“TThese logs are historic, “says Elma Kay, standing in Belize’s Maya Forest, where she made an inventory of fallen trees.” These are the last logs cut here, for mahogany and other hardwoods, left behind by the previous lumber company. “
Trees will no longer be cut down in this 950-square-kilometer (236,000-acre) area after the land was purchased by a coalition of conservation organizations to save one of the world’s last untouched rainforests from deforestation. “The forest will now be protected forever,” Kay says.
The news coincides in time with Earth Day, the annual event established in 1970 to mobilize action on environmental issues.
The newly named Belize Maya Forest is part of 150,000 square kilometers (38m acres) of tropical forest across Mexico, Belize and Guatemala known as Selva Maya, a biodiversity hotspot and home to five species of wild cat (jaguars, margay, ocelot, jaguarundi and puma). , spider monkeys, howler monkeys and hundreds of bird species.
“As soon as you start driving through the forest, it abounds in biodiversity,” says Kay, one of the directors of the locally managed Belize Maya Forest Trust. “I can’t tell you how many ocellated turkeys we saw on the drive – more than 50. For Belizeans, this forest means we will protect our biodiversity – from iconic jaguars to critically endangered Central American river turtles to endangered tapirs – which are the lifeblood of our economy and our cultural heritage. “
Combined with the nearby Rio Bravo Reserve, Belize’s Maya Forest creates a protected area that covers 9% of Belize’s land mass, a critical “enigmatic piece” in the Selva Maya forest region, helping to secure a vital natural corridor through northern Guatemala, southern Mexico and Belize. .
Protecting large areas of untouched rainforests will help mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. “Forests like these contain large amounts of carbon,” says Julie Robinson, Belize program director for the Nature Conservancy, one of the partners behind the acquisition. “We’re in a downturn, so it’s really important to try to reverse the trend we have.”
The area was owned by the Forestland Group, a US company that had permits for sustainable logging. When it was sold, the Nature Conservancy and others, including World Earth Trust, Belize University Institute for Environmental Research and the Society for the Conservation of Wildlife, saw an opportunity to buy the land.
“If it weren’t bought for conservation, the most likely buyers would be for large-scale, industrial, mechanized, monocultured agriculture,” Kay says. “This is the threat to forests in Belize, especially central Belize, the country’s agricultural zone. From what we have saved this country is full-scale deforestation and conversion. “
Since 2011, the Maya Forest Corridor, which connects the Mayan mountains of Belize and the northern Mayan lowland forests shared by Belize, Mexico and Guatemala, has faced high rates of deforestation, driven by land clearings for industrial-scale agriculture. “For decades, the government of Belize, Belizeans and conservation organizations have wanted to protect this area,” says Robinson.
Despite the name, Mayans, whose civilization once extended across Belize, Guatemala, and parts of Mexico, have not lived in the region for many years. Today their descendants in Belize mainly live in the south. According to Robinson, indigenous peoples were not displaced to make way for industry, as was the case elsewhere in Latin America, but private land was closed. “At the time of the purchase of Forestland Group, no people lived on the property,” Robinson says. “However, there are local communities around the property. They had no access to land. “
“There are archeological sites on the property that date back to AD800,” Robinson adds. “There are also more than 25 cenotes [fresh water sinkholes], the sacred ponds of Cara Blanca, which contain incredible Mayan treasures. Very few Belizeans have ever visited these regions. Those cenotes also threatened agriculture. Culturally, it is important to preserve these elements in order to reconnect Mayan communities to sacred places, and also to find ways to generate income through them for the communities and the country. “
Now the land is acquired, Kay is leading the Belize Maya Forest Trust’s consultation process with local communities. Collaborative plans are likely to include low-impact ecotourism. There may also be some kind of sustainable agriculture, as well as scientific research. The only thing not on the table is the extraction of natural resources, such as wood.
“What surrounds Belize’s Mayan Forest is a multi-ethnic society, including people like me, of mixed Mayan and European descent, and people from neighboring Central American countries, German Mennonites,” Kay says. “We are involving all the various communities to participate in a conservation plan. Most livelihoods are based on agriculture. One goal will be more sustainable agricultural livelihoods, so there will be more climatically intelligent agriculture, agroforestry systems, soil restoration systems.
“We recognize that people need to support themselves, but it’s about that with values that protect the Mayan Forest and protect it for all Belizeans.”
As the world’s climates and biodiversity crises worsen, humanitarian buying of land for protection could become more common. “It’s absolutely the way forward,” Robinson argues. “But it’s important to do it in collaboration with communities. It can’t be that we just buy property, lock it up and say ‘this is now protected’. That won’t work. “
Belize has launched several initiatives in recent years to protect its natural resources. In 2018, oil drilling at its coast was banned to protect marine environments and the lucrative diving industry. Almost 40% of the country’s land mass is also protected. “Belizeans have an incredible connection to nature,” says Robinson. “We call our country the ‘jewel.'”
But the government’s environmental policies are also pragmatic, based on the value that nature brings, from food and water supplies to tourism, one of the country’s biggest revenue earners. “People realize we need to have biodiversity and nature, but we need to use it in a sustainable way,” Robinson says. “Development is absolutely important. Belizeans support development and agriculture, but in a way that is in balance with nature. “