Article by Shreya Dasgupta.
Belize is set to establish one of the biggest biological corridors in Central America, connecting two nature reserves that are home to jaguars and pumas, among other wildlife.
The Belize northeastern biological corridor, approved by the government on Feb. 13, will span some 110 square kilometers (42 square miles) of forest, according to a press release from the Corozal Sustainable Future Initiative (CSFI), a conservation NGO in Belize. It aims to provide safe passage for species such as jaguars (Panthera onca), pumas (Puma concolor) and Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii) to move freely between the coastal dry forests of the Shipstern Nature Reserve and the tropical forests of the Freshwater Creek Forest Reserve.
“This corridor is highly important,” Heron Moreno, executive director of the CSFI, told Mongabay. “It will not only guarantee the long term survival of wildlife within the area but it will also contribute to the strengthening of the Belize Protected Areas System. Most importantly, it will serve to highlight the importance of Government, NGO and private partnership in conservation initiatives. This hereby paves the way and serves as a model for other similar initiatives to follow in Belize.”
A Baird’s tapir in the Shipstern Nature Reserve in Belize. Photo courtesy of Corozal Sustainable Future Initiative.
The push for corridors in Belize began about two decades ago through the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor Project, a Global Environment Facility-funded effort to interlink patches of forests from Mexico through Central America to Colombia. Belize’s northeastern biological corridor was one of the potentially important links that the project highlighted.
In 2015, the CSFI, together with other conservation NGOs, the government and private landowners reinitiated this dormant project, according to Caspar Bijleveld, secretary of the board of the CSFI and project coordinator for the group’s international partner, the International Tropical Conservation Fund (ITCF).
To decide the route of the corridor, the NGOs and the government used the general layout that the Mesoamerican corridor project had already proposed. “The route was originally one of the possibilities designated as such by the GEF project, back when the whole north-eastern part of Belize was forested,” Bijleveld said.
However, expanding agricultural lands and other infrastructure development drove rampant deforestation around this route. So the teams cross-referenced the original proposed corridor with the actual forest cover on the ground to determine the final route of the corridor.
The next step was to convince the private landowners to give up their land for the corridor. That was challenging, Moreno said, because “the concept of corridors is still very vague and not quite proven to function as such.”
“To be able to engage the partners, it had to be tackled more from [an] economic and regulatory perspective,” he said, adding that the process did not involve any financial transactions.
Map of the Belize northeastern biological corridor by CSFI.
Balam Jungle Estates, which owns the largest land parcel in the corridor, was convinced by tax incentives offered by the government. The Rheinländer Mennonite community, which owns another land parcel with the corridor, was convinced by a regulatory clause. “When they purchased the land, the Department of the Environment had imposed a clause of non-deforestation on the parcel that was recognized as a potential part of the corridor,” Bijleveld said.
Both landowners have agreed to place their corridor-designated land into a trust in perpetuity. The land, which will continue to be owned by the private landowners, will be managed as part of the protected area system for conservation purposes. “This protected area can then de facto only be managed as such, according to rules defined by the Trust itself,” Bijleveld said. “The rules themselves will be based on national legislation on protected areas.”
For its part, the government will halt the collection of taxes on those lands for the duration of the trust arrangement, Moreno said.
Two pumas caught on camera trap in Shipstern Nature Reserve. Photo courtesy of Corozal Sustainable Future Initiative.
Two steps are still pending. The private landowners have yet to officially put their land into trust. “This is still much in process. Trust agreements have already been drafted but official signatures are still pending,” Moreno said.
In addition, the government still needs to acquire some 40 square kilometers (15 square miles) of land within the corridor, at an estimated cost of about $1 million.
“ITCF is engaging with international NGOs active in the acquisition of lands for corridors and other critical habitats, asking them for their help,” Bijleveld said. “Although at this stage I am not in a position to cite names, things are looking promising.
“Personally, I have always been a firm believer that conservation success is a matter of long, if not very long-term involvement in a project,” he added. “That success sometimes comes through waiting for the right window of opportunity and having (lots of) patience. I have been involved in forest conservation in Belize for 30 years, and [it’s] successes like these that will keep me going for another 30.”
A jaguar captured by a camera trap in Shipstern Nature Reserve. Photo courtesy of the Corozal Sustainable Future Initiative.