By Lee McLoughlin, Wildlife Conservation Society:Belize’s economy has been in recession for more than a year. Our economy is not growing and we are becoming increasingly desperate for solutions. In our quest for a quick fix we often look toward big money foreign investors with big promises of jobs and revenue. But, as we have often seen, many of these projects have damaged our environment, not fulfilled promises of long term jobs and left us with more economic questions than answers.
The solution will not be a quick fix. It requires targeted national investment in homegrown industries that takes advantage of our greatest assets, our natural resources.
What if part of this solution has been staring us in the face since the Independence of this great country? What if part of the solution is our famous Timber Industry? Global timber demand is soaring and the global forestry sector, including fuelwood, represents about 2 percent of all world economic activity – annually more than US $400 billion – and 3 percent of world trade in merchandise; with paper and board alone accounting for almost half of these totals.
Belize has some of the most sought after hardwoods in the world. Our beautiful rosewood, mahogany, cedar, zericote and granadillo, among others, are truly national treasures and, as such, are highly prized nationally and around the world. As with any natural resource, if Belize is to develop a vibrant and reliable industry around it, it must be harvested and developed sustainably. Seed trees must be
preserved, smaller trees must be left to grow and we must ensure seedlings are allowed time to mature in both size and value.
Logging has been an integral part of Belize’s history, starting with the harvesting of a tree species known as “logwood” (which was used to make dye for textiles), then mahogany and developing to integrate other hardwoods. The industry declined in its importance to Belize’s economy over time, hit by unsustainable logging practices and the introduction of land reforms and a change of national investment priority towards agricultural development.
When we think of economic solutions we are drawn to big figures and millions of dollars of foreign exchange earnings. In this, at around BZ$10 million annual foreign exchange earned, the timber industry does not currently compete with other major industries. However, if we instead focus on impact, the labour intensive timber industry plays vital role in thousands of households. Today, Belize’s logging industry alone employs at least 1000 permanent staff and 500 temporary staff, in some of our poorest rural regions. The furniture making and retailing industry employs hundreds more. The employment generated by the timber industry is absolutely critical to the working class of Belize and it is therefore equally critical that the industry takes even bigger steps towards making this industry truly sustainable.
Considering this we might be concerned about the unsustainable logging practices that our timber industry is still beset by, and the rate of conversion of our valuable forest to much lower value short term crops. However, there is also good news and cause for optimism. Since the millennium, there have been efforts underway by the government and logging sector to move from a ‘logging industry’ towards a ‘sustained timber management industry’. Those who are working hard to achieve this transition are managing timber stocks over long time scales (more than 25 year cycles) and adopting techniques such as ‘Reduced Impact Logging’, a type of logging that can be sustainable for hundreds of years. As hardwood species disappear from across the globe due to unsustainable harvesting and clearcutting, Belize has the chance to take a different pathway, and profit from it.
Additionally, with a little innovation, investment and government support, Belize can generate even more employment and income from sustainable forest management. Tourists love to see intact healthy forests and all of the birds and wildlife that make them their home. There are other non-timber products that can be harvested sustainably from forests including xaté palm, breadnut and palmetto seed – to name a few. There are very good examples of local investment in
sustained forest management on private lands that combine sustainable timber production, biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration, watershed protection, agro-forestry, and tourism. Sustainable forest management also offers excellent opportunities for foreign direct investment particularly for those investors who want to invest in “green enterprises”. In Belize, there are examples of foreign direct investment in the sustainable forest management of private forest land. These lands also bring in much needed foreign exchange from the export of valuable Belizean timber. If it were not for these investments in private forestry, it is very likely that these richly timbered lands would be sold and cleared for agriculture.
We must also recognize the other services we receive for free from our managed forests, beyond the value of the timber. We get clean water, rainfall and oxygen generation and we can’t forget our prized gibnut, deer and other bushmeat. You might also have heard about Carbon, which is stored in forest wood and soil, and the release of which is one of the leading causes of climate change. Carbon is increasing in its value on global carbon trading markets as global carbon emitting countries are realizing the impact that climate change is having. Belize’s 60% forest coverage (3.5 million acres) places us as one of the Top 20 most forested countries in the world, so the opportunity to be paid to keep carbon stored in forests and soils rather than release the carbon by converting forest to agriculture could soon become a clear economic incentive. Sustained forest management allows us to harvest timber and non-timber forest products sustainably while at the same time maintaining and in some cases even increasing our carbon stocks.
Often overlooked is the contribution of Forests to our household energy supplies. The rainfall generation and regulation of storm water is critical to the effective functioning of our hydroelectric dams which is valued at US$85 million. 26% of our total energy consumption in Belize is provided by fuelwood, collected from our forests. For rural communities this is an absolutely vital part of daily life.
We don’t have to stop at good management of our existing forest, we can plant more! As our timber industry modernizes and incorporates the manufacture of value added timber products like furniture, veneers and artwork, we must maintain a sustainable supply of timber that may exceed what our natural forests can produce. Nationally, about 5,000 acres of timber plantations have been planted with valuable species such as teak and mahogany. These range in scale from a few acres to a few hundred acres. Most of these timber plantations are on lands that were previously pastures, citrus orchards, or previously dedicated to other
agricultural uses. Other valuable species such as granadillo and zericote which have small natural populations can also be increased by creating plantations of these species.
We are clearing an average of 25,000 acres (equivalent to 12,500 football fields) every year. If we clear forests they cannot provide any of these services, and as we have seen, once they are cleared they tend to stay cleared. Along with the world famous coral reef and the highly valuable tourism it brings, Belize’s forests are its most valuable natural resource. Without them the water hungry agricultural industry will collapse, cost of drinking water will skyrocket, rivers will dry up and disappear and we will add yet more nails to the coffin of our already threatened reefs.
There are few industries in Belize that can provide so many benefits to so many people, rather than just benefitting a few wealthy individuals. With support, investment and good management the timber industry and the forests which sustain it can serve as a vital foundation of Belize’s economy and society.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.
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