The government of Belize needs to synchronize law enforcement efforts and resources immediately to create a credible deterrent against Guatemalans illegally panning for gold in the streams of the Chiquibul Forest Reserve.
This is the recommendation of Rafael Manzanero, Executive Director of Friends for Conservation and Development, the organization which manages the reserve.
The FCD has advised that Belize has a major problem on its hands after a recent joint patrol of Forest Rangers, Police and Belize Defense Force soldiers encountered a group of 20 persons engaged in this activity up to 6 to 8 kilometres inside Belizean territory.
The group included grown men, as well as boys and young girls, in fact entire families. This has caused the FCD to believe that the Guatemalans may have established one or more enclaves in the Chiquibul Reserve, and it will not be an easy task for Belizean authorities to regain control of the area.
The FCD estimates there may be 15 other groups of the same size, for a total of more than 300 persons operating in an organized manner illegally panning for gold along the Ceibo Chico drainage system.
The world price for gold has been increasing, so this is a problem that will not go away. With jobs hard to come by in Guatemala, poor peasants from across the border will stray into Belizean territory in search of easy pickings, be it xate leaves, illegal logging, illegal diversion of creeks to pan for gold or robbing the nests of the scarlet macaw parrot for their chicks.
The FCD fears the problem will only get bigger if something is not done at once to stop the incursions.
Minister of Forestry Lisel Alamilla recently established the Ceibo Chico Conservation Post and the South Chiquibul Joint Enforcement Unit on July 4, for the express purpose of patrolling and enforcing the protection of the South Chiquibul Forest.
Even so, the patrol of six Belizeans were outnumbered when they encountered the 20 Guatemalans many of whom were armed with machetes in the Ceibo Chico area on July 12. The patrol turned around without making any arrests.
The Ceibo Chico watershed is rugged, difficult terrain for Belizean law enforcement on foot patrols, but it is close to home for the Guatemalan intruders.
The illegal gold hunters are working day and night, using even household tools to dig.
The resulting sedimentation is high, causing incredible damage to the ecosystem, and environmentalists say the area’s recovery will probably take hundreds of years.
Rocks have been removed, trees have been felled and the streams have been diverted from their original course to provide water for the panning operations.
The FCD has recommended that the Belize government make a formal report to the Guatemalan government, because finding a solution to this major problem will require a action from both sides of the fence.
The FCD says it has been receiving continuous reports indicating that illegal activities in the Chiquibul have been spiralling out of control since late last year.
FCD rangers have observed in recent months that panning for gold has become highly lucrative for dozens and dozens of people from Guatemalan communities of Monte Los Olivos, Nueva Armenia, Poptún and others from as far away as the Department of Izabal.
Boiton Minerals, a Belizean company, has been operating in the Ceibo Chico drainage area for many years, but under appropriate permits from the regulatory agencies including the Department of the Environment, Mines and Petroleum and the Forest Department.
The Government of Belize is concerned about the use of mercury in mining operations and any diversion of headwaters which could affect Belize’s river systems.
In this case, the Ceibo Chico Area is one of the sources for the Chiquibul River which flow into Guatemalan communities on the other side of the border.
The Chiquibul River is an indispensable water source to more than 100,000 persons in Guatemala who depend on the river.
The Chiquibul River eventually joins with the Mopan River at Peten and ends up eventually impacting the Belize Barrier Reef.
The river passes though Melchor de Mencos, Benque Viejo del Carmen and San Ignacio, through a dozen or more villages of the Belize River Valley, through Bermudian Landing and Burrel Boom until it reaches Belize City.
The FCD has warned that the impacts occurring at the headwaters and in the Chiquibul Forest are of national magnitude and concern.
Gold miners often use mercury to collect the smaller specks of gold dust, and perhaps this may be a possible explanation of rising mercury levels in the fish of the Macal River.