Rainforest protection & ecotourism in Belize

This article was first published on the Roving Reporter blog by World Land Trust
Discover an eco-holiday in the heart of Belize’s rainforest that funds nature conservation

International conservation charity, the World Land Trust (WLT), started its pioneering work more than two decades ago in Belize, a small country in Central America, about the size of Wales.

Programme for Belize (PfB) was the Trust’s first fundraising initiative to buy threatened land and create a protected area. Now it stands a conservation success story and a nature lovers’ eco-holiday paradise.

Driving into the rainforest in northern Belize is the most dramatic display of why we must buy land for conservation. It’s an hour and half journey from the nearest big town, Orange Walk, down a pot-holed road to the nature reserve and ecotourism lodges.

The trip takes us through recently harvested cornfields; all the way to the horizon the land looks barren, with farmers’ use of slash-and-burn giving it a desolate appearance. Slash-and-burn is one of the most environmentally damaging agricultural practices, as it removes soil cover and leads to immediate and continuing loss of the soil’s organic carbon. This is devastating for the environment, as soils contain more carbon than our atmosphere and forests combined.

It seems like there is no hope for life; from cornfields – a monoculture that is deprived of richness and diversity – the land is turned into arid soil. But then suddenly in front of us there is a glaring wall of lush greenery. Soon we are driving though the rainforest reserve surrounded by the squawks of tropical birds and the roars of howler monkeys.

The transformation in the landscape is breath-taking. I’m reminded that without the generosity of WLT supporters in the early days this rich habitat, with its thriving wildlife, would have been destroyed. Now it stands a living, flourishing example of what land purchase for conservation can achieve.

Ecotourism in the rainforest

The Rio Bravo Conservation & Management Area is a 260,000 acre (105,222 hectare) reserve that’s reputed to have the healthiest and most plentiful population of jaguars in all of Central America.

In my first week, I stay in the palm-roofed wooden eco-lodge and spend my days trekking with Programme for Belize’s naturalist guide, Melvis Valdez. A born enthusiast, Melvis is passionate about sharing the beauties of the forest and has an uncanny ability to spot wildlife – from birds to beasts.

Our first trek takes us to an ancient Mayan archaeological site just three miles from eco-lodge, where Melvis explains that in 1996 the site received international recognition when a royal Maya tomb was found and a male skeleton adorned with a jewelled necklace was unearthed on its grounds.

Most of the La Milpa Mayan site remains unexcavated and has been reclaimed by the jungle. It’s just one of 60 archaeological sites that are protected within the reserve, attracting more than a hundred archaeologists every year.

Wild encounters with spider monkeys

We don’t have long to wonder about the ancient history of this place before we’re approached by a family of spider monkeys, who are less than happy to find us in their sacred home. In the tree top canopy, baby monkeys cling to their mothers’ necks while the males take on the role of bodyguards.

Spider monkeys are territorial and can be aggressive; their jungle intimidation techniques begin with swaying vigorously on branches, snapping them, and throwing them down at our heads. Their warnings do not have the desired result on tourists desperate for a good photo. Stage two of intimidation – splattering urine and faeces down from the leaves above – sends us scurrying.

This is far from my only wildlife encounter during my stay in reserve. I witness herds of white-lipped peccary, which charge about in family groups of between 20 and 50 animals, and are known as ‘sounders’. I also catch sight of a grey fox and a royal rat – a pig-like rodent, called a paca, which became a celebrity after Queen Elizabeth II infamously ate one on a visit to the country.

As well as all these mammal sightings, the reserve is renowned for its bird life. It is a haven for 390 species and welcomes 25 migrants, with knowledgeable guides like Melvis on hand to help you tick-off your Life List.

Mission accomplished

Programme for Belize, WLT’s first project launched in 1989 and completed in 1996, helped develop the Trust’s model for working through overseas programme partners, as well as its mission and subsequent projects.

By the time fundraising for PfB had finished, the programme had attracted more than $2 million for land purchase and research into sustainable forestry, and had helped purchase 2% of Belize. Many supporters went on to contribute to Friends of Belize enabling further commitment to the long term conservation of Belize’s wildlife and natural resources.

PfB’s goal of interlinking of economic development through eco-tourism with nature conservation has been a resounding success, and demonstrates in no uncertain terms that it is possible to develop sustainable income streams, help local people to achieve a better standard of living and protect biodiversity.

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