Sunday, July 21, 2024

Wildfires threatening Belize’s eco-tourism on the mainland


As of May 26th, wildfires have severely impacted several locations in Belize, including the Toledo District and the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in the Cayo District. In Toledo, large tracts of agricultural land have been destroyed, while national parks and even communities have been affected in Cayo. Volunteers and officials from government and non-governmental agencies have been collectively battling the flames that displace wildlife, destroy habitats, and threaten the livelihood of thousands in the tourism industry in western Belize.
These areas of the country are home to some of the world’s most popular jungle lodges and national reserves. Many visitors supporting these eco-tourism activities are captivated by the wonders of the Belizean rainforest, natural monuments, and unique wildlife. One popular activity is birding, drawing Belizeans and visitors alike to these dense mountainous areas to marvel at local and migratory birds. All this is at risk by the wildfires that have surprised many this year.
Reports from preliminary assessments indicate that a third of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in Cayo has burned. Park rangers, along with a task force from the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO), the Belize Defence Force (BDF), Astrum Helicopters, the National Fire Service, and volunteers are trying to stop the flames from spreading and further destroying the park and other areas. One of those national parks that was coming under fire was the Elijio Panti National Park near the Cayo villages of Cristo Rey, San Antonio, and El Progreso.
The park is co-managed by the Itzama Society Group. Its Chairlady, Maria Garcia, shared with the media the urgency of tackling this emergency that may disrupt Belize’s eco-tourism. “The park is part of our heart. We have not slept for nights because we know everything is burning, it is very sad,” she said. “I think we are taking everything for granted. Our natural resources are like a piece of jade, if we do not take care of it, it will be gone. Then what will happen to us? Our community has people working in the tourism industry. If Elijio Panty and the Mountain Pine Ridge burns out, the resorts hiring our people will go out of business because no tourists will come.” Garcia pointed out that many of the visitors to the area are huge into birding. But with all greenery gone, this part of the tourism industry will also fade away. Garcia added that the message to conserve natural resources is for the entire country and not only for Cayo or Toledo.
The fires were also affected other areas beyond Toledo and Cayo. On Tuesday, May 28th the blaze was observed near the archaeological site of Altun Ha in the Belize District. This led to the closure of the popular Maya ancient temple affecting tours operators. The collective efforts led by the Institute of Archaeology succeeded in containing the fire late on Tuesday. Many volunteers and members of the private sector assisted with equipment to keep the fire away from the important archaeological monument.
As NEMO and the other partners continue their operations fighting the fires, farmers in the Toledo District still need assistance. Around 100 farmers have lost everything and welcome assistance to start working their farms again. Anything collected to help these affected areas can be directed to NEMO. They can be reached at telephone number 822-2054. Besides the farms, some other villages affected in Toledo include San Pedro, Colombia, Jordan, Criquejute, and Ya’axche.
The cause of the wildfires is the recently recorded elevated temperatures affecting not only Belize but also the region. With no rain in the forecast and the period of oppressive heat and dry conditions, it may produce ideal conditions for further wildfire growth. In the meantime, those suffering from respiratory illnesses are advised to avoid outdoor areas with signs of smoke from fires. At the same time, authorities at NEMO warn about the heatwave that can threaten vulnerable groups like older people and children because of the possibility of heat strokes.

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