Skip to main content

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. 

Popular posts from this blog

Are you a journalist looking for climate experts? We've got you covered

We've got lots of media trained climate change experts. If you need an expert for an interview, here is a list of Caboteers you can approach. All media enquiries should be made via  Victoria Tagg , our dedicated Media and PR Manager at the University of Bristol. Email victoria.tagg@bristol.ac.uk or call +44 (0)117 428 2489. Climate change / climate emergency / climate science / climate-induced disasters Dr Eunice Lo - expert in changes in extreme weather events such as heatwaves and cold spells , and how these changes translate to negative health outcomes including illnesses and deaths. Follow on Twitter @EuniceLoClimate . Professor Daniela Schmidt - expert in the causes and effects of climate change on marine systems . Dani is also a Lead Author on the IPCC reports. Dani will be at COP26. Dr Katerina Michalides - expert in drylands, drought and desertification and helping East African rural communities to adapt to droughts and future climate change. Follow on Twitter @_k

Urban gardens are crucial food sources for pollinators - here’s what to plant for every season

A bumblebee visits a blooming honeysuckle plant. Sidorova Mariya | Shutterstock Pollinators are struggling to survive in the countryside, where flower-rich meadows, hedges and fields have been replaced by green monocultures , the result of modern industrialised farming. Yet an unlikely refuge could come in the form of city gardens. Research has shown how the havens that urban gardeners create provide plentiful nectar , the energy-rich sugar solution that pollinators harvest from flowers to keep themselves flying. In a city, flying insects like bees, butterflies and hoverflies, can flit from one garden to the next and by doing so ensure they find food whenever they need it. These urban gardens produce some 85% of the nectar found in a city. Countryside nectar supplies, by contrast, have declined by one-third in Britain since the 1930s. Our new research has found that this urban food supply for pollinators is also more diverse and continuous

#CabotNext10 Spotlight on City Futures

In conversation with Dr Katharina Burger, theme lead at the Cabot Institute for the Environment. Dr Katharina Burger Why did you choose to become a theme leader at Cabot Institute ? I applied to become a Theme Leader at Cabot, a voluntary role, to bring together scientists from different faculties to help us jointly develop proposals to address some of the major challenges facing our urban environments. My educational background is in Civil Engineering at Bristol and I am now in the School of Management, I felt that this combination would allow me to build links and communicate across different ways of thinking about socio-technical challenges and systems. In your opinion, what is one of the biggest global challenges associated with your theme? (Feel free to name others if there is more than one) The biggest challenge is to evolve environmentally sustainable, resilient, socially inclusive, safe and violence-free and economically productive cities. The following areas are part of this c