Chiquibul’s $3.4 billion resource needs protection

IMG_0006 Percival ChoThe Chiquibul Forest, 70 square miles in the Cayo district represents a $3.4 Billion resource, a national conservation priority that Belize needs to protect, forestry conservationist Percival Sho informed participants at the Chiquibul Symposium hosted by the Friends of Conservation and Development at the Radisson Fort George Hotel last Friday morning, July 19.

Sho did an audit of the material, natural and cultural value of the Chiquibul, and his conservative estimate came up with the mind-boggling sum of $33.4 billion, more that Belize’s annual Gross Domestic Product!

A physical count of the trees and measuring their size shows that the timber alone in the forests that cover the Chiquibul National Park, the Chiquibul Forest Reserve and the Caracol Archaeological Reserve are worth $2.09 billion.

Of this some $2 million of timber is extracted each year, offering Belizeans inexpensive lumber to build their houses, while many more Belizeans benefit through jobs and government taxes.

In fact as early as 1956, the colonial administration of British Honduras did a land use survey and decided that the Chiquibul was more valuable as forest than as farmland.

There’s also gold, of which miners have extracted about Bze$10 million from the Ceibo Chico area over the past 10 years, and they’ve been working those gold deposits for 10 years before that. Sho estimated Chiquibul’s gold potential value of at Bze$40 million over 40 years, or $1 million per year.  But the FCD estimates as many as 300 Guatemalans are illegally extracting gold from the Chiquibul.

The xate leaves prized by United States florists for floral arrangements are another valuable resource. A survey done by a group of British scientists in 2006 did a physical count and estimated Chiquibul’s xate at over 9 million leaves, a  $3.6 million value, which Mother Nature provided and which the xateros are stealing.

In terms of  natural wealth, the Chiquibul offers a bounty. Man can live without oil, but he cannot live without water, the stuff of life! The Chiquibul provides drinking water for people from Peten, Benque, Belmopan and all the villages along the Belize River to Belize City; because water flows from the Chiquibul River though the Peten province of Guatemala into the Mopan River which joins the Macal  to form the Belize River which flows to Belize City.

The Chiquibul receives about 4.4 billion gallons of rainfall annually, and from hydrological measurements, Sho estimates that around 1.3 billion gallons of this water flows into Belize’s  rivers. That volume of bottled water would be worth $1.3 billion! It also generates electricity at the Vaca Dam, and further downstream at Chalillo and Mollejon.

The forests also protect all the riverside communities from floods, because if the forests were cut down, the root structure that retains the water on the land would be gone, allowing river levels to rise 25 percent above the present levels during the rainy season.

Trees are also the earth’s lungs, as the Chiquibul trees grow, they are absorbing carbon dioxide to form wood. Climate change and global warning have made the world aware of the carbon sequestration value of the earth’s forests.

As developed countries trade these carbon credits to mitigate their own production for carbon dioxide, the  Chiquibul forest has a $1.6 million per year value just for removing carbon dioxide from the air!

In terms of wildlife, the Chiquibul also used to have an estimated 10,000 pecarries a $150 per head alive, they would be worth $1.5 million Belize dollars, but the xateros’ poaching has almost wiped out the peccaries. The xateros  have also targeted our scarlet macaws, tapirs, jaguars and monkeys. They are all fair game to foreign poachers unrestricted by Belizean law.

Bees are also a most valuable wildlife resource. They thrive in the Chiquibul where they can feed off nectar from the trees, which they carry to their hives in San Antonio and Vaca where hardworking Belizeans sell the honey. They also serve to pollenate the many fruit orchards, of  citrus, papaya, etc.. all over the country

Chiquibul’s cultural wealth from the Caracol Archaeological site and the many more Maya temples and mounds that lie beneath the forest cover is inestimable. Tourism revenue from Caracol alone is about $81,000 per year. The entire Chiquibul region would bring in a lot more if  the Chiquibul cave system, the Natural Bridge and the Noh’och Chen sinkhole were developed as tourist attractions.

Belizeans have not exploited much of Chiquibul’s resources because road access is limited. Past a certain point you need a four-wheel drive vehicle or even a tractor to mine for gold.

In comparison, many Guatemalans have easy access, the forest is only a few feet from their houses. Others need only get out of bed, because they live there! Driven by their extreme poverty, these Guatemalan peasants trespass into the Chiquibul’s to harvest its wealth, because they have exhausted theirs.

They catch Macaw parrots, pan for gold, cut mahogany, hunt gibnut, loot the Mayan archaeological sites and cut xate. Denied access to farmland in their own country, these unfortunate people are cutting down Belizean forests to plant corn.

To highlight the contrast, Sho projected a Landsat image of the Peten province in 1975 showing it looked pretty much like the Chiquibul, back then. Today all Peten’s forests have been cleared for farmland, and there are many villages right up against Belize’s border.The satellite images show the people living there are encroaching on Belizean land. Sho pointed to the satellite image of Peten to day to show what could become of the Chiquibul if Belizeans do nothing to protect it.

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