The nation of Belize, bordered by Guatemala and Mexico to the left and the Caribbean Sea to its right, is a land of rich natural resources and a strong tourism base, particularly for vacationing scuba divers. Recognizing that its lush tropical woodlands constitute a natural treasure and heritage, the Belize government has had to balance the demands of development with conservation and preservation of its forests.
To that end, the Bladen Nature Reserve was established in the northwest portion of the southern district of Toledo, bordering Guatemala. Established in 1990 and now managed by the Ya'ache' Conservation Trust, the reserve consists of 97,000 acres of pristine tropical forest containing a wide diversity in plant and animal life. It is also under siege.
According to Channel5Belize.com, the biodiversity of the Bladen Nature Reserve is being undermined by animal poachers, those who illegally harvest the xate palm, and even legitimate developers who are eying the Central River that runs through the reserve as a potential hydroelectric plant site.
The threats to the Bladen Nature Reserve are a microcosm of what many nature reserves face around the world. Xate, a type of palm popular in floral displays and for Christian religious ceremonies, has been heavily harvested in neighboring Guatemala. So, xate harvesters, known as Xateros, have been routinely crossing the Belize border and stripping the reserve of its xate, setting up harvesting camps - where the palm leaves are hung to dry - and hiding from government officials in caves. In addition, animal poachers enter the reserve to capture many of the reserve's animals for foreign markets, particularly colorfully-plumed birds like macaws and curassows.
As is the case with many developing nations trying to protect their natural resources, the Belize government has limited resources available to patrol and enforce protection of the reserve. According to Channel5Belize, "The expansive acreage is the most protected area in the country yet it remains under constant threat from poachers and developers both in and outside of its confines. For years this territory has been used for illegal hunting and harvesting. Despite joint efforts by conservationists and various government agencies incursion by xateros is unavoidable."
The extent of the illegal harvesting has been taking a toll on the forest overall, and with deforestation comes soil erosion. This produces sediments washed down by rains into the reserve's Monkey River Watershed, which adversely impacts water supplies for many communities all the way out to the Caribbean Sea where excess sediment has been fouling coral reefs in Belize's Barrier Reef - which can, in turn, threaten Belize's diving tourism.
To top it off, the energy demands of a growing populace have developers looking at the reserve as a possible location for a hydroelectric plant along the Central River. The government has granted permission for the developers to conduct research, despite the efforts of others who say it violates the reserve's charter and regulations.
"Why are we granting someone a permit to study it for commercial interest when you're saying that these commercial activities can, in fact, not be allowed in these areas? So what is the long term intent? Is it to de-reserve these areas and allow these commercial developments to happen?" said Lisel Alamilla, Executive Director of the Ya'ache' Conservation Trust.
Efforts are being taken by the Ya'ache' Trust's managers, researchers, and conservationists to present a more detailed "big picture" view of the problem for government officials. Otherwise, little by little, a magnificent and ecologically important piece of Belize's heritage could disappear forever.
Read about threats to the reserve at Channel5 Belize.com.
Read about the Xate palm.