Posted: Saturday, April 24, 2021. 4:04 pm CST.
By Aaron Humes: Minister of the Public Service, Political and Constitutional Reform, Henry Charles Usher, has accused the former administration of “hypocrisy” in agreeing to waive land tax and stamp duty on the acquisition by a number of environmental groups of 950 square kilometers (236,000 acres) of land.
During the Budget presentation on Friday, Usher said the agreement had been signed by outgoing Minister of Natural Resources, Hugo Patt, on October 19, 2020, after the House had been dissolved and before general elections on November 11.
“In the agreement, the Government of Belize agrees to remit, waive, and exempt the payment of stamp duty on these properties for a term of 50 years. The Government of Belize agrees to remit, waive and exempt the payment of land tax for a term of 50 years. Madam Speaker, how could he be talking about collecting land tax when a few weeks before the election, he was signing these types of agreements? Waiving land tax for 50 years, Madam Speaker, for this group. Madam Speaker, to make it worse, the carbon rights for these properties, the government of Belize, signed by the Member for Corozal North, permitted the trustee to retain, exercise, and transfer to them the carbon rights on the trust properties, and the exclusive rights to perfect, market and sell any and all verified carbon credits or offsets,” said Usher, adding that the previous Government could not seriously say they were interested in collecting land tax.
Meanwhile, the “Belize Maya Forest,” as it has been renamed, is part of 150,000 square kilometers (38 million acres) of tropical forest across Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala known as the Selva Maya, a biodiversity hotspot and home to five species of wild cat (jaguars, margay, ocelot, jaguarundi, and puma), spider monkeys, howler monkeys and hundreds of bird species.
University of Belize professor and director of the Belize Maya Forest Trust, Elma Kay, told the Guardian (UK) that the deal “safeguard(s) our biodiversity – from iconic jaguars to critically endangered Central American river turtles to endangered tapirs – which is the lifeblood of our economy and our cultural heritage.”
Protecting large areas of pristine rainforests will help mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis. “Forests like these hold vast amounts of carbon,” adds Julie Robinson, Belize program director for the Nature Conservancy, one of the partners behind the acquisition. “We’re at a tipping point, so it’s really important to try to reverse the trend we’re on.”
The area was owned by the Forestland Group, a U.S. company that had permits for sustainable logging. When it came up for sale, the Nature Conservancy and others, including Rainforest Trust, World Land Trust, University of Belize Environmental Research Institute, and Wildlife Conservation Society, saw an opportunity to buy the land.
Despite the new name, there is no Maya displaced from the property or living nearby; the surrounding communities, nonetheless, did not have access to the land. However, there exists links to past Maya civilization; archaeological sites on the property that dates back to AD800; more than 25 cenotes [fresh water sinkholes], the sacred pools of Cara Blanca, which hold incredible Mayan treasures. According to Robinson, “Culturally, it’s important to preserve those elements to reconnect Mayan communities to sacred sites, and also find ways of generating income through them for the communities and the country.”
Says Kay, “We’re engaging all the different communities to participate in a conservation action plan. Most livelihoods are based on agriculture. One objective will be making agricultural livelihoods more sustainable, so there will be more climate-smart agriculture, agroforestry systems, systems that are restorative for soils. We recognize people need to make a livelihood, but it’s about doing that with values that protect the Maya Forest and safeguard it for all Belizeans.”
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