In a third and final blog post from Punta Gorda, Belize, Rachel joins an indigenous community led forest patrol and witnesses the damaging impacts of oil exploration in the Sarstoon Temash National Park. In Crique Sarco, Village Council Leader Mr Choc explains how his community is working to safeguard their land for the future.
Back in the SATIIM office in Punta Gorda, I’m invited on a patrol into the Sarstoon Temash National Park. Led by Maya and Garifuna community members, these monthly forest patrols are used to monitor illegal logging and poaching. They also gather environmental data on the forest’s rich ecosystems, which spread across over 40,000 acres of broadleaf, wetland and mangrove forest, and ten miles of coast in the Gulf of Honduras.
Although I leap at the chance, I learn later that I’m the first woman to take part in one of these patrols. Despite encouragement, women from the villages have so far been reluctant to join in, perhaps put off by the thought of camping and working with men from different communities. Hopefully as the Director of SATIIM tells me, greater participation by women in this and other village governance activities will only be a matter of time and exposure.
So early one morning we set off from Punta Gorda in a speed boat loaded up with three days’ camping equipment and supplies – myself and seven men from the surrounding villages. We pull south round the coast on the glinting waters of the Bay of Honduras, speeding past the Garifuna village of Barranco, and into the calmer, darker mouth of the Sarstoon River, the border with Guatemala. Tensions between the two countries over the boundary have been high over the years, with little cooperation from Guatemala over conservation of the area. Some SATIIM patrols have even been intercepted and detained by the Guatemalan military.
A Belize Defence Force outpost marks the Belizean side, and our patrol leader Martin Cus directs the captain to dock so we can inform them of our presence. After waiting for a boyish guard to do his trainers up and shuffle forward to meet us, we wait another fifteen minutes for his commander to make his way down. The commander informs us shortly that he can’t do anything to protect us if we stray from the Belizean to the Guatemalan side of the river. With that we start the patrol.
Cruising the banks of the Sarstoon we count numerous lines and trails cut through the mangroves and forest cover, signs that poachers have come in to hunt, fish, and log hardwoods and comfre palms. Martin Cus, the leader of the patrol tells me that the numbers of trails and lines increased dramatically after the government granted oil exploration contracts to US based firm US Capital Energy, whose newly built road and seismic testing have given poachers easy entry routes to the forest.
On the second day we dock on the bank of the Temash River, in order to survey US Capital Energy’s main drill site, a couple of acres of dust and sand amid the vibrant forest cover. Our 300m crawl from the river bank through mangrove, dense forest swamp and wetland takes 20 minutes – but the major road on the opposite side of the drill site, snaking north out through the forest, means there is now a much easier journey into its heart. Along with the company’s seismic lines, this has opened up the forest to more extractive activities, intensifying fragmentation of the forest cover and endangering its ecosystems.
Forest dependent communities
A week later, staying in the Mayan village of Crique Sarco, I’m able to learn more about the community’s respect for and dependency on the forest. Many Maya subsist on milpa farming, a form of slash and burn agriculture, farming one area before leaving it to lie fallow and recover. The forest is where they get most of their protein, hunting gibnut and other creatures for much of the year, while respecting the animals’ gestation periods. Juan Choc, Village Council Leader, explains that the area around US Capital’s drill site used to be rich with animal life, but the company’s construction and working noise drove them away. The company also ignored warnings about the drill site’s position in a low-lying and swampy area. Containing spills in this wetland would be impossible. They would quickly devastate the surrounding swamp, running to the mangroves, the rivers, and out into the Bay of Honduras – as well as impacting the villages upstream who use the rivers for fishing and as water sources.
Making the land more resistant to encroachment and the forest less vulnerable to resource extraction is vital for the survival of forest dependent communities. Juan Choc explains that although a few villagers are drawn to the idea of private individual leases, most of the community is committed to their Mayan communal land ownership model. This prevents land from being parcelled off and becoming fragmented: “The land is not growing. It’s not like a grass which, when you cut it, will grow back in two or three weeks.” Juan says. The village is now carrying out a plan to georeference their communal land in order to get more solid legal recognition. Demarcation (establishing and marking the boundaries) will offer better protection from outside corporate interests, empower the community, and safeguard the land for the younger generation.
Rachel Simon is an environmental researcher and campaigner, with a special interest in fossil fuel extraction and community led environmental action. Before travelling to Belize she worked at an environmental consultancy, and she has been involved in the Fossil Free divestment campaign among others.
Rachel has just completed an MSc in Environmental Policy where she focused on climate change in South America and protest in Latin American cities. Her first degree was in Classics — Latin and Ancient Greek literature and culture.