The Maya of Belize have depended upon rosewood for thousands of years, selectively harvesting the beautiful timber in a sustainable manner from forests near their villages for a range of uses, from traditional marimbas and other musical instruments, to the sturdy posts that support their homes.
In a very literal sense, rosewood has been supporting Maya families for millennia.
And now this important rainforest resource is under threat from unscrupulous logging practices and overseas trade that threaten to wipe out the increasingly valuable – and increasing rare – hardwood. Maya leaders are raising an urgent alarm and seeking assistance to curb the exploitation and possible eradication of a tree that holds great economic and culture significance for Belize’s Maya population.
With overseas markets such as China putting more demand on a limited supply of the slow growing trees, the Maya need all the help they can get.
Over the last month (July 2011) tensions have been rising over the illegal extraction and exportation of rosewood from the Toledo district, and on August 4, 2011, the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA) met with Belize’s Chief Forest Officer and other officers from the Forest Department to express their concerns.
According to a release issued by the MLA, the Maya leaders and Forest Department officials acknowledged that illegal logging is becoming a serious problem, and agreed to form a partnership with the Maya community to immediately halt the illegal extraction of rosewood from the Toledo District.
As a result of the meeting, the MLA sent out scouting parties and placed checkpoints along the roads leading in and out of affected villages to intercept unstamped lumber. According to the Maya leaders, the forestry officials also agreed to order that the stamping of rosewood logs be suspended from August 7 while further investigations into the matter were conducted.
Legal lumber that is harvested and sold under license carries a stamp issued by the Belize Forest Department.
Unfortunately, the partnership has hit a snag, with the MLA now reporting that Forest Department officials are continuing to stamp logs, sometimes without proper permits or licenses, and accuses officials of neglecting both the laws of Belize and the fragile ecology of the land surrounding their communal lands in the Toledo District.
For their part, forestry officials say that the situation is difficult because much of the illegal activity is carried out on Maya communal land, which is administrated under the traditional alcalde system and so falls outside the department’s jurisdiction.
Forest Department official Charles Rivas said that, “We from the Forestry Department cannot go into any of the villages due to the communal land rights lawsuit that the MLA made out with the Government of Belize. I cannot stop these people from cutting any Rosewood or any type of lumber within their village. I can only apprehend lumber that comes out without any authority on the highway or checkpoints, that is all I can do.
“Everyone is blaming the Forestry Department that we should go into the village and stop these people from cutting lumber, (but) how can we go in there, we are not the alcaldes and chairmen of these villages. The chairmen and alcaldes of these villages gave their villagers permission to cut lumber in the village and these people want to sell their lumber. They in turn behind our back sell the persons who want to buy it but we don’t know from exactly which village the lumber is coming.”
According to Belize’s LOVE FM news, however, the MLA has said that “the Forest Department continues stamping of logs with no regard for the fact that they have no permits or licenses” and further states that some forestry officers “continue to facilitate this illegal operation with no regard for the laws of Belize and less so for the fragile ecology of the forest of Toledo. The Alliance says they hope to expose the corruption in the entire illegal logging operation.”
The forestry department reported that some 60,000 board feet of rosewood has been legally extracted over the past 18 months, largely for exportation to China, but acknowledges that illegal logging is a growing problem.
Belizean rosewood, more commonly known as Honduran Rosewood (Dalbergia stevensonii) is a beautiful, highly prized wood used for high quality items such as musical instruments,inlays, decorations and sculpture. Native only to Belize, Guatemala and southern Mexico, it is highly sought after and becoming increasingly scarce. With the international trade of Brazilian rosewood now banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), there is increasing pressure on Belizean stocks, especially for the manufacture of guitars and other instruments.
The problem is compounded by the fact that relatively little is known about the population and status of Honduran rosewood. However, in southern Belize, where the last Belizean stocks remain, there are high incidences of both illegal logging and slash and burn agriculture, often by illegal settlers who come in along the porous border. Belize now has the third highest rate of deforestation in Central America.
Forests in Belize have been cleared at a rate of nearly 10,000 hectares per year for the past 30 years, according to a recent study. In 1980, forests covered 79.5% of the land surface of Belize but by February 2010 the area decreased to 62.7%. Belize’s forest cover went from about 6500 square miles 30 years ago to around 5300 square miles today, a loss of an area roughly the size of the US state of Rhode Island.
In addition to rosewood, other endangered tree species such as mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), cedar (Cedrela odorata) and fiddlewood (Vitex gaumeri) are also in greater demand and being logged legally and illegally.
One recent study points out that the vast majority of deforestation takes place outside protected areas, showing the effectiveness of Belize’s protected area legislation.
However, as pressure mounts to cut more timber, protective legislation is only as good as its enforcement.
And with Brazilian rosewood now protected from international trade, and Mexico and Guatemala lobbying to keep Honduran rosewood off the protected list, Belize will keep feeling the heat as overseas buyers, especially in China, seek to find quality timber for the manufacture of high value products such as guitars and other musical instruments.
For the Maya, who use rosewood for their traditional marimbas, which are important in Maya culture and social life, the irony may be that overseas demand, combined with a lack of enforcement of Belize’s environmental and other laws will rob them of traditional materials so important to their own musical heritage.
Centuries after the arrival of the first Spanish Conquistadors, the Maya’s struggle to protect their natural resources continues.