Belize – the jewel in Central America’s crown

In the words of Kate Morton, who along with husband Ian, hosted us at their tranquil and beautiful forest getaway in Punta Gorda, ‘Belize should be laughing’.

This jewel, tucked in a corner of Central America, has a population below 350,000, the lowest population density in the region, over 60% of its forests standing, a comprehensive network of protected areas and a stunning barrier reef running down the entire coastline of the country; the longest reef in the western hemisphere.

Visiting Belize in a professional capacity is very different to visiting as a tourist. When I came a few years ago as a tourist, I saw the stunning coral reefs and marine life at Shark Ray Alley, coupled with the Protected Areas Conservation Tax that departing travellers are obliged to pay and thought that all boxes were ticked in terms of successful conservation. Of course I was being naive and the reality is that Belize faces many of the same problems as larger and more populous countries the world over.

The Belizean Forestry Department cannot fully direct environmental protection activities without help from non-governmental bodies. In the southern district of Toledo, a huge, sparsely populated area spanning the Maya Mountains and therefore a crucial location for protection of Belize’s watersheds and forest resources, there are only two forestry officials and no field rangers. The government has wisely forged relationships with some of Belize’s leading environmental NGOs, who take the operational and financial responsibility for managing areas of high conservation value and implementing conservation activities in some of the country’s most pristine locations.

Perhaps because of the reliance the country has on its marine resources for tourism and the fishing industry, the Fisheries Department receives greater government investment. NGOs speak highly of the Fisheries Department’s involvement in conservation initiatives and its scientific approach to site monitoring and regulation.

The Belizean government has commissioned a review of the country’s protected area system, which is very well timed. The evaluation will recommend co-management agreements between government departments and NGOs are strengthened. This is absolutely essential to build on the strong foundations built to date–NGOs face a constant struggle for core operational funds, and any failures in fundraising could effectively leave several terrestrial areas vulnerable to rapid and devastating exploitation. This would be a real tragedy where many of these sites are sure to contain undiscovered species, and where what happens upstream can seriously impact the reef downstream, and the tourism and fishing economies that are based on the life that is found here.

Another issue the review must address is the grey area between sites overseen by different government departments. Recently on Pelican Caye, one of the seven sites that comprise the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System World Heritage site, half the island’s mangroves were removed by a developer because the terrestrial part of the island falls under the jurisdiction of neither Fisheries nor Forestry.

These management challenges are similar to those felt by governments all over the world, who must constantly balance the need to invest in social infrastructure for growing populations and in economic development with protection of natural resources. As Belize has so much going for it in terms of environmental riches and strong in-country support for conservation, particularly from the NGO network, it should strive to be an exemplar in terms of conservation management. I feel that the size of the country means that it has a better chance than most of achieving this goal.

The two grants given to Belizean NGOs by the Rapid Response Facility, my reason for visiting Belize, were important and timely interventions to different threats; one a dam-building threat adjacent to Bladen Nature Reserve, and the other a potentially very damaging coastal development at Spanish Point in the north-east of the country. Both illustrate the fact of habitat connectivity very well and lend support to the argument that mountains and reefs, as well as all that falls in between, are intricately linked in Belize.