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Rainforest logging disrupts deep cultural rhythms in tiny Belize

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
San Pedro Columbia, Belize

Asian lumber companies have begun logging one of Central America's last great tropical rainforests, home to Maya Indians whose cries of protest are going unheard.

As precious aged hardwoods fall, indigenous farmers like Leonardo Acal sit heavily outside their simple houses in the shade of hibiscus bushes at the end of a day, and ask defining questions: "Our rain forest is something we want and need. How can the government just sell it? How can they allow the Malaysians to come in and take it away from us?"

At stake are ethical issues that affect the continued existence of Maya life itself, a culture whose roots go back 3,000 years. Also in the balance are environmental issues that reach far beyond this country to the future of the most important living lung of the hemisphere north of the Amazon.

The picture comes alive in this village of 1,200 inhabitants alongside the Columbia River Forest Reserve, 103,000 acres of limestone hills and low mountains, nearly all covered by pristine old-growth tropical forest. Recently the government permitted Malaysian-backed companies, led by Atlantic Industries Limited, to log selected areas in the reserve and elsewhere for the next 20 years. Over a dozen other concessions have been made on "national" lands, most to Asian companies; over half the 1.1 million acre Toledo district is now under license to loggers. Most of the area's 30,000 inhabitants are Maya Indians, like Leonardo Acal and his neighbors: they hold no deeds to their homesites, or corn fields and hunting areas around villages like this one, where they have lived for generations.

"The implications of the logging concessions are complicated and dramatic, and no one outside the Toledo Maya has done all they can do about it," said University of Minnesota economic geographer Joel Wainwright, who lived alongside indigenous opponents as a Fulbright scholar studying environmental conflict this year.

Like other poor countries, said Wainwright, Belize (population: 210,000) seeks to earn foreign exchange by marketing natural resources to repay "tremendous" international debt. But costs could be high: the loss of the forest itself and, in a country known for racial and political harmony despite its location among Central American countries torn by recent wars, there is dissension brewing here in the south.

"This may be the beginning of a process where the Maya of Belize are increasingly disenfranchised -- politically, economically and socially -- and as a consequence begin to challenge the legitimacy of the state," said Wainwright.

Near dusk, a flock of green parakeets bursts from the jungle and swoops low over the troubled village, then returns smoothly into the deep wall of trees. Acal and neighbors go silent as naturally as city dwellers might at the passing of a noisy train. It is a moment to consider how deeply residents here depend on the forest. On all sides, housetops are thatched with gathered palm, 3,000 fronds per roof, built to last a lifetime in a method unchanged since the days of the ancient Maya.

An elderly local "bush doctor," Jose Cho, examines the hand of a small child, yesterday riddled with fever and rash from insect bites, but cured today with poultice and tea Cho made from bark gathered from the deep forest. "They cannot afford store medicine or a town doctor and I cannot charge much because the capacity to learn to cure is a gift God gave me to use with them," Cho had said earlier.

Another neighbor, a 50-year-old musician of national fame, Florencio Mass, gazed toward the "high bush" where he has always found cedar to craft his harps.

Mountain is off limits

"The young generation want to know what is in the mountain," he says when the birds have passed. "But now our government puts a line between here and there and says, don't cross because that part is now for the man who paid so much money."

Maya such as these in southern Toledo's 34 villages are subsistence farmers, using slash and burn methods and rotating fields in a manner one international soil expert calls "sensible, logical and environmentally friendly" for local conditions. They are cash-poor, and depend on the forests not only for necessities such as housing materials and medicine, but for the only protein most eat: captured fish and game. Children attend school now and speak English. Adults vote in elections. But residents insist participation in national life does not mean Maya are willing to sacrifice their own culture and identity -- and that of their children -- for someone else's idea of economic development. So interwoven are their lives with the forest, says Acal, that to him the massive logging concessions feel like an attack on Maya themselves.

"The government considers us anomalous," he says darkly. "But we didn't come from nowhere and we don't want to scatter and disappear."

Opposition is spearheaded by Julian Cho, a Mopan Maya who grew up in San Antonio village. During years as a Jesuit scholastic at the University of St. Louis and Creighton University, Cho says, he visited Indian reservations in the United States and saw there a warning for his own people.

"I came home realizing we Maya are ignorant about laws that govern land, that we simply come and live in a place, but that others do not think this way. Now we are questioning. Is there a way to get land security?"

Cho displays a computer-created map commissioned from the University of California at Berkeley, which underscores the urgency behind the question. Diagonal lines representing logging concessions are superimposed on traditional Maya lands, nearly covering them. Cho says the idea that the "high bush" is simply a resource to be mined feels alien to Maya.

"We have respect for the forest, for bush doctors, for land," he said, sounding frustrated. He reached for a memory to explain.

"When I was growing up, my father scolded me if I stepped on a grain of corn that had fallen on the floor. 'That is life,' he would say. He was Catholic but knew corn was sacred, too, and kept his respect for the elements."

Sacred Gifts

This is a view acknowledged with respect by Catholic Bishop Osmond P. Martin of the Belize City-Belomopan diocese, who said in a pastoral letter condemning the concessions that "Maya rights to preserve the rain forest and their cultural way of life need to be protected. They have lived close to the land for centuries and they consider the forest, the streams and rivers as sacred gifts of God to humanity."

Concern might be shared by those who live far from Belize. With neighboring northern Guatemalan jungles and contiguous rain forest of Mexico's lowland Chiapas, the Belize forests form Middle America's own Amazon, a living lung of the hemisphere. The green areas visible from here are part of a great corridor for big animals and a storehouse for scientifically and medically important genetic biodiversity, which disappear when the uninterrupted stretch is carved into smaller pieces. A scientific expedition into the Reserve sponsored by Conservation International, a Washington-based environment group, found rare birds and plants, howler monkeys, lapirs, agoutis, brocket deer, coati, kinkajous, white-lipped peccaries and other animals. Of the 224 bird species experts recorded, 43 were from the eastern United States, including some that have declined in number and could disappear altogether as breeding grounds become degraded.

"Such extended tracts of undisturbed forest are especially important for the survival of such wintering birds as forests in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua become reduced to small and widely scattered fragments," said the scientists' 1993 report.

Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel and Natural Resources Minister Eduardo Juan have met with the Maya logging opponents, but remain supportive of concessions. Here on the ground, the government's authority is represented by District Forest Officer Wayne Bardalez, who denies the Malaysian operation is destructive.

We're there right alongside and dictate to them what they cut," Berdalez said. "If the loggers work 12 hours, we are in there 12 hours with them."

Nevertheless, critics maintain there are not enough forestry officers to patrol the vast region (four officers work out of Bardalez's Machaca Forest Station), and that violations occur.

About an hour's drive southeast of here, near the village of Santa Anna (population: 200), critics abound.

"Look at that creek -- full of cohune nut palm trees that will never live again, just wasted," said Juan Sam, 57.

Sam and his 19-year-old son, Ambrosio, were exploring a trail in newly-logged forest, about a two-hour walk from the village. A midday sun burned through holes in the canopy created by felled giant hardwoods. Streams looked clogged and sluggish with broken plants and other logging residue. A few months ago the rivulets ran clear, the men said, but now they feared to fish in them. "And how are we supposed to water our fields downstream when the creeks are just turning into trickles?" asked Sam.

Santa Anna's mayor, Santiago Chub, who lives here with his wife and two children, is also worried about simple survival. "People here earn $1,000 a year for a good crop, so I can't just reach into my pocket and go to the market if I want some meat or fish -- that forest is one of our main sources of food. We must find a way together to resolve this, because we will never move away."

The government's excellent forest management plan forbids logging near streams. "But the plan doesn't mean anything in the Belize context," said Joel Wainwright. "It's ignored and irrelevant because no forest person ever gets out there to most of the places where logging occurs."

Returning home, Sam and young Ambrosio deftly managed a canoe, dug out of a cedar trunk, to cross the rain-swollen Moho River. They made extra trips loaded with 66-pound bags of rice, which neighbors had carried from fields down to shore on their backs. Jutting out of the choppy current stood remnants of a half-built bridge, an abandoned government project. Sam's canoe was clearly the only transport across the fast-flowing river.

Blocking development

"Where will my son get cedar for his canoe if the loggers take the big trees?" Sam asked. His message was clear: The jungle has helped Maya here become self-dependent.

But opposition to the logging concessions is far from unanimous. Support for them is strong in Belmopan, of course, the national capital, an eight-hour bus ride north, but also in Toledo's own provincial seaside capital, Punta Gorda.

The pleasant fishing and commercial center is home to some 4,000 Creole, mestizo and other residents. Maya presence is felt only on market mornings, when they arrive by bus to sell fruits and vegetables. Many Punta Gorda residents say they believe Indians of the outlying villages act like an obstacle to development when they insist on maintaining their traditional way of life.

"That way of life is history," said a car mechanic. "What we need now are healthy industries that bring jobs, like tourism, for instance. The roads being built into the forest by the Malaysians can bring tourists there too."

Local businessman Calvert Supaul became the legally required Belizean partner for Atlantic Industries on payment of a $1 share in the business. Supaul also owns the land on which the company built its sawmill, one of the largest in Latin America, according to logging industry sources. Supaul said the company paid the government $15,000 for its license. It also pays taxes on the timber, and has employed 49 locals in an area where jobs are scarce. Most important, he says, a resource that appeared static to many -- trees in the forest -- is being used.

If a hurricane comes tomorrow and blows everything down, then what do we have?" Supaul asked.

On a recent afternoon in Supaul's hardware store on Main Street, Basilio Ico, the indigenous mayor of Silver Creek village, confessed he had dropped his resistance to the concessions.

In the first months of peaceful protest, Ico said, he had joined with colleagues of the Toledo Alcaldes Association of Maya mayors, with Julian Cho's Toledo Maya Cultural Council, and Maya of the Kekchi Community Council.

"But I have eight mouths to feed," he lamented. "What is Toledo benefiting from these organizations? We need jobs."

Ico is now employed as a carpenter with the Malaysian company.

Bobby Dickens, a missionary for an evangelical church headquartered in Florida, said, "I don't want to hear anything about these Malaysians, because they're some of the best people I've met." Dickens showed a visitor a check for the equivalent of $125, which he said the company has committed to paying monthly in support of a school Dickens operates for local children in a village called Indian Creek. In that area, reached only by boat during the rainy season, the government "couldn't help," but the company "pushed the road in eight miles for me and they're bringing in a grader for us to clear the school site."

Like Julian Cho, high school computer teacher Gregorio Choc also studied abroad -- in Canada -- and returned home, convinced of the need to organize villages. A member of the Kekchi Community Council, Choc insists Maya want to resolve the conflict "in an amicable manner," but worries "there is only a certain level of tolerance" Maya can maintain in the face of perceived official indifference. "If civil war happens" in this peaceful country, Choc says, "It will have its heart in Toledo."

Meanwhile, two prominent national religious figures support those who want the Malaysian loggers out.

"We are standing against the government," Bishop Martin told NCR. "They're totally ignoring the indigenous."

Is money worth it?

Anglican prelate Sylvestre Romero-Palma acknowledges the severity of the national fiscal crisis but asked in a statement released to local press: "Must an independent Belize repeat the mistakes of the past? Are the dollars which may be earned truly worth the price?"

Romero, the first Hispanic to head the local Anglican church, is part Maya. His questions raise the specter of the country's painful birth, when a small number of British logwood cutters overcame the indigenous population and imported black slaves.

"We need look no further than our recent history to see what devastation was wrought to our land and our people by foreign exploitation of the forests," he said.

While most Belizeans are Roman Catholic, Anglicanism remains the principal religion of Creoles, who dominate government. It was the country's dominant religious voice during three centuries of British rule, until independence in 1981.

"I want my voice to be heard as a native of this land," Romero said. "I want my government to listen and to feel the pain of our people."

Logging is set to begin again after the rainy season ends, usually around February.

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 1996/January 3, 1997