Oceans of green tropical trees roll over hilly terrain toward the coast to meet the Caribbean Sea. Canopies cover the secrets of Central America’s rich biodiversity. The views I’ve seen from puddle jumper plane rides over the forests of Toledo, Belize are breathtaking. I’ve walked in those jungles, through mud spotted with fresh jaguar prints, under the trees hiding the roaring howler monkeys, and over creeks where tapirs lazily make trails with their over-sized rump and giant triangular feet. It is a humid, hot, buggy environment full of the excitement of a developing country’s jungle and filled with the persistent fear of scorpions, venomous snakes, and flies that burrow under the skin of its host, eating the flesh.
I came to Belize in 2015 to help manage a collection of protected lands nestled in an area where development is encroaching on the forest. The task seemed simple: write the first ever management plan for the Toledo Institute of Development and Environment (TIDE) Private Protected Lands. TIDE is a local organization that manages three protected areas,
conducts research and monitors forest and marine ecosystems in those areas, and implements projects in buffer communities to promote environmental health and community development. Part of my job as a natural resource manager was to protect TIDE Private Protected Lands’ threatened and endangered species – species like the jaguar and the howler monkey. My job also entailed social science. As harsh as this jungle environment may be, thousands of Belizeans call it home, creating a complex social-ecological system. This means that the local people, their customs, and their economy are all inter-woven into the function of the surrounding ecosystem.
If you take a bus through the southern half of the country, you will see where the forest shares its edge with a population of Maya, Creole, Mestizo, and Garifuna families. The Mayas’ thatch roofs and wooden walls and the space they’ve cleared for their homes all rely on cutting trees from the forest. The land, people clear for farming; the pigs and deer they hunt for food; and the rivers they use for fishing and washing. Toledo is the poorest part of the country, the least educated, and the least visited. Job opportunities are relatively scarce. Farming, hunting, and fishing are essential means of subsistence. Who am I to tell these people that they can’t have the forest? My hopes of being accepted by the protected area’s buffer communities were not high.
Hearing Their Voices
But, these humble villages proved me wrong. My team and I created a research plan to answer questions we had about how local people perceived the private protected area and TIDE. The information and report from this research will assist TIDE in building trust and improving their outreach efforts. We interviewed female and male leaders in five buffer communities with a series of semi-structured questions that asked things like “What do you think the rules should be for this protected area?” and “Do you trust TIDE?” and “Do you think protected areas are good?” Many were bitter that their hunting grounds had been taken from them and that this seemingly-rich organization doesn’t give more to the people. One man looked me in the eye with sadness and frustration and said, “Why is it that TIDE puts animals and trees first, then man?” But these people, who to the average American appear to be economically impoverished, also understand the importance of the wildlife and the need to preserve it. One woman remembered what the land used to be like and said that protected areas are good “so that future generations will know the flora and fauna that has existed over the years. Otherwise, you know, we will have, what kind of vegetation? Just, just something like deserts or no lands with only grassy areas. It means then that the animals will also become extinct. Because what will they feed on?”
Overcoming Assumptions and Finding Solutions
Through 29 interviews with village leaders we heard people speak their minds. It was clear that the way forward for TIDE is to connect with these communities and share in their sense of place, their concern for their children, and the overall agreement that these resources are essential for survival, for humans and wildlife alike, and therefore essential to be protected. Often, conservation organizations and governments assume that the trespassers and resource-users resent them and, with that in mind, they create a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, rather than increased regulation and enforcement, perhaps the solution is communication, engagement, and collaboration.