Toledo villagers: no concession, no research permit for BHD in nature reserve

This article is an extract
from The Amandala Newsletter
Date Posted: 08/01/2010 – 10:23 A.M.
Author: Adele Ramos –

A group of villagers from San Pedro Columbia Toledo, and the Ya’axche Conservation Trust (YCT), an NGO wich co-manages the Bladen Nature Reserve of Toledo with the Forestry Department, continue their calls to the Government of Belize to revoke both the concession given to Belize Hydroelectric Development & Management Company Limited (BHD) back in 2008 to develop the hydro electricity potential of the Rio Grande basin, and the permit for research awarded in 2009.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow signed the concession agreement on December 5,2008, granting it for 15 years with possible 10-year extension.

“It is very concerning that we would even contemplate a dam in a nature reserve,” said Lisel Alamilla, YCT’s executive director. “It brings to question the commitment to the protected areas of Belize. If you are willing to continue this, then really, there are no sacred cows.”

She told us that YCT is prepared to go to the Supreme Court for an injunction if the activities inside Bladen Nature Reserve are allowed to proceed, because it is the view of the NGO that allowing research activities in the reserve under a development concession demonstrates “a complete disregard for the Laws of Belize, specifically the National Parks Systems Act.

Alamilla visited Amandala today along with Michael Cus, secretary of the committee set up by area residents to investigate the works being done by BHD in Toledo. Also present were Bartolo Teul of YCT, who lives in Big Falls, Toledo; Stephanie Lara, villagers of San Pedro Columbia and committee member; and Nicanor Requeña, chairperson of the committee.

“We don’t want it,” said Requeña, saying that people living around the area of San Miguel, where the Hydro Maya dam is located, are already feeling the negative effects.

Requeña said that the Central River goes underground and them comes back to surface as the Rio Grande. The Rio Grande watershed that BHD has concession for, said Requeña, is the mother source of the freshwater in the area.

“We want to make sure we have water 10 years from now,” he added.

The nature reserve, said Alamilla, is the strictest form of safeguard for protected areas in Belize. The law, she added, only permits research inside a nature reserve for ecological purposes that would serve the interests of the reserve, and not for development projects.

Requeña said that base on the terms of the concession agreement, BHD is in the development stage of operations, which includes the hydrology studies they claim they are now conducting.

The group had met Wednesday with Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega, who is the minister with responsibility for Natural Resources and the Environment, as well as Chief Forest Officer, Wilber Sabido.

The Minister promised an assessment, but didn’t commit to anything , the group reported.

They also told us that Sabido promised to put a cease-an-desist order on BHD until the assessment is complete. (Despite numerous calls to Sabido’s office today, Amandala was unable to speak to him to find out if the order has been issued and implemented.)

Alamilla explained that Bladen Nature Reserve is the greatest of the three nature reserves in Belize; the others two being the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve in Cayo and the Burton Canal Nature Reserve behind the Belama area of Belize City.

Allowing development inside Bladen, she said, leaves the already overexploited area “wide open” to further incursions by Guatemalan xatéros and other illegal activities.

BHD was fined last year for illegally commencing work in the protected area, as well as the adjacent Columbia River Forest Reserve, including bulldozing a road inside the protected areas.

The team told us that a subsequent assessment had revealed that personnel working for the company had opened up a total of 16 miles of road, some of it an old road that had been re-colonized by forest.

If it was “only a research,” the team questioned, why bring in a bulldozer?

“If they were not caught, they would have continued,” Requeña said.

He told us that the greatest concern of Toledo villagers is the health of the rivers, on which they depend to sustain them. The area is home to species that internationally are threatened, including some amphibians.

“Why give the concession agreement in the first place?” questioned Batolo Teul.

Teul said that while the residents of Toledo have been quiet in the past, a new attitude of activism is emerging, and they won’t be quiet any more.

They are concerned that xatéros continue to illegally exploit the area, and more will come with the newly expanded access created by BHD personnel to the protected areas.

Requeña said that while they were on their visit of the research sites in early December, they found xatéros and overworked horses, some of them dead, illegally occupying the protected area.

One of the xatéros they came across indicated that he had worked in Chiquibul, Cayo, and that area is largely decimated of xaté plants; hence he was now working down south. The xatéros indicated that within 5 years, there would be no more xate to take from Belize’s forests, Requeña recounted.

He exclaimed that they know Belize’s forests so well, that they have an idea how long it will take to reap all the xate leaves.

For xate extraction to be sustainable, the team explained, only two leaves should be drawn from a plant per year. However, xatéros take as many leaves as are there, because if they don’t make their bundles of 200 leaves, the purchasers, such as on operating out of Monte los Olivos, Guatemala, will not take them. Evidence of this, said Requeña, was seen when a xatéros left behind a bundle of 150 leaves, because it was short of 50 and he would not be able to sell it.

The continued loss of Belize’s forestry resources, including its prized woods, are seen by the group as one of the many costs that could come from opening access and bringing hydro development to Toledo.

Alamilla told Amandala that the NGO has already gotten legal opinion, and if government does nothing, is ready to go to court for an infunction to stop what they believe is illegal under the National Parks Systems Act.

“We have a deadline by which we need to file an injunction,” she expresses, emphasizing that they prefer to avoid going to court over the matter.

The group also indicated that while the claim is, that the projects are being undertaken to provide hydro power for Belize, they suspect that a land grab could be the wider motive, because initially, they had received reports that BHD would get 25 acres of community land at San Miguel to facilitate its project, but that figure had once ballooned to 500 acres. They claim that they do know how much acreage was finally awarded to the company.

If that could have happened with community lands, they say, imagine what would happen in this new development that involves Crown Lands in protected areas.

Bladen Nature Reserve comprises 99,782 acres, while the Columbia River Forest Reserve, a adjacent protected area in Toledo, comprises 148,303 acres.

Later on this month, the committee, which is producing a documentary, plans to do another assessment of the research area, and they will hold a community meeting subsequent to inform area residents of their findings.

Among those slated to attend is Candy Gonzales, environmental activist and lawyer known for advocacy against the dams on the Macal and their adverse environmental effects – most recently the ugly siltation of the Macal and Belize Rivers that lasted several weeks.

The committee says that anyone wishing to contribute their expertise to the cause can call the secretary, Michael Cus, at 626-8227 or email him at


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