During my recent trip to Belize I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to collaborate closely with Gregorio Ch'oc, chairman of the K'ekchi Council of Belize (KCB), to establish Mayan co-management of one of Belize's largest national parks, Sarstoon Temash National Park. Gregorio Ch'oc has been working slowly and steadily with the villages surrounding this 47,000 acre park. Greg is one of the few college-educated Maya in Belize. In addition to having studied indigenous development at McGill University, Greg is blessed with an unusual sensitivity to rural communities and a very keen understanding of how national politics affect his people. He is currently the chief spokesperson for the Maya Leaders, a group whose function is to negotiate indigenous land rights with the government and a cessation of very destructive Malaysian logging on lands traditionally occupied by the Maya. Greg also serves on the advisory board of the very prominent Protected Area's Conservation Trust (PACT) and held a position on the advisory council for Belize's National Biodiversity Conservation Strategy.
Under Greg's leadership, Sarstoon Temash is becoming a park run "by the people, for the people." It took three years for the communities to understand what a park would mean for them and then build a consensus to protect the park. Their attitude contrasts sharply with that of many rural communities, who equate protected areas with denied access to vital resources. Just last year, the EcoLogic Development Fund, based in Cambridge Massachusetts, joined Greg in helping strengthen the institutional capacity of the villages to form a new organization, which, in partnership with the Government of Belize, is responsible for managing the park.
EcoLogic and KCB are working hard to build the capacity of an emerging NGO, the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM). SATIIM is governed by park communities and is working to build a professional staff. EcoLogic and KCB are helping members of SATIIM develop the skills to manage their park - everything from conducting rapid ecological assessments to using GIS for mapping - in order to create and implement a park management plan. In this context, we are developing a range of community-based projects to address the cultural, conservation, and economic development priorities articulated by the communities. Priorities include planting cacao for income and buffer zone protection; converting to no-till agriculture; establishing village community centers for environmental and cultural education; and implementing measures for villages to access government support to stop poachers from taking wildlife from the park. Although EcoLogic has provided only a small amount of seed funding and planning assistance, IFAD and the World Bank-GEF have taken an interest in the initiative.
The project is precedent setting in that it establishes land rights for a population that has been historically exploited and treated as squatters on the land of its ancestors. It seeks to demonstrate the capacity of indigenous people to be stewards of their own development, in stark contrast to a long history of failed projects imposed on the Maya of Belize. We believe that this initiative can serve as a successful demonstration project that will ultimately help shape government policy and redirect private investment toward community-driven development in the region, as opposed to the current dominant model of failed mega-projects and top-down development policies. Sarstoon Temash National Park is an important piece of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Its rainforests, wetlands, estuaries, and rivers provide refuge to endangered species like manatees and jaguars and help protect the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest coral reef in the world, from sedimentation.
However, the project urgently needs support in several critical areas. Proposed GEF funding focuses almost exclusively on establishing very expensive, but necessary park infrastructure. GEF is concerned primarily with "global benefits" and care little for items deemed to provide only "local benefits." The irony is that local support for park protection is possible only if local people benefit. This is where EcoLogic comes in. First, Greg does not have a salary to work full-time on this project. We need a full-time professional devoted to this project on the ground. Second, SATIIM has requested volunteers to give short-term support in office management and program development. Third, financial support is required for activities, which are priority community concerns, that GEF will not support. They include overcoming high unemployment and building sustainable livelihoods that reinforce park protection.
One important economic alternative in helping communities create wealth in a way that respects their culture and environment is cacao. Cacao is used to make chocolate and grows under the rainforest canopy. It is native to the region, and exporters are clamoring for more. We seek financial assistance to plant cacao between the villages and the park, thereby creating a real buffer zone and extending habitat for endangered species while offering a sustainable source of income for the Maya. In addition, complementary funding is still needed to train the communities to protect the park and manage their own organization. SATIIM represents an effective and innovative model for indigenous co-management of protected areas. SATIIM needs your support.
For more information, please contact me:Shaun Paul, Executive Director OR Gregorio Ch'oc, Chairman EcoLogic Development Fund Kekchi Council of Belize P.O. Box 383405 Cambridge, MA 02238 USA T (617) 441-6300 F (617) 441-6307
The EcoLogic Development Fund conserves endangered wildlife and wildlands by advancing community-based development and resource management: in partnership with local organizations; in areas where biologically diverse habitats are most threatened; where poverty is extreme; and where financial and technical assistance can reduce pressure on threatened habitats and foster economic self-reliance. These goals are accomplished through direct financial and technical support to Latin American organizations that promote community-based development and natural resource management in areas where the fate of local people depends on the health of endangered habitats.
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