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Latest Story :
Belize: Country with a Green Heart
By Dominic Hamilton
BELIZE CITY, Belize, October 6, 1998 (ENS) - When Aldous Huxley breezed through Belize back in the 1930s, he remarked "If the end of the world had any ends, British Honduras would certainly be one of them." Now known as Belize, the country is still a bit of a backwater.
The size of Wales, with a population about a third of Cardiff's, it is not exactly on the map. In fact, most people don't even know where exactly Belize is. Off the Ivory Coast? Somewhere in the Pacific? The name rings a bell, but not much else.
Wedged between the boot of Mexico and the shoulder of Guatemala, Belize is the only country in Central America where you can ask for a cup of tea on the street and not be met with "¿Qué?" While bloody revolutions and tyrannical dictators have scarred its neighbours' history, Belize has enjoyed a stable democracy for as long as anyone can remember.
The country's environment is also comparatively intact, with over 60 percent of its surface still forested and over 20 percent of it protected by parks, reserves and biospheres. A backwater it may be, but, as the adage goes, where there's muck there's brass.
Belize's shiniest brass comes in the shape of the barrier reef whose tiny islands hug its Caribbean coast like a pearl necklace. The reef is second only in size to the Australia's Great Barrier and has been attracting dive enthusiasts ever since Jacques Cousteau brought its wonders to the attention of the world in the late 1970s.
Inland, the country boasts the largest jaguar reserve in the world in the Cockscomb Basin, and impressive Mayan ruins at Altun Ha and Caracol. The Meso-American Wildlife Corridor also incorporates most of Belize's protected areas.
The country has melting pot mix of different cultures, from the laid-back Caribbean and passionate Latin to the shy and remote Mayan. It is a young country, where dreaming of a better life and creating one seem to go hand in hand. Belize's youthful population and the proactive green ethos which drives the country combine to imbue a sense of optimism that its natural wonders will be enjoyed by future generations.
Local Creoles have a saying all of their own, which seems to hit the country's environmental philosophy succinctly on the head: "Coward man kep soun bone." In other words, the cautious man lives longer.
Like a giant pupil in a sea of turquoise, The Blue Hole on the Lighthouse Reef atoll is a perfectly circular limestone sinkhole more than 300 feet across and 412 feet deep. The array of bizarre stalactites and limestone formations which mould its walls seem to become more grotesque and malevolent the deeper one dives.
Near The Blue Hole, one of Belize's largest protected areas, Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, encompasses 10,000 acres of the atoll and 15 square miles of surrounding waters. The reserve protects a 4,000-member booby colony, one of only two in the Caribbean, and was the Belize Audubon Society's first reserve, established in 1982.
The booby is a slow-witted, white-feathered bird with a golden head and long blue-grey beak. They were massacred by early sailors and was on the brink of extinction before the reserve was set up. Some 98 other species of birds have been recorded on the caye (pronounced key), including ospreys, warblers and white-crowned pigeons.
The Audubon Society in Belize enjoys a unique role. It is one of the few countries in which the organisation operates where it runs and manages parks and reserves on behalf of the government. These number six and combine with the organisation's programme of environmental education and advocacy. The Audubon has 22 trained field staff and is constantly running training courses for more. Revenues from admission charges only make up 15 to 20 percent of the cost of running the parks, the short-fall being made up by the government and other organisations.
The Audubon have combined with other NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund and the MacArthur Foundation to improve infrastructure and services in many of their parks. From their cramped offices in Belize City, from where they sell everything from posters and postcards to T-shirts and books, the organisation readily admits there exists a lack of human resources in Belize and believes one its most pressing tasks is to remedy this situation.
It has played a pivotal role in raising eco-consciousness in the country over the last fifteen years, and, with its close relationship to the government, will continue to be an important player in Belize's resource management strategies. Before this year's election, it published its blueprint for sustainable development and will be pushing the new government to adopt its policy recommendations.
Ecologically-orientated tourism is taking off on the Belize reef. There are now several organisations running operations up and down the coast. The longest serving is the British organisation Coral Caye Conservation, now based on the Turneffe Islands. Volunteers come from two week to three month periods and collect baseline data which is then passed on to the Fisheries Department and the Marine Biology Department of the University of Belize. International Zoological Expeditions is also active on Southwater Caye.
The British youth charity Raleigh International contributes to an on-going study of sedimentation levels along the reef which is of growing concern due to land erosion on the mainland. The project is sponsored by the European Union (EU) and involves scientists from the UK.
Also sponsored by the EU is Programme For Belize, one of the country's more controversial NGOs because they believe in managed development.
Programme For Belize administers the 229,000 acre Rio Bravo Conservation Area and aims to make it self-sustaining, utilising forest resources as well as income from controlled tourism. The organisation's long-term goal is to pay for the Rio Bravo's conservation through sales revenues derived from its renewable natural resources. For this reason, some environmentalists have been sceptical of the Programme's commercial motives. Others see it as a realist approach to conservation.
Through various sponsorships schemes, Programme for Belize bought up tracts of land in the 1980s and 90s. Their land includes some of the most pristine forest to be found in the country, several different types of forest from swamp to upland, and numerous archaeological sites.
Behind all these conservation initiatives is the Belizean government's commitment to rational resource use. It passed the Coastal Zone Management (CZM) Act of this spring, the result of five years of research and planning. The Act addresses how best to manage the resources of the coast in the fac of mounting pressures of population growth, changing land-uses on the mainland and the mushrooming of the tourism industry.
Belize was a recent signatory of an agreement with Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras to improve co-operation in monitoring and managing the Meso-Caribbean Barrier Reef which the four countries share. In July the reef was given Global 200 status by UNESCO. Later this year, a CZM Agency and Institute will be inaugurated, reinforcing the Belizean government's commitment to the sustainable development of its coast.
Janet Gibson, the project advisor for the CZM Project, is optimistic. "The Act was a big step forward for Belize on the road to integrating of all the institutions involved in the coast and making them work toward common goals with as little conflict as necessary. Funding and the development of human resources are the biggest challenges we face."
Part of the CZM Act initiates Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for any planning project, particularly where tourism is involved on the cayes. These include the installation of solar power and composting toilets, for example.
With numerous grassroots initiatives taking shape throughout the country, such as the Toledo Ecotourism Association or the Ix Chel Farm and Rainforest Medicine Trail, Belize's natural wonders seem to be in good hands.
Aldous Huxley also noted dryly that Belize "is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else." The country's new generation of entrepreneurs, conservationists and park wardens would beg to differ I'm sure.
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