The development culture of Belize appeared to be based on a vision of forest resources that were considered eternal. Today, with a forest cover of 79 percent, a vegetation coverage of 73.4 percent plus a deforestation rate of 36 000 ha annually during the last decade, it has been realized that these are finite resources that need to be conserved.
Forests have played an important role in the development of the country since colonial days. At the beginning, through the extraction of logwood (Haemotoxylon campechanium), and later when the market shrank as a result of the introduction of synthetic dyes, mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) entered the scene and was exploited for the next 200 years, giving the impression that Belize was a mahogany country.
It is interesting to note how this vision has had an effect on Belize’s development, considering that the small population of the country was so dedicated to the extraction of mahogany, thus limiting the development of agriculture. Such a situation persisted until the middle of the twentieth century.
By the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, with the introduction of new cadastral technologies and with the assistance of georeferencing systems, it was possible to conduct a land use planning study at the national level. Although the country has a relatively large and enviable forest cover, the study showed that only approximately 14 percent could be considered suitable for sustainable forest production. This production is contained within three similar types of categories of land tenure:
• National land
• Protected areas
• Private land
At about the same time, the Land Resource Assessment study was undertaken, which categorized land use as follows:
• approximately 16 percent of the national territory can be classified as soils suitable for agricultural development;
• approximately 20 percent of the national territory can be classified as soils that could produce sustainably, based on their edaphic characteristics, but require high levels of input and management;
• approximately 14 percent of forests in the national territory are suitable for sustainable forest production;
• the rest of the territory should remain under protection, when the principal objective would be its adoption for environmental services (biodiversity conservation, water production, scenic beauty and others) and the production of NTFPs.
However, these classifications are not reflected in national and forestry policy and there is no national land use plan, thus limiting long-term planning within the forest sector.
The modernization of forest policy (the last policy dates back to 1954) requires not only that existing forest legislation be rewritten, but should also contemplate the following aspects.
• Modernization should be based on a national land use plan.
• The reality of the forest sector should be updated to encompass future perspectives.
• The principle of sustainable forest management should be considered the only mechanism that can ensure the permanency of the resource.
• It should contribute to the elimination of poverty, especially in rural areas.
• It should provide a major opening of opportunities for the business development of the country.
• It requires a holistic vision of the forest sector, eliminating dichotomies so that the resource is seen from within the sector (conservation versus sustainable harvests).
• The Forest Department needs to be strengthened so that it can facilitate the development of the sector yet without losing its regulatory role and functions.
• The National Protected Areas System has to be consolidated.
To date, the functioning of the forest sector depends basically on four laws.
• The Forests Act, the oldest law
• The National Parks System Act
• The Wildlife Protection Act
• The Private Forests (Conservation) Act
The Forests Act and the Private Forests (Conservation) Act are principally aimed at regulating the use of timber and non-timber products. In the Forests Act the concept of sustainable development is mentioned only once, thus reflecting the need for its update. Institutionally, even though the Forest Department is evolving to become a service-oriented and modern institution geared to facilitate the development of the forest sector without renouncing its regulatory function, it is clear that both financially and professionally it has significant limitations. For example, it has only 38 permanent employees to attend to the forest sector – nine are professionally qualified, six are forest technicians and 21 are forest rangers and guards.
Within the industrial forest sector there have been many initiatives to support the creation of an association that represents the industry’s interests. However, these initiatives have not taken a concrete form but remain an amorphous structure with no active representation by forest industrialists.
The structural adjustment measures promoted by the World Bank have adversely affected the Forest Department both in carrying out its functions and in the number of its staff which has been reduced year after year. Perhaps the best example of these extrasectoral factors can be seen from the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve which covers an area of 41 000 ha and has immense value for the country as a watershed of prime importance. The Reserve includes a large part of the watershed of the Macal River, which is also a tributary of the Belize River. This extensive river crosses the entire northeastern plains and empties its waters in Belize City, in front of reefs of major fishing importance. Moreover, the Reserve is a source of foreign exchange because of its scenic attractions for tourism; it has waterfalls and rivers, huge caves, pine and broadleaf forests and is a refuge for a great diversity of wildlife.
However, many of the Reserve’s 22 500 ha of productive pine forests, composed of Pinus caribaea (80 percent) and P. patula (20 percent), as well as part of the 7 000 ha of protected forests with both species, are seriously threatened by the southern pine beetle (D. frontalis). This pest has spread rapidly and currently can be found on almost all the canopy of the infested trees.
The existence of this beetle was known when the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve was created, but no control was carried out since it did not appear initially to pose any problem: it was merely considered part of the ecosystem. In 1976, however, some infestation pockets were identified in areas that had suffered from forest fires. These pockets were just under 0.5 ha. In 1997, a new beetle attack was observed. Samples of the insect were sent to the United Kingdom for identification and it was confirmed that it was D. frontalis. This time the infested area was about 1 ha.
By 1995, the government considerably reduced the budget as part of its structural adjustment measures, seriously affecting the Forest Department and including the budget for the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. As a result the Reserve had no budget to continue the forest management activities in progress.
The effects of the suspension of these silvicultural interventions were reflected in 1999 and 2000 when the beetle appeared as a serious pest with high populations infesting the pine forests.
Another extrasectoral driving force was in agro-industrial policies. The development of crops such as banana, citrus and sugar, and the clearing of large forested areas have contributed to the immigration of Central Americans (mainly Honduranians and Salvadorians), who came to fill the vacuum of limited farm labour available in the country. However, these migrants, with a slash-and-burn farming culture, always seek farmland to cultivate maize, beans, rice and other crops. This process is accompanied by uncontrolled burning that eventually puts high pressure on protected areas, especially since these farming activities are carried out in the buffer zones. Thus, if corrective measures are not taken, this type of agriculture will reach the boundaries of the protected areas.
The fiscal policy on property whereby the government is charging a 6 percent tax on undeveloped land over 300 acres (approximately 121.4 ha) can lead to the elimination of large tracts of forests and their conversion to subsistence agriculture and extensive cattle rearing.
Another extrasectoral factor is tourism, a recognized industry that can and should contribute to the management and financing of protected areas. However, the contribution that this sector makes to the forest sector is small compared to the benefits it receives. Therefore, a more integral revision is suggested so that both sectors may benefit. It is important to note that the tourism sector is very clear on the benefits it receives from the protected areas, so that with a well-prepared study and approach, the forest sector could profit greatly from that of tourism.
Perhaps the main negative driving force that needs to be addressed is the lack of a modern forest policy accompanied by a national land use plan.
Moreover, it is fundamental to prioritize sustainable forest management by using a scheme of forest concessions so that those who invest in the sector will benefit from long-term security that will enable them to develop the sector itself.
Another important action is the consolidation of the National Protected Areas System in its function as a provider of environmental services. These include, in particular, biodiversity protection, the production of water and a provider of scenic beauty. It would be strategic to implement a mechanism for the charging and payment of environmental goods and services that would reduce the impact of fiscal policies on land use change.