Main | My Writing Life Part III - How I Came Into E-Publishing »
Wednesday
Nov062013

Chiquibul Needs You and Me

I first met Rafael Manzanero on a trek across the Devil’s Backbone in the Chiquibul Forest.  He’s Executive Director of Belize’s Friends for Conservation & Development, which has responsibility for the Chiquibul National Park, an area of more than 284,000 acres of tropical broadleaf forest, which Rafael and his team at FCD manage with single-minded dedication.  I met Rafael again a week ago in England, at London University’s Institute of the Americas, where he was explaining why the Chiquibul Forest needs our help.  

The Chiquibul Forest is part of the second largest rainforest in the world - the massive mesoamerican corridor.  Over the last few years, nearly half a million acres of that corridor has been lost to poaching, logging and farming activities, and in Chiquibul most of that emanates from across the border in neighbouring Guatemala.

I saw this for myself when I visited Belize back in 2008. On the border with Guatemala, I stood on a hilltop and saw a line running through the jungle, trees on one side, scrubland on the other. The trees were on the Belizean side, my guide told me. They were part of Chiquibul, but the scrubland was in Guatemala. ‘If you return in a year,’ he said, ‘the mahoganies, palms and ceibas that surround us now will all be gone and that scrubland will be here.’ 

Last week at the annual conference of the UK-Belize Association, Rafael Manzanero told a room full of academics, politicians and friends of Belize that conditions out in Chiquibul were critical.  Scarlet macaws were down to their last hundred breeding pairs, victims of the pet trade.  If poachers couldn’t get at their nests, said Rafael, they would remove whole trees.  Gold-panning was on the up in the region, as was drug trafficking.  The forest floor was being stripped of xate, much prized in the floristry industry. Mayan sites, including Caracol - one of the finest Mayan city sites in Central America - were being plundered.  The forest was yielding up everything from jaguars to firewood, seized by armed xatero gangs who came over the border from Guatemala and helped themselves.

Deep in the forest, in an area it would take the Belizean authorities days to reach, people from at least a dozen communities were moving in, extracting the resources illegally.  Drug trafficking was on the up, with drug cartels moving their operations to the Guatemalan border, utilizing Belize’s jungle cover to their own ends.  Farmers were taking over where the loggers left off, growing pumpkins in place of trees, as well as black beans and corn. In some cases they were even claiming they’d always lived on that land - that it belonged to Guatemala, not Belize.  

What’s happening in Chiquibul is territorial incursion by stealth. For years there have been disputes between tiny Belize and its massive neighbour, Guatemala, over the very existence of Belize, which stands in the way of Guatemala’s ambitions for a Caribbean coastline.  With over fourteen million people, Guatemala has a population some forty-two times larger than Belize.  A country that denies its neighbour’s right to exist is hardly likely to support its complaints about borders being breached.  The UK isn’t helping either, more interested in friendship with the richer and more powerful Guatemala, than speaking up in defence of the Belizean rainforest.

It’s entirely to Belize’s credit that it cares so much about conserving its natural resources. Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world and, beneath Chiquibul, the Chiquibul Cave System contains the largest cavern known in the Western Hemisphere. Rafael describes Chiquibul as a spiritual place and it’s not hard to understand why. 

Below is a photograph of my first camp on my first night in Chiquibul. I was in Belize courtesy of an Arts Council grant, researching gap year volunteering. Exploring didn’t come naturally to me, rather I’d found myself driven half way across the world in pursuit of a story.  That first night I fully expected to lay awake, tossing and turning, uncomfortable in my hammock, in dread of what the jungle had in store for me. Yet the exact opposite turned out to be the case. Despite my exhaustion, I struggled not to sleep. Surrounded by the mighty trees of Chiquibul, sleep would have felt like sacrilege.

I’ll never forget the full moon shining into that clearing, or the diamonds of light all around me in the trees, every one a set of eyes, or the sound of howler monkeys in the distance, growing closer, finally calling to each other in the branches above my head.  Then, next day, I’ll never forget swimming in a crystal river as still as glass, while butterflies and brightly coloured birds flitted around me. Once you’ve trekked into a region where few people ever go and seen the rainforest in all its glory, your perspective on what matters in life can’t help but be changed.  

According to Rafael, if all the xatero gangs were rounded up, there wouldn’t be enough space to jail them. Besides, many gang members were little more than children.  How to deal with a problem like that, especially when it’s poverty and desperation that in many cases are driving Guatemalans into the jungle? 

Back in 2008, a group of young British volunteers, many straight from school, trekked into Chiquibul, built themselves a camp and set to work in remote and difficult conditions to build a conservation post, creating a ranger presence to help keep Chiquibul intact. At the same time, a second group trekked along Chiquibul’s boundary with Guatemala, cutting a path to mark the edge of the Chiquibul National Park. In 2010, ‘In The Trees’, my novel about that project, written for the young adult market, was published by Faber & Faber and I set off around the UK, talking about my experiences in Belize and what was going on in Chiquibul in schools and libraries and at book festivals.  

Now, with the news that conditions in Chiquibul are worsening, I’m preparing to go out again on the speaking circuit. According to Rafael, Chiquibul needs more conservation posts. It needs more boots on the ground. It needs the support of its friends - and it needs to make new friends. 

‘The good news,’ said Rafael, ‘is that Chiquibul is a vibrant forest. Based on all we know, and all we feel, and all that we believe, it does have a future. Chiquibul is a gift from God to cherish.’

And cherish is what I intend to do.

If you know any group, school or organization that would be interested in hearing my talk about the people and rainforests of Belize, here’s my address. I’ll be taking bookings from the New Year onwards:   paulinefiskauthor@gmail.com.

If you’d like to join FCD, and receive its newsletter, click the link. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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