Monday, 27 September 2004

Latest news from Belize

Today, I returned from a flying visit to Belize -- in part literally flying, since we flew over the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area (RBCMA) -- the land owned and protected by the Programme for Belize, the WLT's local partner. The WLT was responsible for raising a large part of the $6.7 million originally needed to save the forests, and flying over them now, they looked in good shape. However the same could not be said for other parts of Belize.
Cleared forest in Belize
The edge of the world - forest clearance goes right to the edge of the protected areas of Belize.

A great deal of publicity has been given to the construction of the Chalillo Dam, which will destroy some 1000 hectares of forest, and there has been a massive amount of mangrove cleared around Belize City. But I also flew over an area of forest adjacent to the Guatemalan border, an area of about 10,000ha, which was sold to Menonnite farmers about five years ago, and that is now almost totally destroyed.

Little by little the Menonnite farmers have been buying up Belize, and while most would agree that they are very good farmers, they also appear to have an almost pathological hatred of trees. And although some Menonnites eschew modern machinery and ride around in a horse and buggy, wearing traditional clothes, many of those in Belize use big machinery, that is capable of clearing forest and turning into productive farmland within 2-3 years.

Although superficially living outside the modern world, pacifists, without TV etc etc, the reality on the ground in Belize, is that these farmers are destroying some of the last remaining forests in Northern Belize, and whenever forest comes on the market, they are among those who have the cash to buy it. This is particularly alarming as Belize has recently introduced a 'Speculation Tax' on land holdings of over 300 acres. In theory a very fair and equitable type of tax, to prevent wealthy landowners holding on to large areas for purely speculative purposes. But a negative effect is that large areas of forest are likely to be broken up, and sold off in small parcels, which almost certainly mean they will be cleared for agriculture and short-term gain -- and the most likly buyers are Menonnites, who will avoid the speculation tax, by 'developing the land' i.e., chopping down the trees, and planting crops.

It is no good suggesting that the Government should step in -- Belize has one of the highest proportions of land under some form of government protection of any country in the world -- it is unrealistic for it to be expected to buy land on the open market.

It is equally unrealistic for conservationists to expect to be able to buy land and simply lock it away as 'protected'. Conservation, if it is to play a part in the future development of Belize must not only produce sustainable incomes, but it must also be seen to be benefitting the people of Belize as a whole. This was always the original aim of the Programme for Belize, and conservationists can play their role, by supporting those efforts -- go to Belize, stay at the RBCMA, travel around, go snorkelling on the reef.

Tourist dollars (and pounds and euros) are the best way of demonstrating to the people of Belize, that the wildlife they value, is also valued by the rest of the world. Otherwise, the Menonnites will soon isolate more and more of the remaining forests in northern Belize.

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