If you look at Tony Rath’s aerial photos of Belize’s Chiquibul National Forest, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the images were taken over South America’s Amazon. Unbroken stands of lush trees fill the frames of his photos, punctuated only by a vertical thread of waterfall, a natural bridge of karst or twin sinkholes.
On the ground, though, the scene is completely different. From that vantage point, Rath’s photos are littered with the remains of felled old-growth mahogany trees, piles of garbage and the trunks and branches of other trees that have been pressed into service as roadblocks.
Rath, Belize’s most renowned photographer, is best known for land and seascapes, including underwater images. His work is the stuff of travel magazines, tourism brochures, and guidebooks; in fact, many articles and advertisements for the country have featured his photos, enticing would-be visitors with Belize’s archaeological and natural wonders.
His Chiquibul photos, then, are quite a departure. “He is coming to grips with his new status as ‘guerrilla photojournalist,'” says Jim Bevis, owner and operator of Mountain Equestrian Trails, Ltd., a tour outfitter in Belize’s Cayo District.
Rich resources under threat
Late last month, Rath joined four conservationists and three rangers on an expedition in Chiquibul Forest, which consists of three protected areas — Chiquibul National Park, Chiquibul Forest Reserve and the Caracol Archaeological Reserve. Together, these areas represent nearly 8 percent of the country’s land mass and, according to Rafael Manzanero, Executive Director of local NGO Friends for Conservation and Development, contain a significant amount of Belize’s biodiversity. The organization estimates the natural resources found in the forest are worth more than US$1.7 billion.
Belizeans are prohibited by law from exploiting Chiquibul’s resources; the area is federally protected. But Friends for Conservation and Development are concerned that protected status doesn’t do enough to ensure that the forest will remain intact for future generations.
“Nowhere else in the entire country of Belize is there such systematic devastation being conducted inside a protected area,” reads the organization’s environmental impact report, published in July.
The problem, FCD contends, is an incursion into Belizean territory and the illegal seizure of its resources by Guatemalans who have exploited their own territory to the extent that it is no longer productive or lucrative. Chiquibul, which sits on the border between Belize and Guatemala, is chronically understaffed, allowing loggers, poachers and gold prospectors to enter the forest with relative ease.
These trespassers are engaged in a number of illegal activities, from cutting and collecting xate palms and planting marijuana to panning for gold, looting archaeological artifacts and capturing scarlet macaws. They also cut old-growth cedar and mahogany trees; in 2012 alone, Belize reported that more than US$4 million worth of cedar and US$5 million of mahogany had been logged and extracted illegally.
Ripple effects of illegal activities
The illicit activities have caused ripple effects of all sorts, say Rath and his fellow expeditoners, who are attempting to discern and document the extent and effects of the destruction.
“The forest is under attack by poor rural people who have denuded their side of the line and look to harvest the natural riches which the Chiquibul still possesses,” says Bevis, the tour operator, who coordinated and led the expedition with Derric Chan of FCD. The August recon mission was part of the NGO’s preparations for a 2015 expedition that will ultimately result in an effort to lobby for UNESCO World Heritage status for Chiquibul’s cave system.
Rath’s photos will help FCD establish a visual timeline of destruction and other environmental effects caused by illegal logging. During the trip, Rath shot multiple images of piles of garbage left behind by illegal loggers and poachers; FCD has warned about damage to the watershed caused by this trash as well as fecal matter left behind by loggers and poachers.
The organization has also reported that the illicit activities put lives in danger: not only those of the handful of Belizeans patrolling the park but also of young Guatemalan boys who act as sentries for the loggers and poachers. FCD staff is concerned about the possible impact of growing tensions along the border, warning that the current situation could escalate into a full-blown international conflict.
Government challenged to do more
What is being done at the national level to prevent habitat and resource loss? Not enough, says Rath, who wrote a travelogue about the expedition in which he railed against his country’s politicians. Rath explained that the incursion of loggers and poachers isn’t a border dispute, as some people have framed it, but a matter of border control and security.
“Shame on the Belizean [g]overnment,” he wrote, “if they do not protect and manage the Chiquibul as the natural wonder it is.”
As Belizean politicians are confronted with a growing number of environmental concerns, critics say they are not doing enough to respond quickly or effectively.
“I think it’s a pivotal time for Belize, in terms of preservation,” says Lebawit Lily Girma, author of the Moon travel guidebook for Belize, who points out that the environmental challenges are not limited to Chiquibul. “Last year, the northern Noh Mul archeological site was partially razed by a road construction company. Charges were brought but the case has yet to go to trial.”
Environmental advocates are not optimistic that the government has their interests in mind. This year, Girma explains, “despite pleas from conservationists and private tourism organizations, the government approved a controversial US$50 million Norwegian Cruise Line project to build a cruise port on Harvest Caye, off the southern coast of Belize. The area is a habitat for endangered manatees, mangroves and pristine coral reefs.”
Back in western Belize, Jim Bevis says he and his fellow expeditioners will work to protect Chiquibul — with or without the support of the Belizean government. “It is ours to lose,” he says, “and we just can’t let that happen.”
In the conclusion of Rath’s travelogue, he urges fellow Belizeans to demand more from their government. For his part, he will continue documenting the destruction in Chiquibul in an effort to stop it before it’s too late.