‘Teeming with biodiversity’: green groups buy Belize forest to protect it ‘in perpetuity’

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“These logs are historic,” says Elma Kay, standing in Belize Maya Forest, where she has been doing an inventory of felled trees. “These are the last logs that were cut here, for mahogany and other hardwoods, left behind by the previous logging company.”

Trees will no longer be cut down in this 950 sq km (236,000-acre) area, after the land was bought by a coalition of conservation organisations to save one of the world’s last pristine rainforests from deforestation. “The forest will now be protected in perpetuity,” says Kay.

The news is timed to coincide with Earth Day, the annual event established in 1970 to mobilise action on environmental issues.

The newly named Belize Maya Forest is part of 150,000 sq km (38m acres) of tropical forest across Mexico, Belize and Guatemala known as the 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.

“The minute you start driving through the forest, it’s teeming with biodiversity,” says Kay, one of the directors of the locally run Belize Maya Forest Trust. “I can’t tell you how many ocellated turkeys we saw on the drive in – more than 50. For Belizeans, this forest means we get to safeguard our biodiversity – from iconic jaguars to critically endangered Central American river turtles to endangered tapirs – which is the lifeblood of our economy and our cultural heritage.”

Combined with the adjacent Rio Bravo Reserve, Belize Maya Forest creates a protected area that covers 9% of Belize’s landmass, a critical “puzzle piece” in the Selva Maya forest region, helping secure a vital wildlife corridor across northern Guatemala, southern Mexico and Belize.

Protecting large areas of pristine rainforests will help mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis. “Forests like these hold vast amounts of carbon,” says Julie Robinson, Belize programme director for the Nature Conservancy, one of the partners behind the acquisition. “We’re at a tipping point, so it’s really important to try to reverse the trend we’re on.”

The area was owned by the Forestland Group, a US company that had permits for sustainable logging. When it came up for sale, the Nature Conservancy and others, including World Land Trust, University of Belize Environmental Research Institute and Wildlife Conservation Society, saw an opportunity to buy the land.

“If it wasn’t bought for conservation, the most likely buyers would be for large-scale, industrial, mechanised, monocrop agriculture,” Kay says. “That’s the threat to forests in Belize, especially central Belize, the country’s agricultural belt. What we saved this land from is full-scale deforestation and conversion.”

An ocelot

Since 2011, the Maya Forest corridor, which connects Belize’s Maya mountains and the northern Maya lowland forests shared by Belize, Mexico and Guatemala, has faced high rates of deforestation, driven by land clearances for industrial-scale agriculture. “For decades, the Belize government, Belizeans and conservation organisations wanted to see this area protected,” says Robinson.

Despite the name, Mayans, whose civilisation once stretched across Belize, Guatemala and parts of Mexico, have not lived in the area 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 has happened elsewhere in Latin America, but the private land was closed off. “At the time of the Forestland Group’s purchase, there were no people living on the property,” says Robinson. “However, there are local communities all around the property. They didn’t have access to the land.”

“There are archaeological sites on the property that date back to AD800,” Robinson adds. “There are also more than 25 cenotes [fresh water sinkholes], the sacred pools of Cara Blanca, which hold incredible Mayan treasures. Very few Belizeans have ever been to these areas. Those cenotes were also being threatened by agriculture. Culturally, it’s important to preserve those elements to reconnect Mayan communities to sacred sites, and also find ways of generating income through them for the communities and the country.”

Now the land has been acquired, Kay is leading the Belize Maya Forest Trust’s consultation process with local communities. Collaborative plans are likely to include low-impact eco-tourism. There may also be some sustainable agriculture, as well as scientific research. The only thing not on the table is the extraction of natural resources, such as timber.

“What surrounds Belize Maya Forest is a multi-ethnic society, including people like me, of mixed Mayan and European descent, and people from neighbouring Central American countries, German Mennonites,” says Kay. “We’re engaging all the different communities to participate in a conservation action plan. Most livelihoods are based on agriculture. One objective will be making agricultural livelihoods more sustainable, so there will be more climate-smart agriculture, agroforestry systems, systems that are restorative for soils.

“We recognise people need to make a livelihood, but it’s about doing that with values that protect the Maya Forest and safeguard it for all Belizeans.”

As the world’s climate and biodiversity crises worsen, philanthropic buying of land for protection could become more common. “It’s absolutely the way forward,” argues Robinson. “But it’s important to do it in collaboration with communities. It can’t be that we just buy a property, lock it up and say ‘this is now protected’. That’s not going to work.”

White-lipped peccaries

Belize has launched several initiatives in recent years to protect its natural resources. In 2018, oil drilling off its coast was banned to safeguard marine environments and the lucrative diving industry. Nearly 40% of the country’s land mass is also under some form of protection. “Belizeans have an incredible connection to nature,” says Robinson. “We refer to our country as the ‘jewel’.”

But the government’s environmental policies are also pragmatic, based on the value nature brings, from food and water supplies to tourism, one of the country’s largest generators of income. “People realise we need to have biodiversity and nature, but we need to use it in a sustainable way,” says Robinson. “Development is absolutely important. Belizeans support development and agriculture, but in a way that is in balance with nature.”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

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