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.
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.
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.
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.