Archive for What Do We See in This Picture?

Central American River Turtle



Please help look for hicatees


Women cleaning hicatees for sale photo taken by staff

Did you enjoy a tasty and traditional Easter meal of hicatee this year? If so, it may have been your last as this Critically Endangered species was listed as one of the Top 25 Turtles on Death Row by the Turtle Conservation Fund over 7 years ago. To be classified as Critically Endangered, the species must face an extremely high risk of extinction in the immediate future. In terms of biological diversity, the Dermatemys mawii (hicatee) is of very high importance; it is the single living genus and species in this family, which dates back to the Eocene.  

Preparing a female hicatee for sale at a market photo taken by staff

The main threat to the hicatee is over  hunting. Hunting regulations do apply in Belize,and include a closed season (the month of May), a take limit (maximum 3 per individual and 5 per vehicle), and limits on the size of females that can be killed. In addition, Belize Fisheries regulations state that no person shall buy or sell any hicatee turtle, however, for just one hour on one random day at the fish market in Belize City, I witnessed 4 hicatees being offered for sale. Obviously, national legislation to protect the hicatee turtle in Belize has been ineffective, wether due to lack of consistent enforcement or lack of general knowledge of, and compliance with, regulations.   

For adequate and realistic conservation measures to be adopted and enforced by the Government of Belize and the managers of the protected areas, there must be a drastic change in awareness in both governmental agencies and the public at large. This can only be brought about through the presentation of a comprehensive and accurate report on the current status of hicatee populations nationally, the threats impacting them, the outcome of current trends, and viable strategies to safeguard the species and critical habitat for future generations.   

Dermatemys mawii photo by Thomas Rainwater


There is a strong concern by conservationists, nationally and internationally about the sharp decline of the hicatee. From April-June of 2010, surveys were conducted throughout Belize by international reptile expert Thomas Rainwater (who took the accompanying photo), to assess the current hicatee population. Plans are underway to conduct a workshop to draft a National Conservation Action Strategy for the hicatee, with anticipated completion by the fall of 2010. Information on the outcome of these activities will be forthcoming.   


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Rare Crested Caracara found by Ya’axché Ranger


CARACARA (Photo Courtesy Ya'axché)

Ya’axché ranger Victor Bonilla was on his way to work on the morning of Monday, 2nd November 2009, and  noticed a relatively large bird of prey lying on the road. An avid birder, Victor stopped to take a look and was astounded when he identified it immediately as a Crested caracara (Caracara cheriway). This species has rarely been recorded within Belize, let alone the Toledo District, making this a surprising find. This incident also highlights the impact that roads have on biodiversity, something that has concerned Ya’axché for several years now. To monitor this, and as part of its Biodiversity Research, Inventory and Monitoring (or BRIM) System, Ya’axché has made a point of recording all dead animals that its rangers find on the road on their way to and from work along Belize’s Southern Highway every day. Like all of the aspects of Ya’axché’s BRIM system, the information gathered on ‘roadkill’ is fed directly into informing and the organisation’s management efforts.


Caracara (Photo courtesy Ya'axché Conservation Trust)

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Organic Products in Belize

Protecting Fragile Organic Vegetables

Protecting Organic Vegetables

Ya’axche is involved in organic vegetable cultivation.  Through a grant provided by the Organization of American States (OAS) and in conjunction with our Community Outreach and Livelihoods program, we have sponsored the planting of about two acres of organic vegetables in the community of Medina Bank.  We have discussed that operation before, but in today’s What Do We See in This Picture we wanted to speak further about the state of organic products in Belize.

This is a picture of a greenhouse for organic vegetables in the Cayo district.  Sweet (bell) peppers on the left, tomatoes on the right.  The protective plastic covering does three things for the plants, and are therefore highly recommended for use on all local organic farms:

  1. Sun protection – UV radiation give plants greater susceptibility to certain diseases
  2. Pest control – insects destroy crops and raise incidences of disease
  3. Climate control – exposure and irrigation are much easier to control in an enclosed structure.  This is particularly useful for growing seedlings for transplanting

These structures (approx 20′ x 40′ in dimension) cost around BZ$3,000 (US$1,500) to construct and can hold a few hundred plants. Included in that cost is the installation of an irrigation system (which must be fed by a water main or stream).  It is also necessary to provide a small container with water mixed with bleach and white lime for rinsing hands and feet/boots prior to entering an organic growing area.  That reduces the incidences of contamination by non-organic substances.  All of this is required of organic operations here in Belize.

Historically, local farming has always been organic.  Traditional Mayan agriculture did not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides since none were available.  Early banana and sugar cane plantations were organic by default as well.  In the Mayan system, the health of crops was ensured through plot rotation, crop rotation and manual care.  Moving plots from one area to the next in subsequent years reduced the impact of pests on a crop.  Similarly, rotating beans into a cornfield after each harvest enriched the soil (beans are a legume) and kept weeds off the plot.  Lastly, much manual labor was needed to keep fields healthy and free of pests.  So when chemical fertilizers and pesticides came onto the scene, they gained wide acceptance on commercial as well as family farms.  Nowadays that’s starting to change as the market for organically-produced foods is growing.

Belize does not currently have a national standard for organic products.  It does, however, have two institutions that are filling some of the void until that standard is implemented. The first is the Punta Gorda-based Toledo Cacao Growers’ Association (TCGA),which supplies fair trade cacao for UK-based Green & Black’s organic chocolate.  Back in the early 90s these bodies established the first large-scale commercial organic enterprise in the region.

The second organic institution is the Belize Organic Producers Association (BOPA – website under construction) which has developed criteria for organic certification.  Barring unforeseen challenges, those criteria should be approved by the Ministry of Agriculture sometime in the early summer, providing Belize with its first national organic standard.  Within the year it should have field agents who will begin the process of certifying farms.

While that process – and in fact the focus of Belizean organic operations – is taking place in the Cayo and Belize districts north of us, we are very excited about the opportunity we have of furthering the organic movement and becoming a leader in Toledo-based organics!

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Race Against Fire: A Collage

Race Against Fire 2009

2009 Race Against Fire

Here is a photo collage of some of the images from our 2009 Race Against Fire, an annual presentation and community forum on fire awareness and preparedness.  Among the images you can see:

  • The race participants at the start and the winner at the end of the race
  • A wide cross section of the many hundreds of visitors who attended
  • Recipients of our inaugural award recognizing Outstanding Farming Practices and Reduced Fire Use
  • Representatives of the Red Cross, Fire Department, and Traffic Department, all of whose organizations supported the event
  • Participants in the soccer/football and volleyball tournaments
  • Watermelons from one of our three eating contests
  • A traditional Mayan harpist who performed at the event

Below you’ll find an example of the award certificate that was presented to those farmers who had significantly reduced and/or eliminated the use of fire in their field preparations.  Many had also started organic cacao plots, which along with being highly lucrative, are organic and do not require destroying any natural forest.  Along with the certificate, each farmer was awarded a small set of tools useful in cacao harvesting and the recognition of their peers and communities.

We are very thankful to the village of Indian Creek for providing the venue and much of the food for this event.  Our congratulations to the race and competition winners and to those farmers recognized for their outstanding practices!


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Fire Awareness and Prevention

Participants in the Race Against Fire

Participants in the Race Against Fire

In today’s “What Do We See In This Picture” I have pulled an image from our archives. What you’re looking at is a group of previous race participants in our annual Race Against Fire receiving some pre-race instructions.

We sponsor this annual event each spring to bring awareness to the impact fire has on the land and communities of the Toledo district. We are currently in the dry season in Belize. The sun is hot, there is no rain and the land is drying out. This is also the time of year that traditional slash-and-burn farmers begin clearing their land, looking to get their seeds planted before the rains start again in June. Driving around the region over the last week, we have already seen a few fires starting to burn.

Like any region with a high chance of fire, the key to averting disaster is mitigating risk and raising awareness.  Each year the government clears fire breaks in the pine savannas which extend along the flat lands of northern Toledo and throughout other districts.  The idea is that if a fire does break out in an area, it will be restricted to that area and will not be able to “leap the breaks” to other sections of land.  Unfortunately this technique is not feasible in the broad leaf forests of southern Toledo, the Maya Mountains and the lands around Ya’axche-managed protected areas.  The terrain is rough and the bush is thick.  Traditionally there wasn’t much risk of natural fires in these rain forests, but the region is still feeling the effects of 2001’s Hurricane Iris which felled many trees and provided fuel for very major fire seasons.  The worst of these fire seasons were in 2003 and 2008.

Slash-and-burn agriculture represents the single greatest fire threat humans put on the local forests.  Though regulations require farmers to obtain burn permits and establish precautions against unchecked burning, these rules can be very difficult to enforce in rural Belize. At Ya’axche, we’ve taken to raising awareness about fire, and to educating local residents about alternatives to slash-and-burn.

The easiest alternative is “slash-and-mulch.”  When a farmer clears bush for a farm plot, he should simply leave the clippings on the ground.  No fire is introduced, and the decaying plant matter provides nutrients for the young crops (usually corn), shades the earth from the hot sun, impedes weed growth, and mitigates erosion once the rains start again.  And, quite simply, it requires less work of the farmer than slash-and-burn.

But the annual Race Against Fire is not just about fire, it is also about fun.  We organize a wide variety of events in addition to the bike race.  There will be football/soccer and volleyball matches, eating contests, corn and coconut shucking contests, dancing and traditional music.  It will be a lot of fun!

Look to our Flickr account next week for pictures from the event, and have a safe fire season.

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Finding the Scarlet Macaw

Anignazio Makin searches for Scarlet Macaws with Dr. Mark McReynolds

Ranger Anignacio Makin searches for Scarlet Macaws with Mark McReynolds

Written by Nathaniel Miller, Ya’axche Protected Areas Manager

Last Thursday Ya’axche rangers accompanied scarlet macaw researcher Mark McReynolds into Bladen Nature Reserve — the Jewel of Belize — joining him for his transect monitoring.

While the rangers learned more about macaws and research work Mr. McReynolds is doing, they demonstrated their immense local knowledge of bird identification and even taught Mr. McReynolds a few exotic calls.

Mr. McReynolds is studying Macaws all over Belize and doing the country a great service in providing more information on this endangered and understudied bird.

Scarlet Macaws in Red Bank, Belize (photo by Mark McReynolds)

Scarlet Macaws in Red Bank, Belize (photo by Mark McReynolds)

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Organic Vegetables

Medina Bank Organic Vegetable Farm

Medina Bank Organic Vegetable Farm

In this picture we see one of the newest projects Ya’axche has undertaken:  Organic Farming.

As part of our efforts in community outreach and livelihood development we have partnered with the local Medina Bank village to create this three-quarter acre community plot.  There’s another quarter acre just off to the left of this frame.  The aim is to develop local knowledge regarding organic farming.  As local demand for organic products slowly grows, these farmers will be local leaders in the field.  Additionally, by using only organic fertilizers and pest control systems, we ensure the ongoing quality of the land and nearby river (which is about 100 meters to the right of this picture).

So what are you seeing in this picture?  First, the plot is located just off the Southern Highway, providing easy access and visibility.  (We plan to install a large roadside sign in the next few weeks.)  Whereas traditional farming techniques move crops to different plots each year using slash-and-burn agriculture, this farm will permanently remain in this area, minimizing impacts on other stretches of nearby forest.  Crops will be rotated with legume species to maintain soil quality, and a compost operation is being developed in an area just to the back right part of the field.

You’ll also see sporadic trees in the middle of the plot.  Those are a variety of species including cohune palm, avocado, bri bri and cacao and hardwood species.  Our farming techniques can be done without completely clearing the land of plants, and the diversity adds to the organic product list produced by this farm.  The main crops there are cabbage, tomato and sweet peppers, but we also have zucchini, peanuts, cucumbers, beans, lettuce, Chinese cabbage, cassava, plantain, callaloo and watermelons.  Overall, we are cultivating nearly 20 species of edible plants of one kind or another on this one acre.

In the background you see one of the foothills to the Maya Mountains.  It’s quite bare at the moment due to the high level of fire activity in recent years.  Hurricane Iris hit the area in 2001 destroying large tracts of forest.  That fallen timber (and the entire top of that hill) burned in 2003 after a slash-and-burn operation went wrong.  After that the hill was used for extensive farming for five years until another fire burned agricultural and milpa waste last summer.  Because of these fires and the increased erosion on the bare land, it will be some time before trees once again cover that hilltop — if ever at all.

We also recently wrote about the new drip irrigation system installed on this plot, which will further help its productivity and status as an innovative pilot program in the region.

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