Collaboration to Protect the Maya Mountains

In Focus, Oct. 5, 2007

By Kate Barrett

It was on a 1996 expedition to the highest point in Belize that Derric Chan first encountered a stranger searching for the xate palm.

Hiking through Chiquibul National Park, Chan’s group spoke briefly to the man, who said he was in the forest looking for plants. Unable to detain or interview him further, despite the fact that the area was protected, Chan’s group continued its trek.

That’s no longer the case in this area of the Maya Mountains. As park manager, today Chan oversees five rangers empowered to help protect the park from the illegal extraction of xate and other threats.

Having first encroached on Chiquibul in the late 1990s, today’s xateros, or xate harvesters, often live in the park’s forests for weeks at a time to collect leaves of the ornamental plants that they can sell for export to the United States and Europe. Their presence disturbs the pristine forest, one of the most intact in the region, through illegal fuel wood collection and hunting.

Before last October, there was no formal management presence in the park, but after just one year on the job, Chan and his colleagues are already making a difference. Their weekly patrols identified more than 160 camps of people illegally harvesting the xate, many of which were then closed with help from the local authorities.

"Through foot patrols, vehicle patrols, multi-agency patrols, and binational patrols, our ranger team has managed to cover about 40 percent of the park," said Rafael Manzanero, executive director of Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), the local organization that hired the rangers. "They really have been able to reach in and start reclaiming integrity of the park."

Better Management for Chiquibul

Long a presence in the area, FCD signed an agreement with the Belize Forest Department this year to formally co-manage Chiquibul National Park. Support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) enabled the nongovernmental organization (NGO) to hire and train rangers and provide them with transportation and other infrastructure.

CEPF’s support for FCD comes as part of its strategic direction of supporting priority conservation actions in three key biodiversity areas in the northern region of the Mesoamerica Hotspot.

The funding also supported FCD’s efforts to facilitate an integrated management program with the Belize Forest Department, protected area managers, and stakeholders of 14 protected areas in the Chiquibul-Maya Mountain Key Biodiversity Area.

Another important project partner is the Belize Protected Areas Trust Fund (PACT), which is matching CEPF’s funding; in addition to being a financial boost, this partnership demonstrates a long-term commitment to restoring and protecting Chiquibul National Park.

"The collaborative alliances that the project has created, especially along the Guatemalan border, are very important," CEPF Grant Director Michele Zador said. "Previously, there was very little institutional presence in Chiquibul, and collaboration between the various governmental and nongovernmental agencies was very weak."

National Recognition for Local Management

That collaboration has already paid off. This summer, FCD received an award from the Belize Forest Department recognizing the organization as “NGO Co-Manager of the Year.”

"They have been setting the trend for effective and integrated protected areas management one day at a time," Belize’s Forest Department acknowledged during the award ceremony.

According to the co-management agreement, people hired to patrol the park were required to come from local communities. Chan is one of them: he grew up in the neighboring village of San Jose Succotz.

"That is the romantic part of the story for us because our parents did know these forests and they always thought it was so beautiful, so huge, enchanted," Chan said. An insider’s knowledge of Chiquibul is crucial because Chan and his peers are contending with xateros who also know the forest well.

A Job of Enjoyment

A binational work plan between authorities in Belize and neighboring Guatemalan and FCD is in progress, to help address the issue of illegal harvesters who are coming from Guatemala. In the months ahead, FCD also plans to complete an official management plan for the park, based on a broad consultation process, and ideally hire four additional rangers.

“This is really challenging work, yes, and that’s why we are prompted as an organization to give our staff more training and appropriate equipment, and build more strategic alliances on the ground,” Manzanero said.

Amid the challenges, Chan is appreciating the finer parts of his days.

“We have enjoyed the work,” he says. “I personally have had an opportunity that not many people get to have—of getting to faraway areas where we have discovered caves, where we have bumped into a jaguar, where we have floated down rivers. So it is a job, really, of enjoyment.”

For more information, contact Rafael Manzanero via e-mail at or telephone: 00501-823-2657.