The on-going Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute has extended to our Chiquibal National Forest. Located in the south-western region of Belize, the Chiquibul Forest includes the largest cave system in Central America, the Caracol Maya Site, and the Chiquibul River, which provides water to 40% of Belize’s population. Professional photographer Tony Rath ventured once again to the Chiquibul, where he witnessed first-hand the destruction of our forests at the hands of Guatemalans. The exploitation of our valuable natural resources is cause for much concern to Belizean conservationists.
There is only a small group of dedicated Belizeans risking their lives each day for the protection and conservation of the natural resources of Chiquibul, all 1,073 square kilometers of it. They are called Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), and at present, their main concern is the agriculture encroachment and gold-panning by illegal Guatemalans.
On September 8, 2014, Rath detailed his first foray into the Chiquibul. His harrowing experience included a shootout between illegal Guatemalan loggers and seven members of the FCD. His expose of that experience declared that “Belize is at War, without even knowing it.” The initial article generated a lot of buzz, and incensed many patriotic Belizeans.
Two years later, along with the FCD, Rath returned and observed an increase of Guatemalan presence in the area. The damage to the area was so alarming that Rath wrote an editorial: “In Belize, All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter” focusing on the looting, illegal activities, and the annexation that is leading to the destruction of the country’s natural resources. Documented through his breathtaking photography, Rath’s experiences reveal that the country’s government, and its citizens, is being deprived of millions of dollars. Since the Ceibo Chico River is closer to Guatemalans than Belizeans, the accessibility is causing irreversible damage to the region. “What we observed was way beyond anything I imagined. The potential environmental impacts of Guatemalan illegal gold mining in the Ceibo Chico region of the Chiquibul far surpasses the impacts of illegal Xate harvesting, illegal logging, wildlife poaching and agricultural encroachment—combined.”
Threats to the Chiquibal Forest:
FCD’s goal to reclaim the integrity of the Chiquibul National Park has been an ongoing struggle. In 2007, the FCD entered into a co-management agreement with the Forest Department for the management of the Chiquibul National Park, where they have been documenting a progressive growth of illegal activities annually. However, the threats including poaching of spectacular wildlife such as the scarlet macaws, great curassows, brockett deer and peccaries is continuing. Extraction of non-timber forest produce, and Belize’s national tree, the Mahogany, is being illegally smuggled across Belize’s western border. Looting for Maya artifacts are extensive, and incursions as a result of the agricultural expansion is studied. Guatemala’s negative impact on Belize’s environment is causing the forest to deteriorate.
Key solutions to conserve the Chiquibul Forest:
According to Rath, Belize risks losing Chiquibul if the Government of Belize (GOB) doesn’t place more security on the borders. “We have to solidify and secure our borders as they stand now, because in five (5) short years, it won’t matter what the International Court of Justice says-possession is nine-tenths of the law—and Guatemala will have stolen or destroyed anything of value in the Ceibo Chico,” said Rath.
Director of the FCD, Rafael Manzanero, discussed the solutions that must be in place in order to conserve the Chiquibul National Park. “We can decipher very clearly who are the encroachers, and they are the Guatemalans invading Belizean territory. They are removing and extracting the cultural and natural resources of Belize,” said Manzanero.
Manzanero’s main priority is to stop Guatemalans who enter the country illegally. He indicated that he intended to address the Guatemalan government, using a multifaceted approach, and is confident that it can be done. Manzanero also mentioned that Belize has to be successful in prosecuting illegal Guatemalans, to deflect other Guatemalans from attempting to cross over.
Patrols from the Belize Defense Force, as well as the Forest Rangers, also need to increase in the Chiquibul. He agreed that Rath’s statement, “The BDF come and go on a regular schedule, and if I know it, the Guatemalans know it,” is indicative of the tact Guatemalans are using to encroach. Belize simply has to be more strategic when patrolling.
The FCD is hoping to receive support from the GOB to implement these strategies, and work cohesively to alleviate the presence of Guatemalans, as well as to conserve the integrity of the Chiquibul National Forest.
To read Rath’s, “In Belize, All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter” online, please go to https://maptia.com/tonyrath/stories/in-belize-all-that-is-gold-does-not-glitter.