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Closer look: Conserving the Maya Golden Landscape

Written by: Ginny Fuhs
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From the ridges of the Maya Mountain Massif to the fresh waters that eventually reach the Mesoamerican barrier reef ecosystem, Ya’axché Conservation Trust works toward preserving the biodiversity-rich and topographically unique areas in southern Belize.

Started by local Mayan leaders in 1997, and strengthened and supported by FFI since that time, Ya’axché has grown in its remit, its focus areas, and in its impact.

Our approach is to promote the holistic use of the Maya Golden Landscape, protecting the ecological integrity of wildlife corridors, conducting biodiversity research and monitoring to gain information to guide conservation management decisions, and to contribute toward poverty alleviation through promoting environmentally sound livelihoods.

Working with indigenous communities

Ya’axché works with the primarily indigenous communities that buffer the protected areas, providing training and technical support in eco-friendly methods of farming and the use of natural resources, while striving to retain much of the traditional Mayan methods and crops.

For example, the traditional slash and burn method is obsolete for a rapidly expanding population which can no longer pick up and move to newer, fertile lands.  Thus, slash and burn morphs into slash and mulch, to improve the soil, increase crop yields, and decrease the losses that have become an annual event due to “escaped” fires.

Many village elders have noted that shifting weather patterns have made some traditional practices no longer viable.  Without the resources to know how best to cope, even minimal loss is devastating to a population already suffering from a 79% poverty rate.

With assistance from Ya’axché, farmers learn how to make modifications, for example, to plant a more drought-resistant strain of cassava or pineapple or to change the timing of planting corn.

Building local knowledge

Building local knowledge and skills is the key, whether it’s providing agroforestry training for farming families or environmental education in the schools for the next generation.

In 2003, Ya’axché established a Scholarship Program to ensure that under-privileged children from the nearby communities, who otherwise could not complete their education due to financial constraints, would have the opportunity to attend four years of high school.   Sixty-six students have received assistance so far.

Environmental watchdog

Ya’axché is an environmental watchdog, advocating for the improvement, development, and enforcement of national policies that effect the environment throughout Belize.

Recently, the proposed construction of a hydroelectric dam bordering the Mayan community of San Pedro Columbia, the Columbia River Forest Reserve and Bladen Nature Reserve has been a recent focus for Ya’axché.  The affected communities were fully informed of the proposed development, and a damage assessment of unauthorized work and an ecological assessment of the Central River were completed.  This will aid the communities, as well as the Government of Belize, in making informed decisions regarding the possible economic, social, and environmental consequences of the dam.

Opportunity for future generations

Driving along the Southern Highway in Belize, the view of the rainforest is dotted by Mayan villages.  Their homes lack electricity and are small, thatch-roofed structures with dirt floors and a fire hearth for cooking.  At first glance, someone from a developed country might wonder how these poor people with huge families survive with so little.

A closer look and further consideration reveals that they already have what anyone truly needs to survive and to be happy.  However, assistance with adapting to the changing world, especially in using the increasingly limited natural resources, will go a long way toward improving quality of life and ensuring increased opportunity for the future generations.

Written by
Ginny Fuhs

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“Ya’axché Conservation Trust works toward preserving the biodiversity-rich and topographically unique areas in southern Belize.”

Ginny Fuhs

Development Officer Ya’axché Conservation Trust

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