Archive for February, 2009

Ranger Conversation: Apolonio Kus

Apolonio Kus
Originally uploaded by Ya’axché

Apolonio Kus is one of the four newest rangers at Ya’axche, hired on January 12 of this year. Born in San Miguel, he moved to the local Golden Stream Village when he was five years old. Apolonio is married, and he and his wife Felicita have a four year-old son, Leonardo. Prior to joining Ya’axche, Apolonio worked in construction as a mason and carpenter, but when he saw signs posted for ranger vacancies he came out for an interview.

On his last patrol out into the Bladen nature reserve, he and his team were working to reestablish the boundary between BNR and other local land holdings — the BFREE Field Station, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Maya Mountain Forest Reserve — by locating old signs, clearing bush and, as he adds with a slight chuckle, “collecting ticks.”

Along the trail, the team’s expert eyes spotted a couple very dark feathers lying on the mud. A little digging showed a full bird’s worth of feathers buried under some leaves just off the trail. They had belonged to a great curassow, a near-threatened species native to the area. Unfortunately I’m told they’re delicious, and while hunting them is not illegal in Belize extracting any plant or animal from any of Belize’s three nature reserves is. So the team made a record of the incident and recorded their location on GPS. Future plans invlove electronically mapping hunting and extraction incidents so as to better plan patrol routes for intervention.

White-lipped Peccary

White-lipped Peccary

Apolonio’s favorite part of his job is going out on patrols, and seeing animals grazing peacefully in their natural environment is one of his favorite activities. But even this can be dangerous in the jungles of Toledo. While eating lunch on a riverbank one day, Apolonio and his team heard some peccaries a little ways away. They quietly walked toward a clearing where they saw 30 animals grazing. The men watched the group for a while before being spotted. One animal let out a soft “harumph” and suddenly 50 more animals appear in the clearing from the forest. This is not good. These groups are proficient in killing jaguars and fer-de-lances. Three guys with machetes won’t stand a chance if the pigs decide to charge. So the rangers high-tailed it out of there, each climbing the nearest tree they could. After some time, Apolonio decides to climb down and he starts banging his machete against some rocks. Eventually they do leave.

When I asked whether the peccaries were scared away by the noise or simply left because they chose to, Apolonio shrugged, raised his eyebrows and said, “I don’t know.”


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OAS Project is “Poster Child” for Design and Implementation

One of our projects, funded by the Organization of American States, focuses on community livelihood development that is environmentally sustainable.  We sponsor efforts to grow organic vegetables and cacao, and to expand efforts in agroforestry and non-timber forest products (fruits, cohune oil and, perhaps, biochar in the future.)

Recently Jane Mohan, Office Director of OAS Headquarters, had this to say about our project upon hearing a positive project update:

“I too am pleased to hear that things are going well, particularly since you  have now become our “poster child” of a well designed and implemented project … and perhaps more importantly, a project whose objective strike to the heart of what we want to accomplish.”

Thank you Ms. Mohan for your continued support, and we’ll be sure to keep up the good work!

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Ya’axche is about Far More than Just Conservation

When the Ya’axche Conservation Trust was founded around 11 years ago, its focus was on preserving the environment around the Golden Stream River — land it had recently purchased with help from England-based FFI.  But the Ya’axche mission never focused solely on protecting the environment.  It focused on building up the communities in the area.  How could it reconcile these two goals which are often at odds with each other?

Over time, Ya’axche developed a blended methodology for the dual development of environmental and socio-economic strengthening within the Toledo District.  This approach requires long-term vision and planning horizons for environmental conservation, yet must also acknowledge the immediacy of sustained economic activity (much of which is based on using environmental resources).

The concepts that came out of this included rotating forest plots that would be cleared for seasonal agriculture, growing shade-loving crops under the canopies of larger hardwood trees, reducing the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and finding business opportunities outside of traditional slash & burn agriculture and timber extraction.

Cocao grows wonderfully in the shade of a hardwood forest

Cocao grows wonderfully in the shade of a hardwood forest

Little did we know it, but we were slowly stumbling onto the philosophies of Integrated Landscape Management.  You see, working toward the goals I mentioned on a local level is one thing, but to have a true impact on the quality of the future environment — and to have a system that is in itself perpetual — cultural and economic mores must be impacted.  Governmental policy and regulation must be supportive; this is of particular importance for achieving balance between people, natural resources and profit.  Everyone has to be on board.  When not, your efforts reduce to a certain amount of wheel-spinning.

Integrated Landscape Management is where multiple abiotic, biotic and cultural goals are simultaneously pursued. Abiotic goals include water resources, soil, and air quality. Biotic goals focus on biodiversity in general, including individual species and habitat protection and ecological restoration. Cultural goals are human-based and include: transportation, land use, recreation, historic preservation and economic goals.  ILM is a mechanism for applying sustainable development to land and resource use through integration among the stages of decision makers (vertically – from a global and national to a regional and local level), integration across sectors and land uses (horizontally – human settlement, agriculture, forestry etc), and integration over time and space.  It embraces a state of balance in which use, conservation and protection are applied appropriately and at the correct scale.


ILM is a mechanism for applying sustainable development.  For it to function, it must include a specific set of elements.  Firstly, there must be a decision making framework comprised of Policy and Strategic Planning, a Legal Regime, Planning and Project Review.  Secondly, this must be complimented by the functional components to operationalize it.  These are the landscape, the actors, the data, the technology and the coordination.

This concept is hugely important for Ya’axche and its local and national efforts.  As such, we will be providing weekly updates (every Wed) on our activities in this very innovative and highly complex arena.  Stay tuned!

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Teresa Teaches Local Children at the Ya’axche Nursery

Teresa and children at Ya’axche Nursery
Originally uploaded by Ya’axché

In this picture Ya’axche horticulturalist, Teresa Coe, shows local school children the Ya’axche Nursery during one of our annual summer camp events. In the background on the left are two forest rangers, Victor and Anignacio, providing support and stories from the field. Teresa is showing the soil in a planting box just before new seedlings are transplanted.

On a day like this, Teresa will share her vast knowledge of local plant life with the children from surrounding communities. An expert in agroforestry, she’ll tell the kids which plants grow well together (e.g. taller plants with those that require shade), which are the quickest to grow and which can be used for other uses. (Some bear edible fruits and spices, some produce hardwoods and lumber, there are the cacao and coffee plants and, of course, the jipijapa, the leaves of which are used to make traditional Mayan baskets.) She also uses the time to talk about reforestation efforts and integrated pest management techniques — practices that reduce pests, but without using pesticides.

We really value our summer camps. They provide us a chance to connect with children — the next generation of leaders, farmers and influencers — to show them the relationship they have to the land, flora and fauna around them. And the kids have a great time too!

Current plant species in the Ya’axche Nursery include:

Hardwood timber

Fruit trees

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Organic Farming Training

twbz-ag-medium2Yesterday a small contingent of farmers from our local Mayan communities within the Golden Stream Watershed took a field trip with Ya’axche to the Cayo District.  There, Mr. Thomas Tillett, Country Officer for Organic Production at the Ministry of Agriculture served as the guide to two demonstration plot areas at the Central Farm created and maintained by both Taiwanese nationals and Belizeans.  These plots relied on agro-chemicals, such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

ag-min-mediumNext, to demonstrate a chemical-free and thus healthier alternative to farming, the group visited the organic farm near Santa Familia.  There the farmers saw evidence of a highly successful organic farm. The two Tun brothers that owned it used natural pesticides made from Castor oil and marigold, and they produced fertilizers by converting composted organic materials into vermicompost with the help of earthworms.

Ultimately great benefits were shown for the results of organic farming.  Sponsorship for the trip came by way of our project with the Organization of American States (OAS) who we are working with to enrich livelihoods through integrated landscape management techniques in the communities that surround our protected areas.  As we move forward, Ya’axche will continue to work with local communities to encourage productive organic agriculture practice.

(Significant story contribution from Ginny Fuhs)


Organic Vegetables

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Our National Policy Advocacy Work – Amending the National Park Systems Act

Recently our Executive Director, Ms. Lisel Alamilla, spent time in the Belizean capital of Belmopan developing provisions for potentially amending the National Park Systems Act.

The issue is that private protected areas, like our Golden Stream Corridor Preserve (15,000 acres connecting the mountains to the sea along the Golden Stream River) do not have the same legal status as other nationally (governmentally) protected areas.  To date there exists a “gentleman’s agreement” between the government and the owners of these lands to treat them as national parks, but no legal statute to back that up.  In regards to covenant acts (similar to an American conservation easement) this is a huge difference.  Our goal, and the goal of our partners, is to integrate private protected areas into the national park system.  This desire was documented in the jointly-developed Belize National Protected Areas System Plan (PDF Summary).


So Ya’axche took the lead by hiring the prominent counsel Ms. Magali Marin-Young to draft the provisions for ammendment.  (Ms. Marin-Young is also advocating against a constitutional amendment giving the government unprecedented autonomy in land rights.  Read the coverage here.)  Having drafted the initial documentation, Ya’axche has submitted it for review and endorsement by the Belize Association of Private Protected Areas (BAPPA).  With their approval the provisions will be presented to the government and lobbied.

undp_logoYa’axche’s involvement couldn’t have happened without the support it received from a United Nations Development Plan project grant.  The three-year project, titled “Integrating Protected Area and Landscape Management in the Golden Stream Watershed,” supports a wide range of activities including:

  1. The development of managment plans for four protected areas in the Golden Stream Watershed
  2. A development strategy for the watershed area that strengthens its social and financial sustainability
  3. Clarification of the legislative environment that affects private protected areas
  4. Providing a blueprint for effective management for authorities and other stakeholders to follow, effectively consolidating the National Park Areas System

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Ranger Conversation: Victor Bonilla

I just had a conversation with one of our rangers, Victor Bonilla, who recently returned from a 10-day patrol out at Bladen Nature Reserve. He came in to the office today on his day off and I caught him for a moment to ask about his latest foray into the high jungle.

victor-ranger-convo-090213Along with his team, fellow rangers Abelino Zuniga and Alejandro Ical, Victor made daily trips into the nature reserve and one long three-day “long trek” to points further away from the ranger station. The primary job of the long trek was to find and record hunting camps in the forest. Hunting any species is illegal in a nature reserve, but that doesn’t stop some people. A consistent challenge for the rangers and the organization is to prevent local villagers from hunting on protected land, land that while having been hunted for hundreds of years is now restricted to research and educational usage only. The team came across a variety of camps and destroyed them so if the hunters return they know the rangers know they’re there. It’s very rare that the rangers would actually meet the hunters face to face.

Collared peccary, not as common around here as the White-lipped peccary

Collared peccary, not as common around here as the White-lipped peccary

The species most commonly targeted are the white-lipped peccary (whose droves of up to 75-100 individuals have been known to kill jaguars, one of their chief predators), the paca (a 25-30 pound rodent known locally as the “Queen’s rat”), the great curassow (similar to a pheasant), red brocket and white-tail deer and the machaca (a flavorful, yet boney fish).

The patrols also noted significant xate destruction from the clearing of hunting paths. Xate loss is a significant problem in local forests, though normally the problem is caused by illegal harvest by groups called Xateros. Xate is very popular in Europe and the US for floral arrangements and it grows naturally in the Belizean wilderness. But harvesting it from that wilderness is illegal.



Another common activity on patrol is bird monitoring. Victor will find a one kilometer stretch of land he wants to monitor. He’ll start at one end and listen for bird calls for 10 minutes, recording the species he hears. Then he’ll head about 200 meters down the line and record what he hears there for 10 more minutes. By the time he’s covered the kilometer, he’ll have stopped at six stations listening for bird calls. On his last patrol he identified 34 distinct calls, and he can recognize over 300 of the 582 birds registered in the Birds of Belize field book. Quite a talent! While doing this he’ll also record any animal tracks he comes across, noting which of the large mammal species frequent that area.

He also told me a story about the last recorded Harpy eagle pair seen in the area. Unfortunately a research group of 18 people all went to see them last April and it’s presumed their presence startled the territorial birds who have since moved to a different section of the jungle. Harpy eagles are the apex raptor species in the area and one of the largest eagles in the world. They skim over the jungle canopy picking off monkeys from the treetops.

After a 10 day patrol, the rangers have five days off. Victor has been using this time to clean up his family’s corn farm, do some personal birding and come to town to run errands.

This is the first of what will be many ranger conversation which we’ll publish here. These hard working men have some really great stories which I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading. Keep checking this site for more updates!

Ya'axche Conservation Trust Rangers, 2009

Ya'axche Conservation Trust Rangers, 2009

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