Written By: Andrea Polanco
Almost one hundred years ago, in 1928, the Half Moon Caye Natural Monument (HMCNM) was declared a Crown Reserve because of its large nesting colonies of Red-footed Booby birds. Then in 1982, HMCNM became the first protected area in Belize under the National Park Systems Act. That same year, it also became the first marine protected area in the Central American region. The site is co-managed by the Belize Audubon Society (BAS). The HMCNM is protected with a strict “no take” policy, which helps it to serve as a nursery for commercial fish species and home to endangered species like the Hawksbill turtle and the Nassau grouper.
The Executive Director of BAS, Amanda Burgos-Acosta, notes, “The two Natural Monuments-Blue Hole and Half Moon Caye are in essence the “replenishment areas” or the “no harvest areas” within the Lighthouse Reef Atoll. The site has additional protection as a World Heritage Site, a site of Outstanding Universal Value. No development or change in the footprint can occur with this status.”
Researchers and conservationists have seen biologically important species, as well as commercial catch, thrive. And it’s that protection and strong conservation management practices that have tremendously served the site and its beneficiaries. “Science is being used in outreach. Fisherfolk are being informed,” as Burgos-Acosta adds, “Protection of the site and good enforcement assures fishers that when the season closes for high value products such as lobster and conch, they can “trust” that the resource is secure.” But even with patrols and other costly management measures, fish and other marine products are being removed from the sea at exceedingly high rates laments Burgos-Acosta, “overfishing is a real threat and constant education and staff is required to curb this.”
In 2019, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned that ecosystems were deteriorating at alarming rates, with climate change the third biggest driver of animal and plant decline, only after land and sea use change and the over exploitation of resources. But because the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 failed to curb the overwhelming decline in biodiversity, there is a race globally to protect more marine and terrestrial areas because of their importance to the survival and well-being of humans, plant and animal life. A new proposal called the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework sets out an ambitious vision that, “By 2050, biodiversity is valued, conserved, restored and wisely used, maintaining ecosystem services, sustaining a healthy planet and delivering benefits essential for all people.”
This new plan includes twenty targets and their implementation of long-term, measurable impact on plant and animal species for the next thirty years. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in one of its targets, proposed protection for thirty percent of land and seas to reverse the biodiversity crisis. This is an expansion on the Aichi Target 11 of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, which initially called for seventeen percent protection. Belize has exceeded that thirty percent for both marine and terrestrial areas, an accomplishment acknowledged by the director of the newly established National Biodiversity Office in Belize.
“As it relates to marine, we can say that Belize possesses twenty-one point seven percent of the marine component under protection and ten percent is what we consider no-take or replenishment zones. On the terrestrial front Belize maintains approximately thirty-six percent protected, and these refer to sites currently recognized formally within the system. We are working to incorporate within the immediate future sites which are under conservation practices into the Protected areas system. If we were to sum this up, one can confidently state that Belize is at approximately sixty percent, which corresponds to the global cumulative targets for Marine and terrestrial protection,” explains Hannah St.Luce-Martinez, Director of the National Biodiversity Office.
The post 2020 framework calls for one third of that thirty-percent protected status to be covered by “strict protection” categories, which means it restricts the extraction of resources and uses. This, again, is already in place for Belize, St. Luce-Martinez says, “If you look at the marine realm there is twenty percent considered conservation area which is an area where there is a regulated extraction of marine produce, but also there is a ten percent area which is classified as no-take or replenishment zones, which can be classified at the global level as a stricter layer to protected areas management.”
St. Luce-Martinez also highlights that Belize, with sixty percent of its forest cover fairly intact across the national territory, has achieved a similar achievement for its terrestrial areas only. “Even while working within the Pre-2020 Framework, Belize had already surpassed this threshold for terrestrial protected areas; having approximately forty percent of our national territory under protection. But even beyond that, we have approximately sixty percent of our national territory under forest cover.”
While the figure for the strict protective status is clear for marine areas, St. Luce-Martinez admits that the management and protection of the percentage of strict terrestrial coverage is not where it should be, “We have not to date assessed and quantified the effectiveness of this stricter management category at the terrestrial level. We have areas which fall under strict protective strata such as nature reserves; nature reserves in Belize are the strictest classification of strictly protected status even to protected area within the protected area network; for example, the Bladen Nature Reserve in the southern part of Belize is one of those areas that falls under a very strict category of protection, within this area only research development is permitted – strict protection of habitat and species. There are other areas of strict protection such as the Burdon Canal Nature Reserve which are in need of management intervention similar to those implemented within the marine realm”
“So, we can say that at the global level and even at the regional level Belize is looked upon favorably for having surpassed global expectations relating to protected areas establishment,” St. Luce-Martinez acknowledges, “because while many countries must now focus on the protection of thirty percent of their marine and terrestrial areas, Belize has already achieved that.“
But today terrestrial bodies, like marine ecosystems, are under sustained attack. Population growth and expansion of urban areas have placed increased pressures on resources, for food, infrastructure, and land use and other economic activities. These things, have undoubtedly, significantly impacted biodiversity.
Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD) echoes this reality, illustrating how the illicit overuse and extraction of resources pose serious threats to the largest protected area in Belize. As the co-managers for the Chiquibul National Park, FCD’s Executive Director Raphael Manzanero says cross border, human impacts place many pressures on this natural environment, “We know for sure that biodiversity is being affected, [with many threats we face originating] from Guatemala. Our management plan normally relates to some eleven environmental threats.”
Illegal logging, agricultural expansion, illicit wildlife trafficking and extraction of precious materials are only some of the incursions recorded inside the Chiquibul Forest. Back in 2011, the FCD recorded sixty million dollars in losses of illegal hardwood extraction. The Xate plant was almost wiped out of the Chiquibul Forest due to illegal harvesting. And almost ten years later, Manzanero admits that despite interventions, the plundering of wildlife continues, “last year we documented more than twenty-five and probably more than fifty parrots that were stolen from Belize, from the Chiquibul, in terms of Scarlet Macaws. Now, how do you put a figure to that?”
“I know for sure that other endangered parrots are being targeted, but we don’t have the concise, concrete information with us. I feel that we have lost lots more in terms of biodiversity but we don’t know,” shares Manzanero. And St. Luce-Martinez admits that Belize needs to step up its efforts to document and quantify its biodiversity, “There is still the need to increase enforcement. We are still very much behind in terms of data on species population, data on species distribution and species health. We are still behind in the establishment of regulations and guidelines for the sustainable use and monitoring of many of our species and natural resources.”
Threats to Belize’s physical environment such as habitat destruction, large scale tourism development, agricultural expansion and other unplanned commercial projects continue to be a problem. Pollution, overconsumption of resources, burning of fossil fuels and deforestation are also concerns. These man-made activities help to worsen climate change, poor air quality and soil erosion – triggering ocean warming, severe droughts and bigger, more frequent storms.
According to a UN report published in May, this footprint could signal devastation for the globe. The report found that human activity, if left unabated, could wipe out up to one million land and marine species, highlighting the need for urgent actions and interventions as this crisis looms. It’s a never before seen devastation that serves as a warning to CARICOM nations, including Belize, where some of the world’s top biodiversity hotspots are located.
The Government of Belize has conventionally delegated conservation site management authority to local NGOs who co-manage national lands. Three years ago, the FCD’s management effectiveness assessment showed that they have done a fair job but that more work needed to be done. Similarly, the Belize Audubon Society scored a B+ and for them to get the site to optimum would require significant amount of investments. As these managers know, massive and costly efforts are needed to manage these sites and moving forward the need for diversification in funding and increased cross collaboration are critical to their success.
FCD’s Manzanero maintains, “The stuff happening in Chiquibul goes beyond one single institution, so FCD can only do so much. Even though we go to the media very often, don’t expect that it will be on a high point on the agenda for the government – it will not [be]! What is required truly is for it to be made a part of a critical agenda point at the government level – that is important. We have some regulatory agencies, like the B.D.F is there with us, but that is not enough!”
And now, more than ever, resources are stretched thin because of COVID-19, as Burgos-Acosta of the BAS reveals, “COVID 19 has provided new challenges in 2020. Funding has become an issue with a lack of tourism. HMC is funded from tourism activities/entrance fees; hence funding is a struggle. Fisherfolk have now seen the need for alternative livelihood asking for support when we have no donor funds allocated at this moment.”
Tourism, which accounts for about forty-five percent of G.D.P, fisheries, forestry, and agriculture are all directly tied to the health and performance of natural resources. Because Belize is dependent on the productivity of this handful of industries it shows how invaluable our nature based resources are, Manzanero adds, “When we look at the Chiquibul Forest it is seven point seven percent of Belize. It is the largest water reserve where maybe forty-percent of Belize depends on that water.” The Statistical Institute of Belize’s (SIB) External Trade Bulletin shows that Belize earned over forty million dollars in exports of nature-based goods and services for the month of April 2020, with marine products, for example, accounting for $1.2 million dollars.
Belize, like the rest of world, use these resources every day and for that reason the Convention calls for countries to take drastic measures to protect natural assets through regulated, inclusive ways so that local people can still benefit. St. Luce-Martinez outlines how Belize prioritized seven Pre-2020 National Biodiversity Framework targets to effect this much needed change.
“One of the main targets prioritized at the national level in 2018 relates to key ecosystem services sustainably managed and resilient to threats. Two, is that biodiversity goals and objectives are prioritized via the establishment of formerly recognized structures to safeguard the implementation of our biodiversity’s strategies and action plan. Other targets include reduction in incursions and to improve the integrity of ecosystems, as well as accurate and current data on Belize’s natural resources and environmental services inform relevant national development decisions.”
In line with partner agencies, BAS and FCD, St. Luce reiterates the need for funding and improved collaboration, “One of our priorities within the National Biodiversity Office is to improve resource mobilization and to improve allocation of funds towards areas of greater impact at the national level and the other is to establish cross-sectoral coordination mechanism, this is a way of addressing the threats to protected areas and drivers of biodiversity loss.”
But in order to achieve all these things, St. Luce-Martinez says that the management and inter-sectoral coordination and collaboration remain critical, “Honestly, there is need to do more in terms of cross-sectoral coordination, especially recognizing the drivers of biodiversity loss at the national level…we need to ensure that there is a balance between all of those sustainable development pillars and environmental management… because to not safeguard these resources is to actually reduce our economic, social and economic resilience.”
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Photo Credit: Belize Audubon Society