ways to safeguard Chiquibul's resources, from establishing conservation posts in the park and utilizing weekly patrols to combat poaching and other resource extraction to encouraging bi-national cooperation and raising visibility, nationally and internationally, of the park and its wonders.
While the thought of patrolling a national park might sound glamorous, it can be anything but in Chiquibul, particularly when your staff counts just nine rangers.
"Poaching is across the range of the Chiquibul Park and our study of April 2013 shows that hunting is not only for subsistence but also commercial," said Mr. Manzanero. "There have been encounters as more people have firearms in the area. Unfortunately some have been fatal. Over the last 1.5 years, two incidents have been fatal in the Chiquibul, and one across the Main Divide (Columbia River Forest Reserve). All incidents have been in self-defence where the military have fatally injured Guatemalan locals. These have been severely investigated by both Guatemalan and Belizean authorities, together with OAS (Organization of American States) personnel."
Then, too, there are the cultural differences and the fact the Belize today is a developing country.
Rick Anderson, a National Park Service employee who works in Everglades National Park, did graduate work in Belize in the 1980s and developed a love for the country. He returns regularly, on his own time and expense, to share his knowledge on using fire as a landscape tool.
During a phone conversation in which we discussed Chiquibul's problems with poaching and illegal resource extraction, Mr. Anderson acknowledged that, "Those problems are very common. And, of course Chiquibul, being exposed to the Guatemala border, and being mostly very remote and not roaded at all, it is the pit of the 'wild West' down there.”
Key to combatting the problems and protecting the health of Chiquibul, he said, are groups such as FCD.
“What I’ve seen is a pattern in Belize. If outside entities, whether they’re an individual or an NGO, develops an interest, and starts getting the government’s attention, then there’s hope," said Mr. Anderson. "But it takes repeated efforts. So, unless somebody pays attention to it, and again I go back to the (FCD) NGO, that’s probably the most promising thing I’ve heard for Chiquibul. At least an NGO is interested in the place. That’s promising.”