There are big challenges ahead, says new Executive Director of Ya’axché Conservation Trust

Last week, Fauna & Flora International staff in Cambridge had the chance to meet the new Executive Director of Ya’axché Conservation Trust (Ya’axché), Christina Garcia.

With a background in natural resource management and marine biology, Christina brings to the role extensive experience of managing community-based conservation and awareness-raising activities in Belize.

Christina, working with seaweed farmers on a pilot project. Credit: Ya’axché Conservation Trust.

In this short interview, Christina shares her thoughts on the challenges ahead and her hopes for the future:

What is the biggest environmental challenge in Belize today?

I would say that the biggest challenge we face is raising awareness of the issues, and helping people to understand that NGOs want to protect Belize’s resources for the future.

There are two aspects to this. At the national level (and particularly in the cities) we need to help people understand what the threats to Belize’s natural resources are.

At the local level, where people are much more connected to their environment and more aware of the changes that are already happening, we need to work on showing that conservation does not necessarily mean that people need to lose out.

I really think if you are going to take certain things away from people, you have to give back somehow, so a key element of our work continues to be working closely with communities to develop sustainable livelihoods that reduce pressures on the natural environment.

What are the emerging challenges?

One of the biggest environmental issues in Belize is the rise in illegal logging, poaching and other activities. This is particularly severe in Bladen Nature Reserve, which borders Guatemala, where poverty levels are so high that every year we see an increase in the number of people carrying out illegal activities in the reserve.

This is a huge challenge for Ya’axché staff, as these people are often armed and currently there is not enough support from the authorities. We are working to strengthen collaboration between NGOs and the police, military and forestry departments to address this.

What do you think is the most exciting opportunity?

Ya’axché operates in an area known as the Maya Golden Landscape in southern Belize, which is made up of a patchwork of protected areas, private lands and Mayan communities. Ya’axché co-manages Bladen Nature Reserve (which is considered the crown jewel of Belize’s protected areas) and also owns and manages the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve (GSCP) – an important biological corridor that stretches from the Maya Mountains to the coastal mangrove forests of Belize’s southern coast.

At the moment, we are seeing some exciting developments that are likely to bring about important changes to the way Belize’s protected areas are viewed and managed.

Firstly, authorities are looking at the country’s private protected areas, to see whether these should be covered under the Protected Areas Act. If this happens we should see much more support for the great conservation work happening in areas such as GSCP, and it will also give organisations such as Ya’axché a much stronger voice and greater authority.

At the same time, the Protected Areas Conservation Trust (which was established in 1996 to support the funding, management, and sustainable development of Belize’s natural and cultural resources) is undergoing changes that should see more funds going towards NGOs. This will support the financing of critical activities and staff salaries, which in turn will help us to keep our work flowing more consistently.

I believe these developments present a real opportunity to alleviate a lot of the problems that NGOs in Belize face, so it is a really exciting time for us.