Belizean conservationist Rafael Manzanero weighs in on environmental challenges affecting Ambergris Caye

Friday, August 30th, 2019

Conservationists in Belize believe that the country’s economy is based on its rich natural resources and the protection of these is paramount for the nation’s stability and the livelihood of thousands of Belizeans. Home to the second largest Barrier Reef in World and one of the lushest jungles in the region, Belize needs to continue raising awareness to conserve these assets. The San Pedro Sun had the opportunity for a one on one interview with Executive Director of Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), Rafael Manzanero. The FCD manages the Chiquibul Rainforest Reserve in western Belize, and its Chief shared his views on sustainability, weighed in the challenges Belize’s marine and terrestrial eco-systems are going through and what Belizeans as a whole nation can do to better manage these sensitive resources.
He stressed on sustainability as the key to a successful balance between conservation and development. Manzanero commended the efforts that the Hol Chan Marine Reserve is undergoing to try and protect the marine areas around the island with better management strategies. According to him, sustainable developments are possible with the right legislations and mechanisms set in place. Manzanero indicated that when the Ministry of Tourism or the Belize Tourism Board opens the door for development near protected areas, all the necessary platforms for a sustainable investment should be considered. However, one main factor exposed in the conversation was ‘greed.’ It was pointed that when investors know that they can get a lot more from what has been approved from a resource, temptation can play a role in overriding regulations. “Sustainable development in developing countries like Belize is a big challenge, but we need to find a way how to counter such obstacles,” said Manzanero.
In his view, the challenges on Ambergris Caye and in the Chiquibul Reserve depend on how institutions and individuals looking after the resources work along with the corresponding governmental ministries. On Ambergris Caye the appeal for conservation is seen more from the private sector and residents. It was discussed that the government would seem to have limitations on resources to manage protected areas both on the island and in the mainland reserves. “The other challenge is how to get people together to advocate for a common cause, and more entities involved in the protection of these areas,” he said. “In the Chiquibul we are like the only body that is really raising awareness about the importance of its conservation.” He advises that there should be a constant community driven movement in order to stop harmful developments interfering with the natural resources.
Manzanero insisted that the main factor to save the current resources like the reef and forests is constant awareness. “Here on the island people need to understand this main resource (the reef) can disappear,” said Manzanero. “Once that is clear, a combined effort can be created via coalitions and alliances to promote sustainability.” He elaborated that sometimes in his environmental crisis, when groups begin to organize themselves to solve a problem it might too late. Manzanero advises that the inclusion of youth groups to environmental causes is one important factor to educate the local population about the need to take care of these resources. “We have a youth group in the FCD, which assists with public awareness, planting trees, and even organizing river clean-ups,” he said. Manzanero commented that eco-systems are resilient and if given the adequate time, they can recover, otherwise they can collapse and disappear.
In the Chiquibul area, for many years, there was the problem with illegal logging, poaching and gold panning by Guatemalan peasants. This abuse of the resources was threatening and sending the reserve into a dead zone, but according to Manzanero, they were able to contain the issue in time. “All this thanks to public awareness and urging the governmental authorities to act fast,” he said. “Things are better now, but we still continue to have problems like illegal cattle ranching and gold panning. But most of the major activities have decreased and now the reserve is recovering.” Manzanero said that even the wildlife is seeing a healthy comeback thanks to the enforcement of guidelines and joint efforts of concerned citizens, who continue to advocate for the protection of Belize’s natural resources.
As for Ambegris Caye and the surrounding areas that would see further commercial developments in the future, the senior conservationist had some suggestions. “There has to be a program of development and sustainability, along with guidelines put in place and enforced to sustain such a program,” he said. “People need to be conscious of what they are leaving for the future generations. If there are controlled mechanisms that investors or businesses need to abide to, that will depend on the pressure from the community to do the right thing. There are a lot of people here that can join forces compared to what we have in the Chiquibul.”
In the struggle to achieve sustainable development, Manzanero said that Ambergris Caye has the advantage of manpower. If residents on the island notice how their patrimony is being damaged, they have the choice to get up and save what is their livelihood. It will not be an easy battle, but with a community driven initiative and a contained movement moving forward at a steady pace, sustainability can become the flagship of Belize’s top tourism destination- Ambergris Caye.

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