Help Protect the Pristine Paradise of Southern Belize
In southern Belize, untampered wilderness stretches from the mountains, across forest, savanna and mangroves and out to the Caribbean coast. An enchanting slice of ecological paradise, the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor is teeming with iguanas, jaguars , ocelots and black howler monkeys as well as 500 species of birds including exotic cinnamon hummingbirds and keel-billed toucans. For centuries, descendants of the great Maya civilization have lived in small settlements scattered throughout the region, and more recently the Garifuna people, whose ancestors were African slaves, have come to call this land home.
Located in Belize's district of Toledo and separated by the long Southern Highway, the corridor's inaccessibility has kept it pristine. However, the Southern Highway was recently paved, increasing access and threatening the region's future. Slash-and-burn agriculture, deforestation, over-fishing, pollution by agricultural chemicals, manatee poaching, extensive banana plantations and consequent erosion are but some of the threats that concern conservationists.
The Toledo Institute for Development and the Environment (TIDE), the Rainforest Alliance's Belize-based partner, has been leading efforts to plan for the corridor's ecological future. Not only has the group developed a comprehensive community conservation plan for all one million acres of the Maya forest and coastal reserves, but TIDE has begun purchasing land, developing community education and awareness, and encouraging ecotourism for the region.
Toledo's Ecological Significance
With over 12 feet of annual rainfall, the highlands of the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor are intimately tied to the lowlands via runoff and a series of rivers. These waterways act as a meeting place for animals, such as jaguars, peccaries and ocelots that migrate freely from the mountainous areas to coastal lowlands for food and breeding. Many of these species are rare and endangered.
The coastal area provides one of the richest and most critically important habitats in the Caribbean: a mangrove coast dotted with over 200 small coral cayes that line the Belize Barrier Reef. The mangroves and seagrass beds filter and clean the river water, which protects the reef -- the world's second longest after the Great Barrier in Australia. Offshore marine life includes manatees, dolphins and unusual species of fish, such as the giant jewfish, which can weigh over 600 pounds.
TIDE's Conservation Efforts
TIDE is working with local communities to promote sustainable means of generating income. The group is training local people to act as tour guides on low-impact fly-fishing excursions, nature walks and paddling expeditions along jungle lined rivers and creeks. The work provides a sustainable alternative to the illegal fishing operations, which was threatening the health of the estuary.
After a seven-year battle, in 2000 TIDE finally succeeded in getting Port Honduras declared a Marine Reserve for the protection of endangered coral and marine life. Along with the Fisheries Department of Belize, TIDE manages the reserve and carries out anti-poaching patrols to reduce illegal fishing and prevent damage to the giant manatees that roam the coastal areas and estuary in search of seagrass.
Finally, faced with the increasing threat of development, logging and unsustainable agriculture, TIDE has embarked on a land purchase and preservation program to protect Toledo's wild lands and waters. Money raised through Rainforest Alliance's Adopt-A-Rainforest program will be used to carry out reforestation projects with two indigenous Mayan groups to reforest the banks of the Rio Grande in the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor, helping to reduce erosion of the riverbank, and increasing habitat for wildlife, such as kingfishers, hummingbirds, green iguanas, and river otters!