Rain Forest on Chopping Block in Belize

In its effort to earn foreign exchange to pay off a large national debt, tiny Belize is selling Asian lumber companies logging rights to one of Central America's last great rain forests.

Published January 21, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

San Pedro Columbia, Belize -- Asian lumber companies have begun logging one of the last great rain forests in Central America. And while the falling trees can be heard by those who live on the forest edge, most of them Mayan Indians, their own protests go unheard.

The situation comes into focus in this village of 1200 alongside the Columbia River Forest Reserve, 103,000 acres of old-growth tropical hardwood forest. Sitting outside his house at day's end, Leonardo Acal asks the basic question: "Our rain forest is something we want and need. How can the government just allow the Malaysians to come in and take it away from us?"

Recently, the government permitted Malaysian-backed companies to log areas in the reserve and elsewhere -- more than half a million acres in this district. Most people here are Maya, like Acal, and hold no deeds to their homesites or cornfields or to the hunting areas around the villages where they have lived for generations.

Belize, the former British Honduras, is small -- about the size of Massachusetts with a population of only 210,000 -- and sells its natural resources because it needs foreign exchange to repay a large national debt. But costs could be high -- not only loss of the forest, but the possibility of serious dissent.

Maya in the region are subsistence farmers, using slash and burn methods and rotating fields in a careful, sustainable way. They are cash poor, and depend on the forests not only for necessities such as thatch for their housetops and medicine, but for fish and game, the only protein most of them eat.

They vote in elections and their children go to school and speak English. But residents insist that their participation in the life of the nation does not mean they are willing to sacrifice their own culture and identity for someone's idea of economic development. And their lives are so interwoven with the forest, says Acal, that the logging concessions feel like an attack.

Opposition to the logging is headed by Julian Cho, a Maya who recalls the lesson he learned while visiting Indian reservations as a student in the United States. "We Maya are ignorant about laws that govern land. We simply come and live in a place but others do not think this way. Now we ask is there a way to get land security?"

Cho displays a computer-created map showing that logging concessions nearly cover all the traditional Maya lands.

Belize may be tiny, but its forests -- with those in neighboring Guatemala and Mexico's lowland Chiapas -- form a living lung, a vital corridor for animals, especially wintering birds, and for genetic diversity.

The government has an excellent forest management plan and local district forest officer Wayne Bardalez claims that forestry officials are right alongside the loggers every hour that they work. But critics maintain there are not enough officials to patrol the region, and residents point to streams so clogged they make fishing impossible and irrigation difficult.

Opposition to the logging is far from universal. Support is strong in the capital, and in Toledo's own provincial capital, Punta Gorda, a pleasant seaside town of some 4000, where the Maya presence is felt only on market mornings, when they arrive to sell fruits and vegetables.

The Maya way of life "is history," said a car mechanic. "What we need now are healthy industries that bring jobs, like tourism. The roads being built into the forest by Malaysians can bring tourists there, too."

Local businessman Calvert Supal also supports the logging. He owns the land on which the logging company built its sawmill -- one of the largest in Central America, according to industry sources.

A customer in Supal's hardware store, Basilio Ico, mayor of Silver Creek Village, explained that at first he had joined the peaceful protest with others in the Toledo Association of Maya Mayors. "But I have eight mouths to feed," he said. "What is Toledo benefiting from such an organization? We need jobs." Ico is now employed as a carpenter by one of the Malaysian companies.

Sylvestre Romero-Palma, first Hispanic head of the Anglican church here, and himself part Maya, has asked if Belize, independent since 1981, must "repeat the mistakes of the past." Belize became a British colony more than 300 years ago when a group of loggers overcame the indigenous population, and imported black slaves.

Logging is set to begin again this year after the rain season ends, which is usually in February.

Quote of the day

Brit Lit

"Ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964 and enountered a tribe of full-grown women ... babbling excitedly about the doings of hobbits, it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th century."

-- Author and essayist Germaine Greer, commenting on "The Lord of the Rings" being chosen as the "greatest" book of the 20th century in a British poll of 25,000 readers. ("Fiction and food fill up our bookshelves," in Monday's London Daily Telegraph)

By Mary Jo McConahay

Mary Jo McConahay is Central America editor of Pacific News Service.

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