Journey to Belize: Edgar Correa

This post continues the retelling of my 2017 trip to Belize: participating in an archaeology field school and meeting with jaguar experts. The previous entry in this series is located here.

A delightful mural I always used to pass on my walk from Raj’s house to downtown Belmopan.

July 3, 2017 was my last full day in Belize. I rose feeling quite unhappy about the prospect of leaving this country, where I had met so many wonderful people and learned so much about jaguar conservation and archaeology.

But I could not sit around and sulk, for I had one more meeting to attend.

I was scheduled to meet Mr. Edgar Correa of the Belize Forest Department at 10 am. Since I left Raj’s house a little late, I had to walk as quickly as possible to the Forest Department’s headquarters. Once I arrived, I was instructed to wait on a bench until Mr. Correa was ready for me. Eventually he came to fetch me, leading me into a spacious room with a large, oval-shaped table.

Mr. Correa sat at the head of the table, while I took a seat on his right. Mr. Correa was more serious than anyone I had met in Belize, with an air of cool competence about him – yet he was still polite and friendly. I told him that I was planning to conduct my master’s research in Belize next summer, and that I was hoping he could tell me about permits.

Mr. Correa replied that since I would strictly be performing social science research, without handling any animals, I would only need a basic research permit. He then asked me what I was thinking of studying.

A sign about the Central Belize Corridor that I saw at the Belize Zoo.

At this point I recounted what I had learned about the Central Belize Corridor (CBC), and of the deforestation taking place there. I explained that I was hoping to learn why landowners were clearing land within the CBC, to help the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) and Panthera Belize generate possible solutions.

Mr. Correa thought for a moment, and then informed me that there was a problem with duplicating research in Belize. Panthera and the ERI had already done a lot of work within the CBC, so it might be better if I looked elsewhere.

There was another jaguar corridor, this one in southern Belize, that was more severely threatened than the CBC. To Mr. Correa’s knowledge, only one person was working to protect it. Perhaps I could focus my thesis there?

I countered that while the CBC may be in better shape than the southern corridor, its strategic location made it more important. Not only did it connect two of Belize’s largest forest blocks with each other, but the northern forest extended into Mexico and Guatemala. This meant that the CBC was critical for maintaining the genetic fitness of jaguars in three countries.

That northern forest block was known as the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, which I had lived in for three weeks whilst performing archaeological work. It was part of the much larger Selva Maya, or Mayan Jungle.

Mr. Correa seemed to understand, since he now said that there was value in what I intended to do. He then began to tell me more about the situation in the CBC.

As far as anyone knew, landowners were clearing land for economic reasons. There were tax incentives in Belize that made it cheaper for landowners to clear forest rather than leave it standing. In addition, thanks to the growing demand in Mexico, the value of beef was rising (I was surprised to learn that the demand for beef was actually declining in the United States).

Landowners were thus doubly encouraged to cut down forests: both by the Belizean tax code and to make room for more cattle.

A cleared pasture that borders a patch of forest in northwestern Belize, near the location of my archaeology camp.

Mr. Correa suggested that I could survey landowners within the CBC for their willingness to participate in a payments for ecosystem services initiative. If enough landowners said they would leave forests standing in exchange for payment, then Mr. Correa could go to Parliament and try to get something started.

Lastly, Mr. Correa reiterated the prominence of bushmeat hunting. Echoing Yahaira, he said that the same species jaguars needed for prey were heavily hunted by people. Bushmeat hunting had nothing to do with a need for protein, but was instead motivated by cultural factors.

I thanked Mr. Correa for his time, and left feeling like it had been a successful meeting. I immediately headed for Everest Indian Restaurant, as I intended to spend the rest of the day with my friend Raj.

15 Thoughts

  1. Just a small and unimportant side comment. Did Mr Correa invite you to call him Edgar? As a Brit, I feel most uncomfortable at the use of the first name of someone able to influence Parliament!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Haha, I hope I didn’t traumatize you too deeply. I actually addressed him as “Mr. Correa” in my first draft, but when I read it over it sounded weird to keep saying “Mr. Correa” over and over again. But I forget the American culture is relatively informal, and northern California is one of the least formal regions within the US.

      At any rate, I’ve changed it back to Mr. Correa (except for in the title). Hopefully I haven’t set off mass chaos across the pond. The very deep, large pond.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I used to get furious whenever anyone would cut down trees on my street growing up. But I have no idea what kinds of situations the landowners within the CBC are in, and they come from very different cultures as myself. So I don’t think ill of them for what they’re doing; not at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very informative post, Josh. I’m surprised about the tax incentives that actually seem to have the effect of encouraging deforestation. I was under the impression that Belize is really big on nature conservation. It’s great that you met with Mr Correa and I’m sure the discussion helped you in terms of making a decision about your thesis – looking forward to hear what the final outcome was.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Such tax incentives are not unique to Belize. California, which is also considered to be environmentally progressive, had a similar tax structure for many years. The point of such taxes is to stimulate the economy by encouraging landowners to ‘develop’ their land in some way.

      Talking to Mr. Correa was hugely helpful, although my most important meetings were with ‘ordinary’ people: non-experts. I’ll be writing about the most impactful of those encounters next week.

      I’ll also be writing about the thesis soon enough. It’s not at all what I thought it’d be.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve actually heard similar issues with tax incentives in the United States. It makes more financial sense for landowners to sell their land to hydro fracking or other petroleum businesses than to farm on them, and there are little to no rewards for people who preserve the natural environment on the land. Then if you get into the politics of which crops will make the most money and the impacts of those like soil corrosion and water usage…it really gets sticky. It’s good to know the truth behind what’s going on, though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yea: many environmental woes are the results of structural/systemic factors. So only addressing the most proximate causes (i.e. livestock predation) is not always enough. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that the economic systems in many countries are (usually unintentionally) designed to be as harmful as possible.

      Liked by 1 person

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