Cabot Institute blog

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Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Sarstoon-Temash National Park, Belize: forest communities and conservation

This is the second blog post from former Environmental Policy MSc student Rachel Simon. During her time at the University Rachel was a member of the Fossil Free Bristol University group. Following the completion of her MSc in 2016 Rachel spent time with an indigenous conservation organisation in Belize, recording voices of land rights activists for the Latin American Bureau’s [http://lab.org.uk/] forthcoming book, Voices of Latin America.

The previous blog post in this series is available here.

Back in the SATIIM office in Punta Gorda, I’m invited on a patrol into the Sarstoon Temash National Park led by Maya and Garifuna community members. These monthly forest patrols are an important way of monitoring illegal logging and poaching. They also gather data on the forest’s rich ecosystems, which spread across over 40,000 acres of broadleaf, wetland and mangrove forest, and ten miles of coast in the Gulf of Honduras, a wetlands designated of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

SATIIM and the Belize Government used to manage the area under a co-management agreement. But when SATIIM took a stance against oil drilling in the park the government terminated their funding and their partnership (see my previous blog post ‘Whose land, whose development?’ http://cabot-institute.blogspot.com.co/2017/01/the-sarstoon-temash-national-park.html)
However SATIIM continues to patrol and monitor the park, providing reports to the government and new funders such as Global Forest Watch [http://www.globalforestwatch.org/] an initiative of the World Resources Institute which works to collect and disseminate data about deforestation.
 
Map of the Sarstoon-Temash National Park and drill site by Amandala Newspaper
So early one morning seven men from the surrounding villages and I set off from the coastal town of Punta Gorda in a speed boat loaded up with three days’ camping equipment and supplies. We pull south round the coast on the glinting waters of the Bay of Honduras, speed past the Garifuna village of Barranco, before pulling into the darker stiller mouth of the Sarstoon River, the border with Guatemala. Tensions between the two countries over the boundary have been high over the years, and Guatemala has been uncooperative over conservation efforts - some SATIIM patrols have even been intercepted and detained by the Guatemalan military. A newish Belize Defence Force (BDF) outpost marks the Belizean side of the Sarstoon, and this has helped to discourage poachers and loggers crossing the river from Guatemala, as well as maintaining Belize’s claim over the area. We pull into the BDF check-point to report our trip. The commander informs us shortly that he can’t do anything to protect us if we stray from the Belizean to the Guatemalan side of the river. With that we start the patrol.
 
Marking sites of deforestation
Cruising the banks of the Sarstoon we count numerous lines and trails cut through the mangroves and forest cover, signs that poachers have come in to hunt, fish, and log hardwoods and comfre palms.
 
Illegal logging of Santa Teresa and Sapodilla hardwoods
On this patrol SATIIM are piloting a new tablet and app provided by Global Forest Watch to help them track deforestation more easily. The app is pre-loaded with maps highlighting “threats”: patches of fragmentation or breaks in forest cover identified from satellite imagery using algorithms. The patrol is then able to navigate to these areas using GPS in order to investigate. However on reaching our first “threat”, somewhere inland alongside the bank of the Sarstoon, it’s a pleasant surprise to find undisturbed mangroves and thick forest cover. It seems that the app’s algorithms need a little tweaking, and may be mis-coding some changes in vegetation or colouration as deforestation.

Unfortunately most “threats” are simply too far away to investigate, as trekking through the forest cover is slow and heavy work, and back in the office SATIIM’s Director muses that it might be better to pilot a drone which could zoom over the wetlands and photograph the areas we can’t reach.

On the second day we dock on the bank of the Temash River, in order to survey US Capital Energy’s main drill site, a couple of acres of dust and sand amid the vibrant forest cover. Martin Cus, the leader of the patrol tells me that the numbers of illegal incidents in the forest have increased dramatically after the government granted the company oil exploration contracts. Our 300m crawl from the river bank through mangrove, dense forest swamp and wetland takes 20 minutes - but the major road on the opposite side of the drill site, snaking north out through the forest, means there is now a much easier journey into its heart. Along with the company’s seismic testing lines, this has opened up the forest to more extractive activities, intensifying fragmentation of the forest cover and endangering its ecosystems. The company also ignored warnings about the drill site’s position in a low-lying and swampy area. Containing spills in this wetland would be near impossible, with run-off quickly contaminating the surrounding swamp, mangroves, and rivers out into the Bay of Honduras - as well as impacting the villages upstream which use the rivers as water sources.


US Capital  Energy’s drill site, and road through the forest
Aside from monitoring threats to the forest, we spend a good deal of time using GPS coordinates to note down bird and animal sightings. The boat’s captain Roberto seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of bird species, but SATIIM is looking for scientists and data gatherers to carry out a more comprehensive review of the park, to help them evidence the value of its eco-systems.

Forest dependent communities

A week later, staying in the Mayan village of Crique Sarco, I’m able to learn more about the communities’ dependency on the forest. Many Maya subsist on milpa farming, a form of slash and burn agriculture. The forest is where they get most of their protein, hunting gibnut and other creatures for much of the year, while respecting the animals’ gestation periods. Communities have used the forest sustainably in this area for almost 150 years. Juan Choc, Village Council Leader, explains that the area around US Capital’s drill site used to be rich with animal life, but the company’s construction and working noise drove them away.

 
Juan Choc, Crique Sarco
Making the land more resistant to encroachment and the forest less vulnerable to resource extraction is now a vital project for the survival of these communities’ livelihoods. Juan Choc explains their communal land ownership model which prevents land from being gradually sold off and becoming fragmented, and that the village is now georeferencing their boundary in order to get more solid legal recognition. Land demarcation will offer better protection from outside corporate interests, empower the community, and safeguard the land for the younger generation. 

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