Multi-million-dollar mahogany problem – illegal exports rival legal exports
The 42% rise in illegal logging activities reported inside the Chiquibul Forest in western Belize may finally get Government’s attention now that a dollar figure of $15 million has been put to the amount of illegal exports of mahogany and cedar leaving the country for next-door Guatemala.
Chief Forest Officer Wilber Sabido told Amandala today that he would agree with the perception of some concerned Belizeans that Government has not been paying enough attention to the problem.
“I would agree with that particular perception [that there is not enough attention]. In order for more attention to be placed on the actual loss of the resource,” he added, “we need to equate it with some form of economic and financial figure.”
That figure of roughly $15 million was highlighted at a forum held a week ago in Belmopan by Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), in which the NGO, which co-manages the Chiquibul National Park with the Forest Department, highlighted the need for effective action to curb illegal activities.
“[Illegal logging in the Chiquibul] continues to be of concern to us, because we have determined that the mahogany that enters into Guatemala and goes into either local or export trade – a percentage of that is actually sourced from Belize through that illegal trade,” said CFO Sabido.
He noted that the primary timber that was being looted was mahogany.
“Apart from really being an economic driver for most logging industries for those who have it, it is also an endangered species,” Sabido informed our newspaper, adding that mahogany is protected under a UN Convention called Convention on the International Trade of Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
He estimates that between 3 to 5 million board feet of wood are exported from Belize, about half of that being mahogany. This puts the volume of mahogany illegally harvested from Chiquibul (about 2.3 million board-feet) at around the same level as that exported legally.
Sabido said that illegal harvesting will continue unabated unless there is a bi-national understanding (between Belize and Guatemala) and increased surveillance and monitoring in those affected areas.
Despite the similarity in volume of illegally and legally export mahogany, though, far more damage is evidently done by illegal harvesting, because it is done unsustainably and without the protective restrictions being observed. The illegal loggers cream the forest, taking the best and tallest trees, said Sabido.
Sabido explained that, “...when you do legal export, it is actually based on planning: How will you access resources in the forest? What is the amount of the species that can be taken out?”
He indicated that Chiquibul has the opportunity for flagship status among Belizean forests to have a UN REDD carbon credits system initiated in that part of Belize. Under this arrangement, Belize can get funds for existing carbon stores in its tropical forests.
“At the end of the day, the forests that are being co-managed by Government and Friends for Conservation and Development ...belong to the people of Belize,” said Sabido, adding that although John Q Public might not relate to the problem, the majestic forest is our heritage.
For keeping its forests verdant, Belize can access an estimated US$10.5 million under the UN REDD program (which would cover a 20-year projection), while maintaining its national resource wealth.
“While Friends for Conservation and Developments would want to make a strong argument for reinvestment [of those funds] into the Chiquibul, we have to remember that Chiquibul is called the crown jewel—but the crown has several other jewels,” said Sabido.
He said that consideration ought to be given to FCD’s proposals, but any carbon credit funds should also be spread to benefit other protected areas.
Sabido told us that the Ministry of Natural Resources, the parent ministry of the Forest Department, has been very supportive of any REDD or REDD-related initiative, and they have established a REDD desk within the department to look after such issues.
“Now the problem has to do with getting the word out there and working with organizations such as FCD who have resources to promote REDD,” he added.
Tapping into UN REDD funds, said Sabido, would be a major step forward for achieving the agenda to curb illegal activities inside Belizean forests, but also for climate-change mitigation on the whole.
Sabido said that the initiative that FCD undertook to assess losses due to illegal logging was an FAO-funded project, but the concept had the endorsement of the Forest Department, because there is the need to establish a baseline, in terms of illegal harvesting in the border areas shared between Guatemala and Belize. There is also the need to assess the economic impacts of illegal harvesting, he added.
“We need to equate the losses from illegal logging with some form of economic and financial figure,” said Sabido. Since the study does present the hard numbers, it has peaked public interest, he added.