Golden opportunities in the jewel of Belize

The Central American country of Belize packs a big punch for its size. Despite being less than 23,000 km2, it holds a globally significant diversity of plants and animals. This is partly due to almost 60% of the country being forested – an unusual trait for this region.

The Maya Golden Landscape in Toledo District, southern Belize, forms one of Central America’s last unbroken stretches of broadleaf forest. The forests extend all the way from the Maya Mountains in the west to the Caribbean Sea, forming a key link in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.

The area hosts one of the world’s richest assemblages of biodiversity, with species as varied as the harpy eagle, Baird’s tapir, jaguar, howler monkey and scarlet macaw all found in this critical habitat along with a number of species found nowhere else on Earth, including the Maya Mountains frog and the Maya knobtail dragonfly.

The forests also play a crucial role in watershed protection. They preserve the quality of the water draining onto the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef and provide water for local communities and large agricultural areas on the coastal plain.

Offshore, the startlingly turquoise waters support a great diversity of marine life from dolphins, whales and colourful tropical reef fishes to a number of shark and ray species. Belize is home to the world’s second-largest barrier reef and its fisheries play a vital role in supporting local livelihoods for people living along the coastline.

Belize’s natural environment is coming under increasing pressure, however, with the expansion of commercial citrus and banana farms and inappropriate agricultural practices, such as burning, posing a particular threat to the Maya Golden Landscape. Wildlife hunting and extraction of timber and xaté (a type of palm used in the floral industry) are also endangering the area’s plant and animal diversity.

Meanwhile, overfishing and destructive fishing practices, coupled with unsustainable coastal developments, are also threatening Belize’s marine environment.

Belize facts
Country in Americas & Caribbean

Size (land & water):

22,966 km²

Population (2016 est.):

353,858

GDP per capita (2016 est.):

US$8,200

Belize is in Central America, and is bordered by Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean Sea.

60%

of Belize is covered in forest.

300 km

The length of the Belize Barrier Reef System, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Our work to protect Belize’s biodiversity

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) began working in southern Belize in 1997, when entrepreneurs and Maya community leaders from the southern district of Toledo raised the alarm about a 6,000-hectare area of broadleaf forest facing conversion to citrus plantations and shrimp farms. FFI immediately recognised the significance of this area as a biological corridor connecting the forest-clad Maya Mountains with the Belizean coast, and we identified with the Maya leaders’ vision for conserving the forest for future generations.

With finance from Halcyon Land & Sea and the Grass Valley Trust, FFI was able to secure the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve and transfer ownership to the nascent grassroots organisation. And so Ya’axché Conservation Trust was born.

Over the last 20 years, FFI has supported Ya’axché as a close institutional partner, providing reliable and adaptive support and responding to Ya’axché’s needs as well as the emergence of new conservation challenges. We have worked together to secure and implement project grants, but have also helped Ya’axché to improve its internal systems, planning and governance, helping it grow and become a strong, well-regarded organisation.

From its origin as a small group of people who saw conservation as a priority, Ya’axché now has a staff of 30 people, with specialists in social development and conservation biology, a team of rangers recruited from the local community, and a number of qualified volunteers filling key positions within the organisation. It has a growing network of national and international alliances, while maintaining its well-established connections and resonance with the Mayan community.

Our work with Ya’axché continues to this day, and is an enduring example of the success of strong local partnerships.