written by Haley Morrow
Deforestation rates, especially of protected areas, in Belize is a growing crisis. Deforestation jeopardizes the valuable biodiversity of Belize and the wildlife that inhabits it; most notably, the destruction of habitat threatens already struggling jaguar populations. I propose three major reforms to alleviate the problem of rising deforestation rates in Belize. First, active forest law enforcement should be increased. Second, slash-and-burn agriculture should be replaced with sustainable agriculture practices. Third, the overall socio-economic conditions of the citizens of Belize should be improved.
Belize is the second smallest country in Central America with a population of just 300,000 (Young 2008). Despite its small size, Belize is extremely diverse in both ethnicity and biological diversity. Yet threats and challenges to conservation in Belize puts this valuable and unique biodiversity in jeopardy. The most encapsulating of these threats is the high disforestation rate. Compared to the rest of Central America, Belize boasted an extremely high forest cover until the 1960s when large-scale agriculture replaced forestry as the mainstay of the Belizean economy. Over the last 5 decades, large-scale agriculture and aquaculture have escalated at the expense of the forests. Coupled with rapid and increasing coastal development, illegal logging, and slash-and-burn agriculture, Belize is currently experiencing a deforestation rate that is twice that of Central America (Young 2008). Rising poverty rates exacerbates environmental degradation because disadvantaged populations have more urgent concerns than implementing conservation practices. People are forced to rely on subsistence agriculture where they slash and burn forest for the economic benefits. The economic incentive obtained from harvesting forest products for medicinal use, wood carving, bush meat, or cultural artifacts suppresses any incentive to conserve wildlife and habitat. A majority of the impoverished are located in areas with high forest cover and biodiversity – thus these areas are experiencing some of the highest
deforestation rates. If current rates continue unabated, the forest cover will decrease to 58% by 2020 and will be gone within the next 40 years (Young 2008). Improvement in socio-economic conditions as well as introducing sustainable agriculture practice in Belize can have a significant impact on the deforestation rate and the subsequent fragmentation of Belize’s forests. The likely outcomes of a deforestation rate such as that occurring in Belize, is an unhealthy population, poor economy, and an extinction cascade of species.
A major concern, in respect to the jaguars, is the loss of the protected areas in Belize. Of the 1.35 million hectares of forest cover that remains, approximately two thirds lie within the National Protected Areas System. It is agreed that in general, the protected areas are maintaining their forest cover and ecosystem functionality. However, there are some key areas where illegal transboundary logging incursions are occurring inside the protected area boundaries, with an 8.4% decrease in forest cover since 2010 (Fifth National Report to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity: Belize 2014). Much of this is along the porous western border with Guatemala. The issue of illegal incursions by Guatemala is sensitive and compounded by the long-standing territorial claim over Belize by Guatemala. In short, this stems from a treaty signed by Britain and Guatemala in 1859 defining borders with Belize in order to build a cart road from Guatemala City to the Atlantic Coast. After a few years the road was never built and Guatemala placed the blame on Britain and voiced that they wanted the treated to be nulled and their land back. This case is currently awaiting settlement and advisory by the International Court of Justice. Of the 2012-2013 recorded forest clearance within protected areas, the majority occurred in those protected areas that lie against the porous western border with Guatemala such as the Chiquibul National Park, Columbia River Forest Reserve, Caracol Archaeological Reserve and Vaca Forest Reserve (Fifth National Report to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity: Belize 2014). These correspond to agricultural incursions by farmers from Guatemala, driven by limited access to land and rising poverty along the Guatemalan side of the border and limited resources on the Belizean side for effective surveillance and enforcement.
There has also been some erosion of Forest Reserves within Belize. With the increasing human development footprint, the pressure to access the protected areas for agricultural land has increased (Fifth National Report to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity: Belize 2014). The discovery of sweet crude oil in western Belize in 2002 sparked another threat
to the stability of protected areas. This is especially significant because when the geology and petroleum map are compared to the protected areas map, the majority of these potential oil reserves occur within protected areas. High oil prices put any protected-areas policy at a great risk as there will be tremendous pressure and temptation by the government to make the necessary legal amendments to allow oil exploration and production (Young 2008). This is all at the expense of further destruction of forests and potential pollution of watersheds and the marine environment via oil spills. However, with proper management of these protected areas coupled with the already established conscientiousness by Belize in regards to the importance of their natural resources, the preservation of these lands is to be upheld.
The conservation of jaguars is tied to protected areas largely due to their success in undisturbed areas. The global decline of large carnivores is tied to the direct hunting of carnivores and their prey, along with the loss and degradation of their habitat. The loss of these animals will have both immediate and long-term impacts on the communities in which they were resident. Protected areas play an important role in the conservation of large carnivore populations by supporting a wild prey base and often providing refuge from direct persecution by people. (Quigley et. al 2015). The Jaguar also requires extensive tracts of natural vegetation, as well as a healthy prey base, and is therefore a logical keystone species target for active conservation initiatives in Belize, linked to the establishment of biological corridors. As a keystone species, the jaguar has many other species in the ecosystem that largely depend on a stable and healthy jaguar population. The loss of a top predator, such as the jaguar, results in an increase in prey item populations and unleashes a cascade of drastic changes in the ecosystem. This species, protected under the Wildlife Protection Act, is coming increasingly into conflict with humans as agricultural expansion encroaches on forested areas. Agriculture lands can spread like forest fires in that there is progressive habitat loss and fragmentation of forested areas, leaving jaguars displaced and venturing into local communities in search for food. Long term viability of this species is affected by deforestation and forest fragmentation.
Deforestation in Belize – A Review of Current Policy:
The National Protected Areas and System Plan (NPASP), last revised in 2015, is a program on the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) accords. The NPASP addresses the threats of deforestation and unsustainable natural resource extraction. The NPASP is a network of sites designed to protect and preserve Belize’s biological diversity and to contribute towards
Belize’s sustainable development by providing economic opportunities and for the wellbeing of Belizeans (Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development Government of Belize 2015). If implemented correctly, NPASP will remedy many of the institutional and legal issues, including the removal of “ministerial discretion,” a loophole that gave ministers discretionary powers to de-reserve protected areas without the need for public consultations. This serves as a guide to the management of protected areas in Belize and to curb ineffective institutional and legal frameworks. The potential positive outcomes of this program includes strengthened natural resource management and biodiversity conservation through the mitigation of threats to Key Biodiversity Areas, through funding from the Global Environment Facility.
The National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) is another program that
was implemented to satisfy requirements set by the Convention on Biological Diversity. The
goal of NBSAP is to promote the sustainable use of Belize’s biological and cultural resources by
educating society to properly conserve biological diversity in order to maintain and enhance the
quality of life for all Belizeans (Jacobs and Castañeda 1998). Belize formally launched the
NBSAP on May 31 , 2018; cementing their pledge to conserve biological components through
the NBSAP five-year action plan related to national biodiversity goals (Feucht 2018). In doing so, Belize stands firm in the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. Initiatives already in place include forest regeneration, filtering grey water to form wetland areas, and solid waste management. Belize also exceeds CBD requirements in the amount of protect landed designated by the country. This policy needs to follow multiple objectives to succeed in attaining the main goal by ensuring local participation and equitable access to benefits, through adequate institutional and human capacity building and collaborative research and development.
As for protecting the jaguars in particular, there is one major program that aims to do so: The Problem Jaguar Rehabilitation Program implemented by the Belize Zoo. A problem jaguar is a jaguar who has been repeatedly preying upon livestock or domestic animals. As habitat is reduced, the jaguars are forced to venture into communities seeking food, and begin to prey upon livestock and domesticated animals as an alternative survival strategy (The Belize Zoo). This leads to the animal getting shot or killed in another manner by farmers and ranchers attempting to protect their livelihoods (The Belize Zoo). In an attempt to reduce the number of jaguar killings, in 2003, The Belize Zoo, in collaboration with the Government of Belize and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, began this program to rehabilitate jaguars who were known to be
repeated livestock predators. The wild cats are trapped, transferred to an area off site, and then introduced to daily behavior modification routines with the end goal of public education. Through public education, visitors of the Belize Zoo can become familiar with the problem jaguar situation affecting Belize, and learn how to better manage their livestock and domestic animals. The maintenance of the large forest nodes and establishment of biological corridors for maintaining forest connectivity are the most effective strategies Belize has for maintaining its jaguar population, which is why the loss of habitat, especially protected forests is so detrimental to jaguar populations.
Problems with the Current Policy:
Belize lacks the manpower and capacity for policy implementation to be truly successful. There are some simple solutions to deforestation yet, in reality, the issue is compounded by the lack of human resources and operational budget. For example, the Forestry Department’s staff of only 38 employees, including 21 rangers is woefully insufficient to adequately enforce the environmental regulations in ca. 248,000 hectares for which they are responsible (Young 2008). Any effort to reduce illegal logging and the subsequent fragmentation of Belize’s forest must involve strengthening the capacity of the department to carry out its responsibilities, including improved monitoring and enforcement.
The absence of “in-house” research conducted by Belizeans also hinders current policy. Most of the research conducted and published on Belize has been conducted by foreigners (Young 2008). Research in the natural sciences by Belizean scientists is still in its infancy. Since there are no educational institutions with active research programs in-country, it is extremely difficult for Belizean scientists to compete internationally to obtain grant money to conduct natural science research in Belize. This is a major inhibitor to research development in Belize. The lack of grant money, education, and able local scientists, leads to government inaction. Under these conditions, Belize and its authorities lay apathetic and unable to revise policy.
While the Problem Jaguar Rehabilitation Program established at the Belize Zoo serves as a great refuge for problem jaguars, it is flawed by its own limitations. Currently, the program is full and cannot take in any more jaguars. In addition, jaguars taken into custody by the Belize Zoo cannot be returned to the wild. So, the issue arises in noting that the Belize Zoo no longer has the capacity to save anymore wild jaguars, yet cannot replenish the wild population with the
jaguars they take in and rehabilitate. Greater outsourcing of funding for this program may allow for the Belize Zoo to expand its efforts in the protection of problem jaguars.
The current policy needs to take future issues into consideration. It is imperative that Belize officials analyze the long-term consequences of deforestation as the related pressures are only expected to increase (Young 2008). With a population growth rate of 2.7% year and a fertility rate of 4.2 children per woman, the Belizean population will double to 600,000 in only 25 years (The Statistical Institute of Belize 2013). Coupled with an already high deforestation rate, increasing incidence of poverty, and increased demand for forest and marine products, Belize’s ecosystems will face tremendous pressures.
Belize will face a loss of biodiversity as another future issue if the deforestation rates are not addressed properly. Belize plays a key role in the maintenance of forest biodiversity in Central America. It still retains large blocks of forest, though the integrity of these areas is increasingly threatened by advancing agriculture, the establishment of new settlements, illegal logging and transboundary incursions. As a country, Belize is heavily dependent on its natural resources and the environmental services they provide – these are critical to the well-being of Belize’s people and to the health of well-being of the nation’s economy (Fifth National Report to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity: Belize 2014). The loss of vegetation, as a result of deforestation, will lead to poor water security, instability of steep slope soils, poor soil filtration, and a decline in the economy.
Deforestation can have numerous environment consequences from the local to global scales including: land degradation, water shortages, and climate change. Land degradation is the long-term loss of ecosystem function and services, caused by disturbances from which the system cannot recover unaided. Immediately following deforestation, land is exposed to higher rates of water and wind erosion. Erosion directly threatens agricultural production, much of what Belizeans rely on as a livelihood, by removing about 1% of topsoil annually (Patterson 2014). This process alters oils structure and reduces soil quality, ultimately leading to the loss of soil organic carbon, which plays a vital role in maintain soil structure, preservation of the eater holding capacity, and slowing the rate of erosion.
Overuse and contamination of water resources are two major environmental impacts that relate to deforestation and agricultural intensification. Overuse of agrochemicals pollutes
groundwater, causes the eutrophication of waterways due to phosphorus run-off, and it creates dead zones in marine ecosystems. Forests mitigate these impacts by acting as a natural buffer to protect waterways from environmentally damaging run-off. When deforestation and agricultural intensification occur concurrently, their impacts can destabilize agricultural production by polluting local freshwater resources
Deforestation is a catalyst for climate change. As a country faced with increasing climate change impacts, ecosystem integrity is critical in the mitigation of catastrophic damages resulting from increasing drought and flood events, and increasingly strong tropical storms (Fifth National Report to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity: Belize 2014). When forests are cleared through burning, greenhouse gases that are sequestered in their biomass are released into the atmosphere, and this process contributes to global warming. Clear cutting forest by burning for agricultural land is estimated to contribute as much as 20 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions (Patterson 2014). Despite the importance of forest cover for resilience to climate change, and the recent recognition of this in national policies and goals, national investment into maintenance of Belize forests has been decreasing year by year.
One recommendation would be to increase forest law enforcement through active monitoring. A stronger law presence is needed on the ground to establish criminal and administrative sanctions for behavior and activities that harm the environment, including crimes against the flora and subsequently, fauna. Forest law enforcement is based on acts and norms that regulate the conditions under which deforestation and other forest-activities can occur, in private and public lands (Tacconi et. al 2018). Illegal deforestation could be tackled through exercising the power of environmental police and carrying out actions related to environment monitoring, control, and law enforcement. Field-based inspections based on remote sensing systems in the Amazon have reduced deforestation by 14% per year on average in Brazil (Tacconi et. al 2018). Enhanced monitoring and stricter law enforcement creates the dissuasion effect – the perception of greater risks of getting caught and any punishable environmental offences that follow. An increase in demand for forest monitoring would increase the number of jobs available to Belizeans. This would in turn boost Belize’s economy and subsequently improve the lives of the individuals.
Replacing slash-and-burn agriculture with sustainable agriculture practices is another recommendation. To be effective, sustainable agriculture must include a concept of stewardship. This requires high commitment from the government and its citizens. Long-term consequences of traditional methods need to be addressed first. Farmers need to be educated on how to pursue sustainable agriculture practices. There needs to be a high development and implementation of innovative and appropriate farming practices.
Both of these solutions mentioned above work in favor of the next and final recommendation: improve socio-economic conditions. Recognizing that poor socio-economic conditions are drivers of environmental degradation is crucial to the success of this recommendation. Any successful conservation initiative involving local people must first be cognizant of these factors and attempt to empower people by providing them with the necessary skills, education, and resources required to improve their conditions. Unless the socio-economic conditions are improved, conservation will never be a priority in the lives of poor local people. In many instances, cultural lifestyles of local people may conflict with conservation objectives; in these cases, amicable solutions must be found that provide viable livelihood alternatives to those individuals and/or communities. Once conservation initiatives can replace the opportunity costs forgone by local people in adopting conservation objectives, a sustainable relationship can be fostered.
The benefits from conservation to the local people can be enhanced substantially if women are involved more in conservation. When women obtain economic benefits from conservation, these benefits trickle down to the family, thereby increasing the number of individuals benefiting. The Community Baboon Sanctuary Women’s Conservation Group (CBSWCG) is a testament that women are capable conservation managers and deserve to be included in the decision-making process. The CBSWCG is the managing organization of the Community Baboon Sanctuary. Comprised of a seven member women executive committee, the CBSWCG is representative of the seven communities that make up the Community Baboon Sanctuary village. Since the establishment of the sanctuary, this women-led team has not only been able to support one of the healthiest Black Howler Monkey populations, but has also successfully executed a sustainable land management plan that provides a myriad of environmental, economic, and social benefits.
Low socioeconomic status also correlates with lower educational achievement. To improve socioeconomic conditions, a valuable emphasis needs to be placed on the importance of education and its benefits. Inadequate education and increased dropout rates affect children’s academic achievement, perpetuating the low socioeconomic status of the community (Aikens & Barbarin, 2008). Improving school systems and early intervention programs, as well as making an education more accessible and attainable, may help to reduce some of these risk factors as and assure that there are visible and tangible benefits to pursuing education.
Education is also important in implementing sustainable agriculture practices. Alternatives that ask farmers to abandon their current farming practices without providing an education regarding how to sustainably farm will not be effective. Some previously studied methods include conservation tillage, composting, and organic fertilizer (Kassie et. al 2009). In a previous study conducted in Ethiopia, [Kassie et. al 2009] found that public policy can affect adoption of sustainable agriculture; specifically, the significant and positive impact of access to information indicates that public policies aimed at improving access to information will help promote adoption of sustainable agriculture practices.
Problems with Implementation:
An encompassing issue of these solutions is a theme for any developing country: a lack of education and resources. Education in research and management, and the resources to do so are important ingredients to the success of the previous mentioned solutions. Despite this, education in Belize is often too expensive for families to afford and often inadequate. Even when tuition is free, there are often expenses for lunch, uniforms, and examination fees. Due to the often poor quality of education, parents are forced to pay for additional tutoring to enable their children to pass tests. Opportunity costs may be even larger; while children are in school, they forgo opportunities to produce income working on the family farm or selling in the marketplace (Epstein et. al 2012). When education investments do not result in adequate learning, or even basic literacy and numeracy, parents do not keep their children in school.
To implement sustainable agriculture practices in Belize is to ask those citizens to completely transform their livelihood and give up their current stability. This type of change does not normally go over well with the public. Those involved with slash-and-burn agriculture usually lack awareness of the true implications of their actions because they dually lack the education and resources (Fifth National Report to the United Nations Convention on Biological
Diversity: Belize 2014). These families will not be likely to change their current practice without an incentive. An incentive based intervention to combat this lack of willingness would be to offer certification of organic/sustainable agriculture farms, including livestock. However, a compromise would be to offer half-day schooling or periodic specialized seminars to the public. This would allow individuals to gain the education they need to contribute to sustainable living without sacrificing too much of their daily tasks.
The above suggested solutions can also be initially costly. Since the lack of financial resources continues to be one of the biggest impediments to effective management of Belize’s natural resources, the government would need to allocate the necessary financial resources to allow better management and enforcement of Belize’s forest regulations in addition to improving the human capacity to better manage the protected-areas network of Belize. A possible solution to this would involve setting aside a percentage of the oil revenues for conservation to ameliorate the lack of funding for conservation. Revenues taken from the depletion of one resource can be used to fund the above mentioned recommendations. International and local NGOs also have a role to play by contributing their expertise and financial resources to improve the protected areas system as a whole.
Natural resources are a common public good and should be managed as such to ensure that these resources remain for the well-being of future generations. Implementing solutions to the broader issue of deforestation in Belize will spill over to improve the tangent issue of at risk jaguars. This can be done through increased active forest law enforcement, replacement of slash- and-burn agriculture for sustainable agriculture practices, and the improvement of the overall socio-economic conditions of the citizens of Belize. These policy recommendations can work hand in hand with each other. The implementation of one recommendation may be able to kick start the implementation of another recommended policy, and vice versa; making for a relatively seamless transition from dangerous deforestation rates to a maintained forests and a protected jaguar population.
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