Sustainability Now for a country like Belize most importantly means an end to the socio-economic activities that threaten environments and species of plants and animals in this topical paradise. Situated within the Mesoamerican hotspot, Belize has a very high level of terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity. Belize hosts more than 150 spp. of mammals, 540 spp. of birds, 151 spp. of amphibians and reptiles, nearly 600 spp. of freshwater and marine fishes and 3,408 spp. of vascular plants. The country is unique, not only in the total number of species present, but also in the many different ecotypes and their species richness. The country contains a vast array of ecosystems, many of which are critical habitats for threatened and endangered species.
The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (MBRS), stretching the full length of Belize’s coastline, is the second largest unbroken coral reef complex in the world. The diversity of corals and related reef dwellers as well as its sheer size, has qualified this reef to be declared a World Heritage Site, in recognition of its rich biodiversity and consequent global importance.
Belize also plays an integral part in the maintenance of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC), comprised of a network of protected areas linked by biological habitat corridors, stretching from México to Panamá. Belize has two large, unified, blocks of intact virgin rainforest that are likely to be the last strongholds for species that require large, undisturbed areas for their long-term survival, such as the jaguar. This wealth of biological diversity, coupled with a rich cultural heritage has made Belize a very popular tourist destination, providing significant economic benefits for the nation.
Belize has substantial forest cover (around 55 percent), a low population density, and a history of protecting its forests. Belize has managed to preserve its natural environment more effectively than any of its neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean. Up until recently, the greatest threat to its rainforests came from small agricultural plots. Although timber has traditionally been important to the economy of Belize, the method of selective cutting practiced by local firms has had a small impact on the forest. There are numerous reserves which protect almost 30 percent of Belize, but these tend to be understaffed and suffer from illegal cutting activities.
The country faces a number of environmental challenges, most of which are consequences of development projects. Key current environmental issues in Belize include the following:
- Loss of mangroves due to land dredging and land reclamation projects
- Over-fishing of certain marine species
- Water pollution from sewage, industrial effluents, and agricultural runoff
- Continued usage of certain agricultural practices that are not sustainable
In this regard, Belize requires a legal framework, new policies, management systems, and educational resources to address these issues at the systemic and institutional levels in order to achieve sustainable development.
Since declaring independence in 1981, Belize has enacted many environmental protection laws aimed at the preservation of the country’s natural and cultural heritage, as well as its wealth of natural resources. These acts have established a number of different types of protected areas, with each category having its own set of regulations dictating public access, resource extraction, land use and ownership.
Roughly 26% (2.6 million acres or 1.22 million hectares) of Belizean land and sea is preserved within a total of 95 reserves, which vary in their purpose and level of protection. This network of protected areas exists under a variety of management structures:
- 1,900,469 acres (769,093 ha) of terrestrial reserves,
- 392,970 acres (159,030 ha) of marine reserves,
- 317,615 acres (128,534 ha) protected through officially recognized private conservation initiatives.
However, most of these protected areas are actually for the management of resource use and extraction, rather than for the preservation of the environment.
The number of species endemic to Belize is low, since Belize is a small country and does not have many habitats that are unique. Most of the few endemics are found in the Maya Mountains and in the lowland savannas of Belize.
In October 2003, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment began developing a comprehensive “National Protected Areas Policy & System Plan”, which focuses on establishing a balance between environmental conservation and the need for economic development, as well as on rationalizing the allocation of financial funding and human resources across the protected areas system. An evaluation compiled in 2005 identified a number of flaws in the system. These included a lack of government co-ordination with private landowners, and an overall insufficiency of data for reference, planning and management. It criticized the unnecessarily large number of management units, many of which overlap considerably and incongruously, and suggested that it would be more efficient to create a single agency responsible for all areas of natural resource management.
The Community Baboon Sanctuary was established to protect the endangered black howler (Alouatta pigra). The analysis also noted the need for stricter conservation methods in forest reserves, and to encourage sustainable methods of resource extraction. It stressed the need to further protect and maintain biological corridors in their entirety, which would require the co-operation and participation of private landowners. Another ecotype identified as lacking proper attention was the country’s deep water ecosystems, which had received neither formal protection nor any research into whether they should be.
As part of an attempt to prioritize resource allocation (both human and financial) across the system, the protected areas were ranked on their ecological, socio-cultural and economic value. The following areas were ranked as the most ecologically important in the country:
- Río Bravo Conservation and Management Area
- Aguacaliente Wildlife Sanctuary
- Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve
- Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve
- Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary
- Shipstern Nature Reserve
- Community Baboon Sanctuary
It is important to note that many of the top-scoring reserves, including Río Bravo, are privately owned. It was recommended that this scoring system be used to monitor the performance of protected areas in the future. The full analysis of the system was published in November 2005.
King of the Eagles
King of the Eagles