The looting, desecration and annexation of the Chiquibul Forest

The mighty Chiquibul Forest, Belize’s largest track of unbroken tropical forest, has yet to be fully explored, and yet is under tremendous pressure from incursions by illegal Guatemalan villagers coming from just across the border.

Throughout history, conquerers have often celebrated their victory over the vanquished by urinating on a deceased enemy that minutes before was trying to kill them. Guatemalan gold miners invading the Chiquibul Forest have taken this insult to another level. They extract gold bearing quartz rock with impunity, while pissing and defecating into the very water that 70% of Belizeans drink.

Belize Water Services Limited pipes this water to your homes; Belizean breweries mix this water in the beer you drink; bottled water companies package and sell liters of this water to you by the thousands. Granted, all this water is first purified before you drink it, but if you saw someone pee and shit in a cup, then wash that cup and serve you a drink in it, how would you feel?

Fresh, clear water from the Chiquibul watersheds is used by BWSL, Belikin, Crystal Water and numerous other manufacturing and agricultural enterprises along the Belize River Valley.

Recently I accompanied rangers from Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), the non-governmental organization tasked with managing the Chiquibul Forest, to one of the most remote areas of this protected area to document what I thought was small scale gold mining, the type where a couple of poor villagers in ragged clothes crouch by a stream swirling water and gravel in a pan.

What we observed was way beyond anything we imagined. The potential environmental impacts of Guatemalan illegal gold mining in the Ceibo Chico region of the Chiquibul far surpasses the impacts of illegal xate harvesting, illegal logging, wildlife poaching and agricultural encroachments — combined. This story raises troubling questions about where we are as a people and what we value as a nation.

The Chiquibul Forest is a stronghold for the endangered Scarlet Macaw. Poaching of their chicks by Guatemalan criminals and destruction of habitat from hydroelectric dams has reduced their numbers significantly. Fortunately, in recent years, FCD and Scarlet Six have begun programs to bring them back to previous numbers.

The Chiquibul National Park, the Chiquibul Forest Reserve and the Caracol Archaeological Reserve make up the Chiquibul Forest, a total of 437,376 acres of tropical broadleaf forest. This area contains the headwaters of the Belize River Watershed, providing water for a Belizean population of over 130,000 and for agricultural enterprises along the Belize River valley.

The Chiquibul Forest supports high levels of biodiversity, but has not yet been fully explored. This green parrot snake is an example of the beauty that lies hidden in this forest.

A watershed is an area of land that drains rain water into a single location such as a stream or river. A number of major rivers originate in the Chiquibul Forest including the Macal River, the Mopan River, and the southern most Chiquibul River; all eventually merge into the Belize River which empties into the Caribbean Sea at Belize City. The headwaters of the Chiquibul River include one of the most inaccessible drainages in Belize, the Ceibo Chico and Ceibo Grande Rivers. These rivers are well known to Guatemalans for one thing — gold.

The headwaters of Ceibo Chico are low during the dry season.

Getting to the Ceibo Chico River is far easier for Guatemalans — an 8km hike from the Guatemalan border — than it is for Belizeans. Our journey starts with a two hour truck ride over a potholed dirt road from San Ignacio to Tapir Camp, the field headquarters for FCD. From Tapir Camp, a John Deere tractor tricked out with angle-iron framed metal meshed seats and racks carries 7 FCD rangers, myself and all our gear.

Packing gear and people on the tractor at Tapir Camp, field headquarters for FCD.

Attached to the tractor is a small metal trailer hauling a contingent of Belize Defense Force (BDF) soldiers, their weapons and gear. Apparently the BDF does not task transportation for the exchange of guard at the Ceibo Chico Command post, relying on a free ride with FCD for the transfers when available. Otherwise the soldiers hike. The journey from Tapir Camp to Ceiba Chico is a brutal, blister inducing 6 hours of bone-jarring shake, rattle and roll.

Typical obstruction on the road to Ceibo Chico. This requires that everyone unload from the tractor, and either the obstruction is cut out of the way by chainsaw, or a detour is located around the downed tree.

Rounding the last corner before the Ceibo Chico Command Post (CCCP), built by FCD in 2012, we bounce past damage done by years of legal gold mining. The normal tall, overhanging riparian forest is gone, replaced by acres of thick short brush and huge scars on the land, as if a massive spoon has scooped out the soil several meters deep.

The scars left by legal logging in the valley of the Ceibo Chico River.

The CCCP sits half way up a hillside above the river, all vegetation cleared between the camp and the river, with tall forest directly behind. No sentries are in sight even though tensions are high with Guatemala and there are known illegals in the area. Soldiers scamper about the command post, half of them in shorts and sandals and unarmed, the others lifting backpacks and weapons racing towards the oncoming tractor like horses returning to a stable after a long ride; they are on their way home after two weeks at the CCCP. After we unload our gear, the soldiers going home jump aboard the tractor trailer to begin the free, 6 hour ride out.

“The BDF come and go on a regular schedule, and if I know it, the Guatemalans know it. The Guats are very tactical…”

George Paul Boyinton has had a legal gold mining license for the Ceibo Chico for 17 years. He knows the area as well as anyone. His abandoned looking, termite ridden camp lies half way up the opposite bank of the river from the CCCP in a city lot sized forest clearing. The FCD rangers and myself set up camp here and spend the evening eating Mr. Boyinton’s fresh tortillas and beans and listening to stories of his gold mining exploits by candle light, serenaded by crickets, frogs and entertained by dancing fireflies. He finishes the evening chat with “The BDF come and go on a regular schedule, and if I know it, the Guatemalans know it. The Guats are very tactical. They know when the soldiers are on patrol, and that the BDF do not patrol at night, so the Guats move the ore bearing quartz rock in 150 lb sacks at night across the border for processing. We often work side by side with the illegals without bothering each other. They are there right now.

Mr. George Paul Boyinton has held the legal license to gold mining in the Ceibo Chico for 17 years.

The first evidence of illegal gold mining in the Ceibo Chico region was discovered by FCD rangers in 2011. Since then, for every goldminer arrested and charged by FCD, there are an estimated 10–12 in the group that escape across the border, and eventually return to continue digging.

Since the September 2014 death of Belize police officer Danny Conorquie at the hands of Guatemalans near Caracol, FCD has tried to enlist the BDF for firepower during many of their operations. The unfortunate April 2016 death of a 13 year old Guatemalan during an exchange of gunfire has now heightened tensions even more along the border areas. A week before this trip, FCD had officially requested a military supported operation (for the following morning) intended to surprise and apprehend the foreign invaders at a known, active mining site.

“Two weeks ago the hillside was full of parrot pairs flying around squawking and nesting. The Guatemalans set it on fire as they returned to their own country.”

FCD and the BDF have worked well together for years, so we are surprised later that night when the BDF commander notifies us that there are armed Guatemalans at the gold mining site, and due to recent events, the BDF will not be risking a confrontation the following morning. They are pulling their support and recommending we do not go either.

Then, a few minutes later the BDF commander changes his story; he has radioed HQ and has been told that they do not know who the photographer is or his purpose, and will not be putting a civilian into harm’s way. We will not be getting BDF support.

The 7 FCD rangers, even though they lack the backup firepower of the BDF, decide to run the operation on their own. These rangers are the “Delta Force” of Belize, and have been running their own operations for years. Mr. Boyinton, not surprised at the BDF response, offers one of his drivers and a tractor to get us close to the gold mining site. We hope to get within a half hour walking distance so as not to alert the Guatemalans with the sound of the tractor, then hike the remainder in silence and hopefully catch them in the act. Our plan fails from the very beginning.

Not long after leaving our camp, we encountered a burned over area of perhaps 2400+ acres

As the tractor struggles up the ridge line toward the gold mining camp early the next morning, we encounter a massive burned area estimated at 2400+ acres. William Valdez, one of Boyinton’s employees, says the area was a prime parrot nesting site. “Two weeks ago the hillside was full of parrot pairs flying around squawking and nesting. The Guatemalans set it on fire as they returned to their own country.

The entire ridgeline was burnt…on purpose by the Guatemalans

Why would they do that?” I ask as we pass through a hellish landscape of smouldering blackened stumps and charred topsoil. “How do you know it is not a natural fire?” Lightning often ignite fires on the top of pine and fern covered ridge lines in Belize.

A trail for Guatemalan illegals rises up out of the burned over area.

These areas in Ceibo Chico rarely if ever burn naturally” replies Rafael Manzanero, FCD’s Executive Director. “I am not sure if they are doing it for revenge, as if to say ‘if you won’t let us exploit your forest, we’ll burn it down’, or maybe just to clear the land to make walking easier.” Sure enough, a Guatemalan trail snakes up and out of the burnt area.

At the highest point of the ridge, clean clothes lay strewn about the road and fresh wrappers of food and drink are tossed on the ground around a camp. A single branch sticks out of the hillside as a shelter support and directly opposite the camp, through an opening in the burnt brush, runs a well traveled trail leading straight to Guatemala. This is probably a sentry outpost strategically located to watch and listen for FCD rangers and BDF soldiers. Off in the distance a cell phone tower rises from a deforested hill on the Guatemala side of the border near the village of Monte Los Olives.

Clean clothes and fresh trash litter the ground at the top of the hill. The stick in the upper right must have supported some kind of shelter.
Opposite the small one man bivouac runs a major trail from Guatemala. This is the main trail used by the Guatemalan gold diggers to haul the broken quartz rock back to Guatemala for processing.

Fresh tracks in the mud indicate that the sentry bolted from the camp only moments before our arrival. The rangers begin tracking immediately hoping to catch him before the main body of gold diggers can be warned. The trail leads through the burnt over area and eventually over a ridge and into the forest and escape.

Sadly, even if the bandit had been caught, there is no guarantee that he would have suffered any consequences. Often, by the time the Belizean security forces deliver a captured Guatemalan to the San Ignacio Police Station — sometimes an 8–12 hour trek — a lawyer and a representative of the Guatemalan Embassy are already there to negotiate the release of the captive. The illegal Guatemalans that escape the patrols use cell phones and call ahead using that cell tower in the distance.

FCD is frustrated every step of the way when it comes to prosecuting illegal Guatemalans. Police reports have to be filed, the Immigration Department has to be notified, the Forestry Department might require prisoners to be delivered to them if the offense takes place within the protected areas, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs needs to be informed, maps need to be prepared for court proceedings and the judicial system has to be activated for arraignment — all within 48 hours or the prisoner must be released.

FCD is frustrated every step of the way when it comes to prosecuting illegal Guatemalans … There is not a well coordinated standard procedure within government when it comes to processing captured Guatemalans

Anyone that knows Belizean bureaucracy understands how frustrating, time consuming and expensive this can be. “There is not a well coordinated standard procedure within government when it comes to processing captured Guatemalans” says Manzanero. “To minimize risks to our rangers from reprisals, we must extract prisoners immediately, often through hostile and rugged territory. This can be expensive in terms of fuel, machine maintenance, over-time pay and the physical and mental toll on our staff. Then to be met with conflicting procedures, paperwork and a well informed, experienced legal team for the defense which sometimes secures the immediate release of the prisoner due to technicalities, is demoralizing.

Having lost the element of surprise, the rangers return to the tractor and ride it all the way to a clearing at the top of the ridge above the gold mining area. Again, plastic wrappers, bottles and clothes litter the clearing and a well worn trail leads down the ridge past firepits and campsites.

An FCD ranger follows fresh tracks down the road through the burnt out area.
At one point the rangers heard the fugitive in the brush, but were unable to apprehend him before he disappeared into the forest to warn his fellow bandits.
The clearing at the top of the ridge above the gold digging area. Note the trash, campsite and trail leading down the hill.

None of us are prepared for what we are about to see. About half way down the ridge, the normal impenetrable green wall of a healthy tropical forest begins to thin; a line of reddish brown, lit from above as if from an opening in the canopy, appears ahead. The rangers slow then stop, crouch, and listen. Nothing. No birds, no insects, not even wind rustling through leaves. No humans either.

The normal dense forest thinned and a brown line appeared where there should have been green.

Moving slowly ahead, we leave the forest and enter a dead zone the size of a football stadium. The entire hillside spreads before us, devoid of green. Holes the size of refrigerators pockmark the ground. Mounds of ochre colored dirt with rivulets of crushed white quartz lie beside giant fallen leafless trees. Wrappers of snacks and crushed soda bottles surrounds small burn piles.

The Dead Zone.
Holes lay scattered about, some up to 6 feet deep.
Trenches show how the gold diggers follow veins of rock to the end.
The rangers are still, stunned, shocked at the desolate scene before us.

The rangers are still, stunned, shocked at the desolate scene before us. Their sacred forest, what they risk their lives to protect every day, has not only been destroyed, but the ground desecrated. The horror in their faces slowly morphs to anger.

Executive Director Rafaeil Manzanero and FCD ranger examine a pile of excavated quartz rock.

The Guatemalans have started digging half way down the hillside, tearing away the vegetation and overturning every square inch of topsoil searching for veins or deposits of quartz that may or may not contain gold. Once a vein is uncovered, they dig and dig and dig till the entire deposit is laid bare. Like a massive plough, these criminals work their way down the hillside stockpiling the quartz rock for processing while churning the rich topsoil into the subsoil — all microbial life in the dirt is sterilized by exposure to the tropical sun ensuring nothing will grow there in the near future.

A processing site where Guatemalans break the quartz apart looking for flecks of gold.

When not digging, the Guatemalans will sit by the piles of quartz and begin smashing the individual stones, searching for tiny flecks of gold the size of a pinhead. If gold is found, they set the rock aside till they have a pile weighing about 150 lbs. Then at night, when no one is patrolling, they will load the rock into crocus bags and haul the sacks 8 km over steep ridge lines into their own country, where the rock will then be processed.

“They leave behind a raw, sterilized scar on the hillside that could take a century to recover to its natural state — if ever…”

They leave behind a raw, sterilized scar on the hillside that could take up to a century to return to its natural state — if ever. When the rains come, drops will hit the disturbed dirt, knocking it loose, creating channels of water and soil particles that will merge with others channels till a good flow will begin eating away at the holes and ditches, liquifying tons of mud, rolling down the hillside along with downed trees, crushed rock, the plastic wrappers and bottles and debris and piss and feces of the Guatemalans into what once was the crystal clear headwaters of the Belize River. And this is only a single site. The Guatemalans are quickly working their way through the entire watershed of the Ceibo Chico and Ceibo Grande.

A panorama showing the scale of the destroyed area. No one photo can capture the actual horror of the scene.

On our way back to camp, we stop and follow a few other trails, and find more campsites, fire pits and trash dumps. We also find the beginning of digs, where the hillside is just starting to be torn apart in the shade of beautiful palm ferns.

Camps are discovered at other hillsides where the gold digging is just beginning.
The first dig at a new hillside.

The following morning we leave the CCCP along with 8 soldiers rotating out from the Rio Blanco CP located 10 kilometers to the Southwest. They had hiked out the day before. A smaller tractor is used as the large one has maintenance problems arising from our trip out. The space is tighter on the smaller tractor, the ride rougher, the FCD rangers crunched together, almost sitting in each others lap. The anger on their faces has turned to quiet determination. “We are losing the war” a ranger says to me over the sound of the tractor as it groans through knee deep mud ruts slicing the forest trail, “so we just have to keep fighting, work harder, smarter and hope that the government and the people of Belize will realize what is happening soon”.

The ride out is long and brutal. Notice how the BDF soldiers to the back are piled on top of each other into the small trailor like cargo.

Six long hours later, on our arrival at Tapir Camp, the BDF commanding officer approaches me, humbly and apologetically asking if I would give half his platoon a ride in my pickup to the Augustine base camp, an hour down the road. Again, there is no transportation for them to get back to base from Tapir Camp.

I hesitate for a second — this is the same BDF that refused to support our operation, that is not securing our borders, that doesn’t seem to care if the soldiers don’t have standard equipment, boots or uniforms, and no fear of getting mud in the muzzles of their rifles or jamming a loaded weapon into a jerking, bouncing trailer. But I know it is not the individual soldier’s fault. They are being placed in a very difficult situation and are just following orders.

But the truth of the matter is that Belize is losing the Chiquibul, and the GOB is not doing enough to secure our borders and protect our national sovereignty there.

The Government of Belize (GOB) PR machine talks about putting border command posts; about going to Turkey or London or Washington D.C. to negotiate so that Belizeans can go on Belizean territory without checking with Guatemalans first; about honoring the Adjacency Zones which favors Guatemala and about keeping the peace and Belizeans safe.

But the truth of the matter is that Belize is losing the Chiquibul, and the GOB is not doing enough to secure our borders and protect our national sovereignty there. According to several reliable sources, we have a minimum of 2 years, maybe a maximum of 5 before the headwaters are fouled, the wildlife exterminated, and the forests cleared, planted and colonized, and Belize looks like Guatemala does now.

The clearings in the foreground are Belize territory, in the Chiquibul — Photo taken in May 2016 courtesy Roger Hyde

Dr. Ed Boles has taught a generation of Belizean students about the science of watersheds, and is also a leading expert on Belizean rivers. He says the headwaters of our rivers are the most critical part of the entire water system. “We can replant the riparian forest, educate farmers about pesticides and drainage, legislate protection of riverbanks and ensure manufacturing and municipalities do not pollute our drinking water. But all that is useless unless you start with pure water, and that means protecting the headwaters first. Without the headwaters, we’ve lost.

Water is more valuable then gold, and the headwaters of our watersheds are strategically critical to the survival of Belize as a nation.

Where Belize goes from here is no longer up to the government. Both political parties have made it clear that politics and greed trump everything. It is time for the citizens of Belize to take charge and demand, now, regardless of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and Adjacency Zones, to delineate and secure our borders. Our national sovereignty trumps everything else — education, infrastructure, economy, health, personal needs, family, and political party. We have to solidify and secure our borders as they stand now, because in 5 short years (at the most), it won’t matter what the ICJ says - possession is nine-tenths of the law — and Guatemala will have stolen or destroyed anything of value in the Ceibo Chico. Belizeans need to ask the Government of Belize one question only. Why won’t you secure our borders now?

Belizeans need to ask their government one question only. Why won’t you secure our borders now?

The people of Belize have the resources, the money, the manpower and the smarts to secure our borders, to secure the Chiquibul and the headwaters of our rivers today, without bloodshed or confrontation with Guatemala. Is it possible that Guatemala is pissing on us at Ceiba Chico because they see the GOB as weak, fainthearted, timid and most importantly just as corrupt as Guatemala is? While our government talks and talks and talks, Guatemalans are claiming our country like cancer slowly claims a healthy body, one cleared field, one desecrated hillside, one scarlet macaw nest at a time.

A waterfall on the upper reaches of the Ceibo Chico River. During the dry season, the flow is greatly reduced.

I give the soldiers a ride to Augustine. After all, these young men are put into harm’s way without much support, not unlike the elite FCD rangers that have been struggling alone, under funded and under manned for years. Neglect, lack of support and no visible progress can lead to a loss of morale and a resignation that nothing can be done about the situation, so they eventually just go along with the flow — much like the Belizean public now. But it is now or never. Are we proud Belizeans or are we OK with becoming future Guatemalans?

As the soldiers jump out of the truck at Augustine Base Camp, two of them come by the driver-side window and said, “Thanks for the ride Mr. Tony. Next time I hope they let us go with you, we noh afraid fi di Guats”. There is hope and pride; now Belizeans just need the courage to act, together, as one.

We are losing the Chiquibul, and our Belizean Heritage — the forest is disappearing. This is not conjecture, not politics, nor tree hugging. They say patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it. Belizean, I ask you, what good does it do to support our government, and lose the country?
Like what you read? Give Tony Rath a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.