Environmental Issues in Belize
While some historically impoverished Central American countries, like Ecuador and Guatemala, have recently seen real improvements in their economies, Belize has not been so fortunate. In the past decade, the Caribbean nation has seen an almost 10 percent increase in overall poverty. Despite its small size, it is an ecologically diverse region. Attempts to raise Belize from poverty, unfortunately, include deforestation, coastal development, and exploitation of crude oil — all at a high cost to the environment.
Tourism and the Environment
It's no surprise that the geography and climate of Belize make it an incredibly popular tourist destination. Since 2004, large-scale tourism has been on the rise in Belize, with some 800,000 tourists visiting annually. That number will likely rise to one million per year quite soon, effectively tripling the 325,000-person current population of this small country. Belize does not have adequate infrastructure to handle the amount of waste that this many people can leave behind. Cruise ships in particular create a problem for the popular beach areas around Belize City, which lack a solid waste management system. Much of the solid waste is burned in landfills, which creates highly toxic air pollution, while liquid waste ends up back in the ground, or even in the ocean. The government has promised to improve these waste management systems for years, but has taken very few steps to actually do so.
The government, however, has not completely failed the people of Belize on matters of tourism and the environment. In 1998, Belize’s government adopted an official policy on “responsible tourism”, with the vision of protecting the environment – after all, Belize’s tourism economy relies completely on it – and creating jobs for local people. But due to the low prices for Belize’s only viable exports, sugar and bananas, tourism is bearing the brunt of a struggling economy, and for all its rapid growth as an industry, the government cannot afford to keep up.
Since 2010, deforestation has accelerated in Belize, with over 48 square miles (12,632 hectares) of rainforest lost per year. This staggering amount may not be as obvious as it would be in other regions, but one need only look at a satellite photo comparison of the land in 1975 and now: massive swaths of forest, which once spanned across the country, are simply gone. This has occurred because trees have been wiped out en masse, which results in erosion and difficulties with new growth taking root.
Illegal logging is a major contributor to deforestation. Along the Guatemalan border, the prohibited harvesting of rosewood has become an internationally acknowledged problem, with Belize fingering Guatemala’s group of criminal loggers as the culprits. Rosewood, indigenous to parts of Central and South America, has a sweet smell when burned, and has long been used by the Maya people of Southern Belize: they burn it ceremonially, make instruments from it, and even build homes with it. Removing a few trees for these purposes would not be an issue; instead, the bulk of the rosewood is exported, largely to China. While in the past the Belizean government allowed and even encouraged the chopping of the these trees and the subsequent cash flow it garnered, in 2013 the Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries, and Sustainable Development confiscated illicitly obtained rosewood and burned it, as a smoky public statement that illegal logging would not be tolerated. Illegal logging continues, however, including the smuggling of mahogany – Belize’s national tree – across the border.
Guatemalan interlopers are also responsible for a recently discovered illegal gold mining ring inside Belize’s pristine Chiquibul Forest. Gold mining is a serious threat to the environment: the rivers and streams that run through the Chiquibul Forest are being desecrated by miners, who remove the banks to pan for the precious metal. This causes plants growing along the water to fall into the waterways, blocking main streams, and thereby affecting the people, plants, and animals that rely on these waters. The border communities of Belize and Guatemala live in extreme poverty, which is both the cause of this desperate incursion, and the reason its damage could be so tragic.
The Dark Side of Development
While the Belizean government is making effective effort to end such poaching of the land, it supports the development of infrastructure and oil exploration. The catch-22 for Belize is its need for improved infrastructure, and the damage that this kind of development does to natural habitats. Roads are necessary for growing an economy, providing market access for lumber and agriculture, and lowering the cost of basically every venture that the government or businesses might undertake. On a more ethically confusing level, subsistence farmers – too poor even to make a profit from their harvest, and only growing to sustain their families – have a much easier time getting around and clearing land with road access. When they have that access they are able to survive, and yet slash-and-burn agriculture happens: one area of forest is cleared for commercial logging, and subsistence farmers follow onto the cleared land to burn it (creating nutrient rich soil), and grow on it until its limited fertility is used up. Then, they move on to another area of forest.
Oil is a new industry to Belize, as petroleum was discovered here for the first time in 2005. While the production of crude oil gave the economy a boost, it has caused conflict with conservationists and indigenous people ever since. The Maya people of Toledo were already upset at being unable to fish or farm in the protected area of Sarstoon Temash National Park, but in late 2014, US Capital Energy started to place oil rigs around and even inside the park, an area the local community has carefully stewarded. US Capital Energy has been in Belize since 2006, drilling for oil and building roads — yet again, these roads, in rural regions near the border, cause problems by giving poachers easier access to ripe hunting land. Perhaps the worst part of the oil industry in Belize is the government’s “right” to surrender areas of protected land. The Sarstoon Temash National Park, for example, has fallen prey to this practice.
In January 2015, the Belizean government seemed to be succumbing to the temptation of exploring offshore oil, and non-profit groups like Oceana Belize are demanding that fishing and tourism-related jobs be protected, as well as certain places. The Belize Barrier Reef System is at stake, and it is not only important for its massive economic contribution via tourism and fishing; it is also an integral part of the ecology of the ocean. The living coral wall is literally a barrier protecting the shore from erosion, as well as protecting the marine life inside it, and providing shelter for the many amazing creatures who thrive on it. Belize has already lost more of its coral reef system than any other Caribbean country due to climate change, which some believe is exacerbated by the very practices outlined above. We’ve seen tragedies ensue from oil exploration in countries like Ecuador, and the environmentally conscious should definitely have concern for Belize.
When Belizean tourism began picking up steam in the 1990s, the campaign’s buzzword was “untouched.” It’s undeniable that Belize is a country full of natural beauty, with long stretches of white beaches, awe-inspiring coral reefs, and pristine jungles. But a secret this good couldn’t be kept for long, and now that tourism is reaching its peak in Belize, it’s the responsibility of the government, the Belizean people, and the travelers who enjoy its wonders to do their part in keeping Belize’s environment healthy. When you visit this modern day paradise, please be sure to spend some of your tourism dollars on supporting the nation's protected areas.