Illegal pseudomedicinal poached animal parts sold at an open market - Credit Avlxyz, Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/avlxyz/2372510597Illegal pseudomedicinal poached animal parts sold at an open market - Credit Avlxyz, Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/avlxyz/2372510597By Steven Broad, Executive Director of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network

CAMBRIDGE, UK, Mar 23 (IPS) - On Feb. 13, 2014, heads of state and ministers from 41 countries met in London to inject a new level of political momentum into efforts to combat the growing global threat posed by illegal wildlife trade to species such as elephants, rhinos and tigers.

The UK government-hosted meeting adopted the 25-point London Declaration, with ambitious measures agreed to eradicate the market for illegal wildlife products; strengthen law enforcement efforts and ensure effective legal frameworks and deterrents are in place; and promote sustainable livelihoods through positive engagement with local communities.

More than a year on, representatives from these governments will gather again March 25 in Kasane, Botswana, to review progress on the implementation of that Declaration and, hopefully, commit to new and tangible actions to further strengthen their implementation.

The scale of the crisis governments in Kasane are facing is daunting: Africa-wide, almost 1,300 rhinos were lost to poaching in 2014, 1,215 of them in South Africa alone.

The situation with elephants remains dire—the most recent analysis of data from the TRAFFIC-managed Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) clearly indicates high levels of illegal ivory trade continuing.

Most worrying is the significant increase in the frequency of large-scale ivory seizures—those of over 500 kg—which are a strong indication of the involvement of organised criminal networks. The 18 seizures made in 2013 collectively constitute the greatest quantity of ivory derived from large-scale seizures since 1989, when records began.

The crisis is not confined to Africa: in Asia, TRAFFIC's tiger seizures database clearly indicates that illicit trafficking of tiger parts remains persistent. A minimum of 1,590 tigers were seized in tiger range countries between January 2000 and April 2014, an average of two per week and increasing numbers of seizures have been made by most range States.

With over 218,000 pangolins reported to have been seized by enforcement agencies between 2000 and 2012 world-wide, we must also remember that wildlife crime is an issue that goes well beyond elephants, rhinos and tigers.

While these figures paint a bleak picture of the illegal wildlife trade landscape, it would be wrong to conclude that countries will have little to report in terms of progress at Kasane. Although the ivory seizure figures do demonstrate high levels of trade, they also demonstrate higher levels of law enforcement action, especially in Africa, and we hope these countries remain vigilant.

High-level political attention to the issue continues to be significant, with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this month expressing concern over the environmental, economic and social consequences of wildlife crime and Premier Li Keqiang of China last May pledging financial support for African countries to combat poaching.

Some countries have made improvements to legislation, including Thailand, which probably had one of the largest unregulated ivory markets in the world but has recently taken steps to improve the legislation governing its domestic ivory market.

There is still a very long way to go for Thailand before its illegal ivory markets are shut down, but this was an important step in the right direction. China has recognised the importance of a more targeted approach to reducing demand for ivory and this January organised a workshop to discuss strategies for curbing illegal ivory trade—particularly targeted at the collection and art investment circles.

Countries in Africa are working together on a common African Strategy on combatting illegal wildlife trade that will be discussed at an African Union conference just a month after Kasane.

While these green shoots of progress are promising, there is little doubt that much more needs to be done and it is hoped that Kasane can be the turning point where the lofty declarations of London can be translated into tangible actions on the ground.

Wildlife criminals are responding to the actions of last year by changing their trade routes and methods, using new technologies and getting more organised. To keep up with these developments, new approaches need to be agreed at Kasane that make it significantly harder for criminals to operate, increasing the indirect and actual risks they face and reduce the rewards they reap.

New players will also need to be brought into the fray. For example, with traffickers typically using the same transportation means as legal importers, the transport sector is inadvertently becoming a critical link within illegal wildlife trade chains.

Much more outreach is needed to the private sector, to prevent criminals abusing other legitimate business services in the finance, insurance and retail sectors.

Meanwhile the power of local communities, who live with and adjacent to wildlife, needs to be harnessed for they are the eyes and ears, the very guardians of the wildlife within their realm.

Community-led approaches need to strengthen the role these communities can play in reducing illegal wildlife trade—while safeguarding their dependence on natural resources.

The world's governments in London last year declared they were up to the challenge and committed to end the scourge of illegal wildlife trade. A year later, Kasane provides the venue for those governments, and others, to show that they are able and willing to turn those words into action.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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By Roberto Savio

ROME, Mar 16 2015 (IPS) - It is now clear that we are not going to reach the goal of controlling climate change. It is worth recalling that the goal of not exceeding a 2 degree centigrade rise in global warming before 2020 was adopted at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 as a formula for consensus. Many in the scientific community had been clamouring for immediate action – and at most for a 1 degree rise – but bowed to political realism, and accepted an easier target.

The agreement was to block the rise in global temperature before 2020, and start a process for gradually reverting the climate to safe levels, to be concluded before 2050.

Well, in the last four years, we have already witnessed an increase in temperature by 1 degree, and there is only another 1 degree left before 2020.

The European Environment Agency (EEA), which publishes a report every five years, states that Europe needs “much more ambitious goals” if it wants to reach its declared targets and for 2050, European Union leaders have endorsed the objective of reducing Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 percent compared with 1990 levels.

However, Germany increased its carbon emissions by 20 million tons in 2012-13, instead of reducing them. This means that, in order to reach its targets, Germany should now reduce emissions by 3.5 percent a year over the next six years, which is a difficult, if not impossible, target to achieve.

It will increase energy costs and probably lead to a reaction to block measures which can hurt the economy. By the way, this is the official position of the Republicans in the U.S. Congress, who will fight any climate proposal.

By now, the effects of climate change have become visible, and not just to the climatologists. Last year the total number of people displaced by climatic disasters (such as hurricanes, landslides, drought, floods and forest fires) reached the staggering figure of 11 million people.

Last month, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a think-tank based in New Delhi, issued a study report citing data compiled by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, which maintains a global database of natural disasters dating back over 100 years.

The study found a 10-fold increase to 525 natural disasters in 2002 from around 50 in 1975.

By 2011, the cost of natural disasters had ballooned to 350 billion dollars. In the 110 years between 1900 and 2009, hydro-meteorological disasters increased from 25 to 3,526. Together, extreme hydro-meteorological, geological and biological events increased from 72 to 11,571 during that same period.

There is no doubt that the activities of man are having a dramatic impact on the climate and the planet, affecting people’s lives, but – as usual – the world is moving on two levels, which are unrelated and opposed.

One of the main issues among countries at climate negotiations has been how much to invest in combating climate change but here the signs are very discouraging, to say the least. Take the Green Climate Fund, for example, which was intended to be the centrepiece of efforts to raise  100 billion dollars a year by 2020 but, as of December last year, only 10 billion dollars had been pledged to the fund.

This is the track for reducing fossil emissions. Let us now look to the other track: what the rich countries are spending to keep them.

According to a report from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Oil Change International (OCI), G20 governments are actually subsidising fossil fuel exploration with 88 billion dollars every year.

The report notes that “with rising costs for hard-to-reach reserves, and falling coal and oil prices, generous public subsidies are propping up fossil fuel exploration which would otherwise be deemed uneconomic.” In fact, G20 governments spend more than twice what the top 20 private companies are spending on finding new reserves of oil, gas and coal, and are doing so with public money.

So, on one hand, the system makes the right declarations of principle and, on the other, does the very opposite.

Meanwhile, there are some signs that the campaign against the need for doing something about climate change is losing credibility.

It is known that some members of the Republican Party in the United States are financed by energy giants, and it goes without saying that they will do whatever they can to boycott any deal on climate change that U.S. President Barack Obama may try to agree to at the next climate conference in Paris in December.

It is also known that a number of scientists dissent from the thinking of the more than 2,000 scientists whose work has contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in presenting the link between human activity and deterioration of the climate. Of course, the dissenting voices have received a disproportionate echo in conservative media.

However, last month, the Washington Post reported that one of the leading dissenters and guru of climate change deniers, Dr. Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, had been receiving funds from the fossil fuel industry.

The report cited documents that Greenpeace obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act showing that Soon had been receiving funding from Exxon Mobil, Southern Company and the American Petroleum Institute, among others.

Climate change dissenters are clearly unconcerned that the very future of our planet is at stake or, like the governmental system, have fallen prey to the ‘ostrich syndrome’.

Edited by Phil Harris

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS - Inter Press Service.

All rights reserved, IPS – Inter Press Service (2015)

 

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By Tonderayi Mukeredzi

HARARE, Mar 12 (IPS) - African wetlands are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the continent, covering more than 131 million hectares, according to the Senegalese-based Wetlands International Africa (WIA).

Yet, despite their importance and value, wetland areas are experiencing immense pressure across the continent. Commercial development ranks as the major threat for the draining of wetlands, including for tourism facilities and agriculture, where hundreds of thousands of hectares of wetlands have been drained.

Other threats to Africa's wetlands are commercial agriculture, settlements, excessive exploitation by local communities and improperly-planned development activities. The prospect of immense profits from recently discovered oil, coal and gas deposits has also led to an increase in on-and offshore exploration and mining in sensitive ecological areas.

In Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, for example, wetlands and estuaries coincide with fossil fuel deposits and related infrastructure developments.

In northern Kenya, port developments in Lamu are set to take place in the West Indian Ocean Rim's most important mangrove area and fisheries breeding ground.

In KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape of South Africa, heavy mineral sands are located in important dune forest ecosystems, and gas is being prospected for in the water-scarce and ecologically unique Karoo.

In East Africa, oil discoveries have been made in the tropical Congo Basin rain forest and the Virunga National Park – a world heritage site and a wetland recognised under the Ramsar Convention.

The Okavango Delta in Botswana, one of Africa's most important wetlands and designated as the 1,000th world heritage site by UNESCO, has been home to many threatened species and the main water source of regional wildlife in Southern Africa. Yet it is shrinking due to drier climate, increased grazing and growing pressure from tourism.

"This delta is a true oasis in the middle of the bone-dry Kalahari Sand Basin, a rare untouched wilderness that's been preserved by decades of border and civil wars in the Angolan catchment," said National Geographic explorer Steve Boyes in an interview. "Many people along the Okavango River live like communities did some 400 years ago – and from them I think we can learn a lot about how to be better stewards of the natural world."

Boyes calculated the abundance of life in the delta: more than 530 bird species, thousands of plant species, 160 different mammals, 155 reptiles, scores of frogs and countless insects.

"Everywhere you look you find life. We surveyed bats and we found 17 species in three days. We started looking for praying mantises and found 90 different species," he said.

A recent survey by the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks and the environmentalist group BirdLife Botswana concluded that that the wetland's historical zones of dense reed beds and water fig islands were largely destroyed by hydrological changes and fire. Bush fires and a high grazing pressure further reduced the natural shores of the Okavango Delta.

Studies by BirdLife Botswana also showed that the slaty egret, a vulnerable water bird living only in Southern Africa, with its main breeding grounds in the wetlands of Zambia, Mozambique and Botswana's Okavango Delta, is now estimated to have a total population of only about 4,000 birds.

The egret, which is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as vulnerable, seems to be losing its main breeding sites in the Okavango.

Environmentalists hope that they can still save the wetland, and pin their hopes on a "Slaty Egret Action Plan" which will be used by the Botswana's Department of Wildlife and National Parks, BirdLife and other environment stakeholders to guarantee the survival of the Okavango Delta as a safe haven for the birds.

In a further step to save the wetlands, the Botswana government announced this month that from now on, seekers of mobile safari licences would be prohibited from operating in the Okavango Delta because the area in now congested.

The Botswana Guides Association, which represents many of the mobile safaris, is threatening to appeal.

Another example of the devastation of major wetlands occurred in Nigeria with pollution of farmlands linked to the Shell oil company. The Niger Delta Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Project, an independent team of scientists from Nigeria, the United Kingdom and the United States, has characterised the Niger Delta as "one of the world's most severely petroleum-impacted ecosystems."

In 2013, a Dutch court found the Nigerian subsidiary of Shell culpable for the pollution of farmlands at Ikot Ada Udo in Akwa Ibom state in the coastal south of the country.

The Niger Delta is Africa's largest delta, covering some 7,000 square kilometres – one-third of which is made up of wetlands. It contains the largest mangrove forest in the world.

Assisted by environmental organisation Friends of the Earth, the court ruling was a victory for the communities in the Niger Delta after years of struggle against the oil company dating back 40 years, although the clean-up still has far to go.

"Destruction of wetlands is prevalent in almost all countries in Africa because the driving factor is the same – population pressure – many mouths to feed, ignorance about the role wetlands in playing in the ecosystem, lack of policies, laws and institutional framework to protect wetlands and in cases where these exist, they are hardly enforced," John Owino, Programme Officer for Water and Wetlands with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) told IPS from his base in Nairobi, Kenya.

Owino said that the future of African wetlands lies in stronger political will to protect them, based on sound wetland policies and encouragement for community participation in their management, which is lacking in many African countries.

But very few African governments have specific national policies on wetlands and are influenced by policies from different sectors such as agriculture, national resources and energy.

Edited by Lisa Vives/Phil Harris

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By Edgardo Ayala

EL PAISNAL, El Salvador, Feb 10 (IPS) - The memory of a priest killed shortly before civil war broke out in El Salvador is so alive in this small town that it is now the main attraction in a community tourist initiative aimed at providing employment and injecting money into the local economy.

The Historical Memory Tourist Route is the name of the project in Paisnal, 36 km north of San Salvador. The initiative revolves around Rutilio Grande, a locally born Jesuit priest who was killed by government forces in March 1977, before the start of the 1980-1992 civil war.

"Father Rutilio taught people about liberation and commitment to the needy, and that's why they killed him," said 62-year-old María Dolores Gómez who, before she joined the guerrillas in 1980, was a catechist and met the priest. Now she forms part of the El Paisnal Municipal Tourism Committee.

The tourism project, whose first stage begins in March, is part of a growing trend in this formerly war-torn Central American country to draw visitors interested in the political and historical context of the armed conflict and the prewar period. And in the case of this town in particular, in the life of the famous Jesuit priest.

Rutilio Grande was the first priest killed in El Salvador in the context of the 12-year civil war, which left over 70,000 people – mainly civilians – dead and 8,000 disappeared before the 1992 peace agreement put an end to it.

After decades of electoral fraud by the military and the local elites, opponents of the system took up arms and formed insurgent groups to push the military regimes out of power and usher in socialism.

Grande, accompanied by Manuel Solorzano, 72, and Nelson Rutilio Lemus, 16, was driving near the town of El Paisnal on Mar. 12, 1977 when the three of them came under machine gun fire and were killed. They are buried in the village churchyard, which is already a pilgrimage spot for visitors from within and outside the country and will be an obligatory stop on the new tourist route.

Historians and theologians say that after Grande's murder, the conservative views of the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, radically changed in favour of the poor.

Romero himself was assassinated three years later, in March 1980, while saying mass in a small chapel in San Salvador.

The Truth Commission set up by the United Nations after the end of the conflict to investigate the human rights violations blamed army Major Roberto D'Aubuisson for planning the assassination.

D'Aubuisson was the founder of the far-right Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA), which governed El Salvador from 1989 to 2009, when the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) came to power. The former guerrilla group won the national elections a second time in March 2014.

Before and during the war, a segment of the Catholic Church in El Salvador espoused liberation theology, which promoted the fight against poverty and broke with the church's traditional alliance with those in power.

The new tourist route starts at a place known as Las Tres Cruces (the three crosses), halfway between El Paisnal and the neighbouring village of Aguilares, where a small monument marks the spot where the priest and the other two men were killed.

"We have delegations of foreign and local visitors who come to commemorate the murder of Father Grande, and the tourist project aims to create the infrastructure needed to give them a better reception," town councilor Alexander Torres told IPS.

He explained that the El Paisnal local government is going to invest 350,000 dollars in establishing basic infrastructure catering to tourists, such as rural hostels and small restaurants, which will be run by local residents and people from nearby villages.

"The good thing is that the community is actively participating," 62-year-old former insurgent Florentino Menjívar, María Dolores Gómez's husband, told IPS.

"This was conceived of to generate possibilities of growth for our local communities," he added.

The couple lives in Comunidad Dimas Rodríguez, a settlement of former guerrillas founded in December 1992 near El Paisnal after the demobilisation of the armed groups.

The community, which forms part of the tourist route, was named Dimas Rodríguez in honour of one of the commanders who led the guerrillas in this area, members of the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), one of the five armed groups that made up the FMLN.

Every Dec. 15, the date of the founding of the community, the local residents hold a guerrilla military parade to remember their commander, who was killed in combat in 1989, and to keep alive the history of the settlement. The event is attended by local and foreign tourists.

In the last few years, government officials who used to live in the settlement of former guerrillas have also attended the parade.

"The country's current vice president led the forces here, when we were demobilising," said Víctor Escalante, referring to Vice President Oscar Ortiz.

Since June 2014 the president of El Salvador is another former guerrilla, Salvador Sánchez Cerén.

There are plans to open a museum, where visitors will be able to see the original weapons used by the insurgents, which were surrendered and rendered useless after the peace deal was reached. And a rebel camp will be recreated in a forested area near the town.

"I still have my backpack, and other people have radios and other artifacts from the war, and all of us together can set up the museum," said Escalante, 45.

The local residents are organising to provide services to tourists, and there are groups working in the areas of food, crafts and other activities tied to the new initiative.

Employment is hard to come by in El Paisnal, a town of 4,500, where most of the locals are dedicated to agriculture and up to now there have been few opportunities for work in other areas.

The route also includes an ecotourism component, with visits to the El Chino hill, seven km from El Paisnal, and to Conacastera, a beach on the Lempa river.

The tour will also take the visitors to the San Carlos Cooperative, which is getting ready to host tourists who want an up-close look at the cooperative's agricultural production processes.

Similar initiatives have been developed in other parts of the country over the last few years.

The town of Perquín in the eastern department or province of Morazán is the best-known for its war-tourism projects. In the local museum, visitors can learn about the civil war and see war memorabilia like guns, artillery pieces and even helicopters shot down by the guerrillas.

And in some rural areas, tourists can visit mountain caves and other bunkers used by the guerrillas as hideouts or even field hospitals.

In this country of 6.7 million people, Central America's smallest, the Tourism Ministry reported that the tourism industry brought in 650 million dollars in the first half of 2014 – a 33 percent increase with respect to the same period in 2013.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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I often think of Belize as, as much of a rainbow nation as one is likely to find!

Rob HironsRob HironsRob Hirons was born and raised in England and left immediately upon completion of a degree in History and Russian Studies from the University of Keele. He began by teaching English as a Foreign Language in Thessaloniki in Greece and spent the next twenty-five years as a teacher, teacher trainer and a manager with the British Council in Iran, Portugal, Kuwait, Syria and Egypt. He moved to Belize in 2001 to establish the Lodge at Big Falls, one of the first lodges in what was at the time the most remote and inaccessible part of the country. He has served as Chair of the local chapter of the Belize Tourism Industry Association and has written and edited The Toledo Howler since 2007. The paper tells stories about the south of Belize aiming to give more people reasons to come and discover Toledo's natural attractions, the rich cultural traditions of the Maya, Garifuna and East Indians as well the opportunities for adventure in the rainforest or under water on the hundreds of offshore coral and mangrove cayes.

 

ECOCLUB.com: You are a member of an elite global group of expats who have succeeded in founding and operating an award-winning Ecolodge in harmony with the local community. How or why did you choose Belize and that particular location for your Ecolodge?

Rob Hirons: My wife and I originally came to Belize for a vacation that she had organized. We were looking for a place where we could go snorkeling and diving and also do some bird watching in the rainforest. Belize was the ideal location for both and we visited five or six times before finally moving in 2001. So we chose Belize for its natural attractions; its stability as a functioning democracy, the fact that it is English-speaking and because of its proximity to the huge north American market. Locating inland fitted more closely to our particular interest in birds and nature and we decided at that time that the market in Cayo district about 160 miles north of here was already fairly crowded and that we would prefer to establish ourselves in a new destination. That was not the best business decision and the lodge has grown slowly partly because of the lack of infrastructure in Toledo and because as a result it was less well known.

 

ECOCLUB.com: You have been instrumental in organising your tourism industry peers in the region, in launching numerous festivals and producing and editing The Toledo Howler, an excellent Tourism Newspaper. How easy is it to coordinate and cooperate with supposed business competitors, is it easy to explain that it is a win-win situation?

Rob Hirons: Having made the decision to base ourselves in Toledo we quickly realized that we would not only have to market the lodge at Big Falls but also Toledo itself. Visitors would be coming to stay at the lodge because of what we offered access to rather than for the lodge itself. So, for myself, it seemed obvious that time spent in working to develop the destination would directly or indirectly be helping the lodge as well as other local businesses. What may seem blindingly obvious to me is not necessarily so to anyone else and the Belize Tourism Industry Association has a core of members who roll up their sleeves and work on behalf of all and others who keep a very narrow focus on the their own enterprise.

 

The Lodge at Big Falls, Toledo, BelizeThe Lodge at Big Falls, Toledo, BelizeECOCLUB.com: What are in your view Southern Belize's unique attractions for tourists and how satisfied are you that they are being protected?

Rob Hirons: Tour operators always want to know why they should send their clients to one's destination. In Cayo the answer is for access to Tikal, Caracol and other Mayan sites. On the coast and cayes the answer is snorkelling and diving. The answer in Toledo is less obvious. We have small Mayan sites in Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit and the reef is 35 miles offshore here compared with half a mile offshore in Ambergris Caye. What has come into focus over the past few years is the rich diversity of cultural experiences in both the Maya, Garifuna and Creole cultures that is unique to the south of the country. It means that even if it rains there are indoor activities like learning to drum; making hand-made chocolate and tasting local chocolate flavors from salt to ginger to chili chocolate; trying their hands at traditional craft making or learning about the traditional Mayan lifestyle and household culture. These have come about through some well-directed small projects through the Belize Tourism Board's Sustainable Tourism Program with funding from the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB). They had great success because the projects aimed loans at motivated local individuals and families with no requirement that the benefits be communal. This kind of small enterprise is "self-protecting"; the family focus avoids conflict within a vestigial business; the focus on culture reinforces for the younger generation how their own culture is valued and of interest to visitors.

 

ECOCLUB.com: Accessing Southern Belize used to be a small adventure in itself, but improved road and air links have changed all that. Is this a mixed blessing?

Rob Hirons: Not so far. Since 2001 we have been linked to the rest of country by a modern 80-mile highway. We have been linked to the national electricity grid. We have mobile phone service now. In 2001 we had to drive 18 miles to make a phone call. Not having that infrastructure was a problem. We have ten flights a day in and out and hourly buses from Belize City. But growth has remained slow and "organic". In 2016 there will be a new southern border opening between Toledo and Guatemala forty miles west of here. I expect that to be a mixed blessing. There is likely to be an increase in cross-border crime and illegal logging in areas that are now more inaccessible. Balanced against that is a general economic stimulus for Toledo and for tourism. Until now Toledo has been a cul-de-sac for tourists who came down here and returned the same way. Next year we will be able to co-ordinate with Guatemalan tour operators for tours that enter Belize via Toledo and go on to the coast and Cayo.

 

ECOCLUB.com: In particular, there have been ongoing protests, from local people, environmentalists but also the Belize Tourism Industry Association, against the expansion of Cruise Tourism in Southern Belize and in particular the creation of cruise infrastructure near the quaint and fragile Placencia area, to no avail it seems as works for a dedicated cruise port in Harvest Cay started late in Autumn 2014. Do you consider the expansion of the cruise sector as a environmental threat or as an economic opportunity, or both perhaps?

Rob Hirons: I think cruise tourism down here is a huge environmental threat and there are still many questions to be asked about water and waste management on Harvest Caye. It is unlikely to be an economic opportunity for the Belize government. The per person head tax is low and unlikely to yield more than a few million Belize dollars. That might be eaten up by the cost of the infrastructure maintenance that will be demanded by the cruise operator. Belize will pay for the environmental degradation caused by hundreds of thousands of cruise ship visitors. Local Mayan sites will benefit from increased visitor entrance fees and local cultural experiences may also benefit from being visited by the cruise tour operator. Overall it is not really enough to justify the threat to the environment and to the much more valuable overnight tourism business. BTB figures a few years ago gave cruise ships around 80% of the total visitors to Belize and generating just 14% of the income from tourism. So the Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule) would guide the rational planner to focus on growing overnight tourism.

 

ECOCLUB.com: Unlike many of its neighbours multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Belize has traditionally avoided violent race and class violence. Still, ethnic tensions may be rising as reports indicate notable income and occupational differences among ethnic communities and little intermarriage between different ethnicities. The rural poor are reportedly mostly Mayans, the original inhabitants. From your experience and with reference to Southern Belize, is tourism and ecotourism in particular currently providing sufficient opportunities for the local Mayan people?

Rob Hirons: My initial reaction is that it is much more complicated and nuanced than that. I often think of Belize as, as much of a rainbow nation as one is likely to find. My colleague Catarina Choco is a K'ekchi Maya with an East Indian partner. We both think that there is much more intermarriage than you suggest and that the Garifuna are another group who have been considered poor. Poverty is relative. Many a poor Mayan has their own 20-30 acre plantation from which they can subsist and produce cash crops. Being poor in the city or town is an entirely different level of poverty. Tourism will never benefit everyone. Those people who live along paved roads or not far from them have the potential to benefit as do those who live close to resorts and lodges. For many years Mayans have found work in tourism elsewhere in Belize and are highly sought after employees. Now they have the opportunity to work in tourism and stay in Toledo. All our staff is K'ekchi Maya who live in Big Falls and walk or cycle to work.

 

ECOCLUB.com: In the course of a few years peaceful Belize has come to be ranked, unfairly perhaps, by the UN as the 6th most violent country in the world, with about 95% of murders relating to gangs and the international drugs transshipment trade. Following a related incident, the mayor of the best-known Belizean island destination of Ambegris Caye, is quoted in a recent report in Vice magazine as indirectly linking crime to tourism, arguing that "The big hotels, the big condos, the big restaurants are all owned by foreigners" and that this creates a large wealth discrepancy between foreigners and locals. Do you share this view, and is Belize's overall tourism model really worsening as well as threatened by the crime rates?

Rob Hirons: There are some people who will always characterize inward investment as the foreigner taking over and others who will welcome it. There is an increasing number of Belize owned accommodations and a vast majority of Belize owned restaurants outside of hotels. But it was kick-started by inward investment. That created jobs that created wealth and gave the employees experience and skills enough to begin their own enterprises. The BTB's own advertisements used to claim that direct employment in tourism accounted for 25% of all jobs. Employment reduces wealth inequality between those who have work and those who do not. Nationality is not the issue. On a per capita basis (murders per 100,000)Belize City is one of the most dangerous in the world. Most travelers pass briskly through Belize City to rural areas that are among the most peaceful.

 

ECOCLUB.com: According to recent reports poaching, including the poaching of endangered scarlet macaws - just 100 pairs remaining - and illegal logging of mahogany and cedar are a problem even within Chiquibul, Belize's largest national park. The average annual deforestation rate has been estimated at 0.6% between 1980-2010, while most extractable timber reserves are in private hands and with no tax incentives to preserve the forest. Beyond funding more park rangers, what more should the tourism sector, environmental NGOs and the government be doing to protect Belize's pristine natural beauty which after all is the biggest attraction for visitors?

Rob Hirons: Belize needs a legal regulatory framework relating to sustainable forestry and responsible stewardship of natural resources. This is needed to allow the export of finished wood products to European markets, for example. Without that wood is exported as logs mainly to China with no value added here in Belize. With such a framework an export industry, focused on fine finished wood products, would create jobs and give owners a vested economic interest in reforestation etc.

 

ECOCLUB.com: As an employer, what is your position and experience in relation to volunteer tourism? Some argue, rather sweepingly perhaps, that their only real impacts are stealing jobs from the local community and removing the need for local training infrastructure.

Rob Hirons: I tend towards the sweeping generalization. We do get individual requests from people who want to volunteer at the lodge but since we are almost always staffed with the people we need have so far declined such offers. Guests have asked us to arrange volunteer assignments but only for a day or two. It is very difficult for them to make much of a contribution in such a short time. In fact briefing and training volunteers creates work for the host. WWOOFers (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms/ Willing Workers on Organic Farms) do seem to carry out work that in their absence would be done by a paid local employee. An organization in Punta Gorda focused on volunteers has done some useful small infrastructure projects around the district. So voluntourism seems to work better in organizations focused on this niche but does not really fit my own market. And the point is moot whether the volunteer or those being volunteered upon get more out of the transaction.

 

ECOCLUB.com: What future plans do you have at The Lodge at Big Falls and beyond, perhaps in connection with some of the topics we have discussed in this interview?

Rob Hirons: I have high hopes that the new road from Guatemala will provide a stimulus to really boost tourism in our area. With a larger market we would invest in more cabanas, probably up to a total of fifteen and a multi-purpose space for workshops and seminars, meditation and yoga or educational groups. That would go hand in hand with developing the birding market which is one of our specializations. And when I am exhausted I will shuffle off into retirement.

 

ECOCLUB.com: Finally, what advice, if any, would you like to offer to those pondering operating an Ecolodge and in particular those mistaking it for owning a summerhouse in the tropics?

Rob Hirons: I do take exception when visitors ask when I "retired" here. General pearls of wisdom would include: do lots of research especially financial and make sure that your projections are very conservative unless living by the sea that sells itself; talk to people who have already been through it but are not necessarily direct competitors; listen to local advice but not the advice of the first person who takes hold of your elbow and wants to be your friend; use local suppliers if they are of the quality you require and avoid duplicating and competing with existing services; focus your business primarily on quality for the customer and not fairness for the community where you live. Do not underestimate the strain it can put on a couple and make sure that both partners are equally committed to the adventure. Understand that in creating skilled jobs that make women economically independent you may be subverting the established order in your community. And never forget that it's no fun if it's not fun. So enjoy yourself.

 

ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much, we are certain that our readers will enjoy this interview!

 

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