Chaa Creek applauds cooperation and new hope for Maya Rosewood

As reported here earlier, members of Belizean Maya villages have raising concerns in the international community over what they see as yet another serious threat to their culture and livelihood through the illegal logging of rosewood from rainforests in Belize’s Toledo District.

And this time we’re happy to report some good news – The Belizean Government earlier this month banned the harvesting and export of rosewood with immediate effect from March 16, 2012.

A government statement said that the moratorium would go into effect immediately “to carry out an orderly assessment of the situation on the ground and as a first response to regulate the timber trade occurring in southern Belize.”

The statement added that the moratorium was the first step in instituting “a rigorous regulatory framework throughout the country.” To protect this endangered and highly sought after hardwood.

Rosewood has been integral to the life of the Maya of Belize for thousands of years. The beautiful timber has a range of traditional uses, from ceremonial marimbas and other musical instruments, day-to-day implements and for the sturdy posts that literally support their homes. Through sustainable harvesting methods developed over millennia and the practice of the unique Maya Forest Garden, the Maya have been able to make use of this rainforest resource while ensuring its long term survival.

However, global demand combined with problems in enforcing Belize’s commendable environmental protection legislation has put the timber under serious threat.

The international trade of Brazilian rosewood is now banned under the  Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and with traditional suppliers such as Brazil no longer supplying the market, there is increasing pressure on Belizean, or  Honduran Rosewood (Dalbergia stevensonii), especially for the manufacture of guitars and other instruments.

Given this scenario, some overseas companies have intensified efforts to stay one step ahead of environmental protection in a bid to secure as much of the precious timber as possible while they can. This has led to logging in prohibited areas and the harvesting of undersized trees.

As we reported last July 2011, tensions came to a head in Belize’s Toledo district, leading to a meeting on August 4, 2011, between the Maya Leaders Alliance (MLA), Belize’s Chief Forest Officer and other Forest Department staff.

At that time, the forestry department reported that some 60,000 board feet of rosewood had been legally extracted over the past 18 months, largely for exportation to China, and acknowledged that illegal logging remains a growing problem.

Southern Belize is the home of the very last Belizean stocks of rosewood, and it is here that the battle for the timber’s survival is being waged.  High incidences of both legal and illicit logging combined with slash and burn agriculture, usually conducted by illegal settlers who freely cross the porous border, continue to erode the remaining stocks of timber.  Belize now has the third highest rate of deforestation in Central America.

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.

The problem of rosewood extraction has been compounded by grey areas in Maya communal land ownership in Belize. On one hand, Belize’s Supreme Court has identified certain lands as being Maya communal property. On the other hand, the current government of Belize is appealing that ruling. This has led to a situation where Forest Department officials are reluctant to monitor and enforce logging laws on Maya land, while Maya leaders, with no clear legal title to their land, are powerless to stop what they see as the degradation of their traditional rainforest resources.

On March 13th 2012 Belizean conservationist Lisel Alamilla was appointed by the newly elected Belize Government as Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development.

Ms Alamilla was formerly Director of the southern Belize-based Ya’axché Conservation Trust, which had been lobbying for such a moratorium. The Trust has also been alerting the public to the widespread harvesting of immature trees which it said was one more indication that rosewood numbers had fallen to a critical level.

While MLA spokespeople were unavailable for comment after the announcement of the moratorium, Gregory Ch’oc, director of the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) said,” We recognize this as the first positive and assertive step in mitigating the environmental crisis caused by the unregulated harvesting of rosewood in Toledo, which has threatened the survival of the hardwood species in Belize and potentially increases the negative impacts of climate change on our region. It is important that we jointly put into place rigorous and long-term measures that will ensure a healthy forest and the sustainable continuity of our forest resources.”

In light of the uncertainty of Maya communal land ownership, the moratorium seems to represent the best defence of Belize’s remaining rosewood trees until an inventory of existing stocks, projected rates of regrowth, community consultation and other factors are compiled.

However, there are Maya communities that did gain legal recognition of their traditional lands in previous court cases, and they are actively working towards rosewood sustainability.

The Maya village of Conejo, for example, has established an internationally recognised program of community-based sustainable forest management that holds promise for other villages.

Conejo villagers conducted an inventory of rosewood within their communal territory and have identified a specific number of trees large enough for harvesting each year. This strategy provides some needed income for the village while sustaining the forest cover and continued viability of the species.

However – and it is a big however – due to the decimation of rosewood elsewhere, other villages may not have enough trees left to institute and maintain such a strategy, at least not for the hundred years or so  it will take for the slow growing rosewood stocks to be re-established.

So while there are fears that the moratorium may be a case of too little too late, the move has been widely welcomed by local and international environmental organisations including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

We will continue to monitor the situation in southern Belize, and look forward to seeing continued cooperation between the government, NGOs, private sector and concerned individuals to protect Belize’s incredibly diverse yet fragile ecosystem while ensuring that Belize’s earliest inhabitants and longest serving land stewards, the Maya, continue to have their voices heard.

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