River to Reef – exploring the Maya Golden Landscape in Belize

While contemplating the celebration of World Oceans Day on June 8, I thought immediately back to my recent visit to the Maya Golden Landscape in southern Belize. I was fortunate to experience the grandeur of tropical rain forest teeming with life and unparalleled biodiversity. But it was the connection and interplay of this forest environment to the ocean that really captivated my attention. It also impressed on me that as FFI works to expand its global marine initiative we must work to maintain connectivity and ecological linkages between terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

The Maya Golden Landscape, an area that FFI has been working in partnership with Ya’axché for many years, provides a compelling example of an integrated approach to large landscape conservation, encompassing both terrestrial and marine biological diversity. The landscape is unique in Central America as it represents one of the few remaining unbroken stretches of broadleaf forest between the Maya Mountains, down to the forested coastal plains of southern Belize and on to the Caribbean Sea, which feeds the blue waters of the Mesoamerican Reef.

The Mesoamerican Reef, the world’s second largest barrier reef and largest in the Western Hemisphere, has been identified as a globally important marine resource and warrants special conservation attention for its biological diversity. Marine and coastal systems in Belize are also critical to local economies and the region’s sizable tourism industry.

The terrestrial component of the Maya Golden Landscape spans a wide altitudinal gradient comprising a spectacular diversity of habitats, from the karst limestone hills of the Maya Mountains down to the Caribbean Sea. These diverse habitats – which include tropical rainforests, pine savannas, coastal wetlands and mangrove forests – host a globally important assemblage of biodiversity with more than 220 tree species, over 350 birds and more than 45 globally threatened wildlife species including Harpy eagle, Baird’s tapir and jaguar.

Ya’axché and FFI have been working together since 1998 to promote and support biodiversity conservation in southern Belize. “Ya’axché” is the Mayan word for the Ceiba tree which has iconic stature in Mayan culture. It is widely known as the tallest and strongest tree in the forest, and the name also personifies our partner, as we’ve supported Ya’axché’s growth from a nascent grassroots group to a nationally recognized leader in conservation and sustainable development in Belize.

Ya’axché is implementing an integrated management approach to conservation which includes protected areas management (Bladen Nature Reserve and Golden Stream Corridor Preserve); species monitoring and protection; livelihood development in buffer areas through sustainable land-use practices; and working to advance conservation policies at the national level. These strategies address major threats to biodiversity in Maya Golden Landscape: expansion of commercial agriculture; unsustainable agricultural practices such as shifting agriculture and unplanned burning; wildlife hunting; and extraction of timber and xaté (a type of palm used in the floral industry).

There is a strong cultural element to Ya’axché’s work with traditional Mayan communities, as they take into account the rich indigenous culture, Mayan cultural sites, and traditional agricultural practices—many of which have been practiced for thousands of years. Strategies being implemented with local people are benefiting conservation and livelihoods through improved farming systems, agroforestry, cash crops (coffee, cacao), beekeeping, and developing tree nurseries with local farmers.

On my visit, I was fortunate to accompany Dr. Mark Infield and Dr. Arthur Mugisha of FFI’s Cultural Values Program who have been piloting an innovative project in Uganda that integrates cultural values into conservation planning and practices. They were exploring the potential for a similar project with Ya’axché, to integrate local cultural values with conservation practices to strengthen both conservation and social development in Mayan communities in Belize.

In coming full circle back to the ocean, Ya’axché is also partnering with the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) and the government of Belize to address issues affecting the marine environment. TIDE works with local communities to monitor and protect the Port Honduras Marine Protected Area, and the waters that feed the Mesoamerican Reef.

After visiting this beautiful country, I left with a spring in my step and a real sense of optimism – partly due to the strong sense of pride in nature conservation I felt in the Belizean people and by the magnitude of Belize’s natural wealth. With FFI’s approach of supporting strong local partners, I believe we are much better placed to achieve lasting impact for conservation in both terrestrial and marine environments.

In the case of the Maya Golden Landscape and other large conservation landscapes, it is incumbent upon us to ensure the vital ecological linkages from the Rivers all the way to the Reef are protected well into the future. When thinking about the progress already made and the potential of the Maya Golden Landscape, I find myself hopeful for the future of the world’s oceans in 2011 and beyond.