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Case Number: 12
Case Mnemonic: BELIZE
Case Title: Belize Logging Conflict
Case Author: Juliet Litterer, Spring 1997





1. Abstract

How much is the Belizean rainforest worth? The Government of Belize values the rainforest at US $0.60 per acre, since it began selling logging rights at that price to foreign companies in 1993. The Mayan people of the Toledo district value the rainforest in a different way. Since 2,000 B.C., they have relied on the rainforest for their basic needs as well as spiritual value. This case study explores the clash between the Belizean government's need to attract foreign currency through meeting commercial interests of a Malaysian logging firm and the Mayan people's material and spiritual need to preserve the rainforest. This interests brought these parties into conflict.

2. Description

The Columbia River Forest Reserve in Toledo district of southeastern Belize is the home of several communities of Mayan descendants. The Maya are extremely poor -- among the poorest in Central America -- and depend on the rainforest for survival. This dependence on the forest is nothing new; for almost 4,000 years, Maya Indians have lived in the rainforest. They have logged sustainably and maintained the forest according to their cultural belief system.

From 1500 B.C. until it began its decline in approximately 900 A.D., the Mayan civilization thrived in Belize. The civilization was very advanced, and to this day a number of palaces, temples, and other Mayan edifices still stand. (For information on specific archeological sites, visit The Mayan Ruins page).

Commercial logging is not new to Belize, either. From 1683 to approximately 1823, Europeans living in British settlements there were economically engaged mainly in logwood cutting. "The very existence of Belize as a colony is inseparable from the logging industry" ( Belize Flora and Fauna). In the mid-seventeenth century, many of the Mayan descendants living in Belize emigrated from the country. They were forced out by logwood cutting industry to remain in the area. Many families did return generations later, settling in mainly the southern part of the country. After centuries of logging activity in Belize, the industry's growth has reached new heights in recent years, with the advent of transportation infrastructure, modern saws, and other logging equipment.

In an attempt to raise foreign currency, in 1993 the Belizean government began to grant long-term logging contracts to foreign- owned companies, giving them the legal right to cut down trees in traditional Mayan territory. These companies, mostly Asian multinationals, were required to come up with land management plans upon seeking logging concessions. Though the plans were supplied, they were in fact unsatisfactory, and concessions were been granted anyway. One of these companies is Atlantic Industries, a Malaysian timber corporation. Since Atlantic began logging in 1995, it has committed several environmental and cultural atrocities, and the Mayan people of the Toledo district are speaking out against their actions. The following is a brief listing of Atlantic Industries' offenses:

Tensions are mounting as the environmental impact of the logging operations is becoming increasingly obvious. The deforestation is compounded by soil erosion in the rainy season, during which mud gets washed into the river. This eliminates the river as a source for drinking water and disturbs the natural balance of the water as a habitat for fish and other life. Animals hunted for food by the Mayan people are driven away by the sound of chainsaws and heavy logging equipment. Possibly the most disturbing aspect of Atlantic Industries' logging is the commodification of the forest resources which hold such cultural and spiritual significance to the Mayan people.

The Mayan people of the Toledo District have approached the Government of Belize with recommendations and requests, but the government has been responsive only to the logging companies' interests. Currently under way is a mapping project, in which the Mayan communities are attempting to map all traditional lands and land use. It is hoped that such a map will be a useful negotiation tool in the future.

3. Duration: In Progress (1992 to now)

The conflict between the Mayan people of the Toledo District and the Government of Belize/Atlantic Industries began in 1992 and has continued to the present. Seven years before Atlantic Industries began logging in Belize, the government had signed an agreement with Programme For Belize, an NGO, pledging to make respect for and intelligent use of biodiversity a national priority through the promotion of the ecotourism industry. In 1991, the agreement was modified to further address these concerns. Although PFB's initiatives were mainly focused around the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, the agreement demonstrated a level of commitment on the part of the Belizean government to environmental protection in general. The rainforest component of PFB created controls for logging and milling operations. These provisions included inventory planning and conservation guidelines. (For more information, see PFBELIZE.)

1992 brought national and international attention to the Columbia River Forest Reserve when a biological assessment was conducted. The assessment concluded that, "the evergreen forests of this area...are of great national and international importance as a reservoir of biological diversity. The most species-rich plant and animal communities occur in the Columbia River Forest Reserve" (Rainforest Action Network). Unfortunately, the following year, the Government of Belize began granting massive long-term logging concessions in Mayan territory to foreign owned companies. Atlantic Industries' logging plan for the Toledo District was approved by the Government of Belize in April of 1995, and in September of the same year 200,000 acres of nature reserve were opened to the company for mahogany logging. A final blow came in 1996 when, after a closed-door meeting, the Beliezean government revoked the protected status of a nature reserve in Mayan territory in order to grant logging rights to Atlantic Industries.

Throughout the course of these events, the Mayan people of the Toledo District, working through the Toledo Maya Cultural Council, have challenged their national government. They are currently undertaking a mapping project, the product of which will be used in future confrontations with the government.

4. Location

Continent: North America

Region: Southern North america

Country: Belize
Belize, formerly named British Honduras, is located on the Caribbean side of Central America, sharing borders with Mexico and Guatemala. The first European encounter with this part of Central America occurred in 1502, when Columbus entered and named the Bay of Honduras. It was not until 1683, however, that European settlements were established in the area and colonial control of the territory began to take shape. British rule was not established without a struggle. Between 1683 and 1862, there were many attacks on the British settlers by Spaniards from neighboring settlements. In 1682, British Honduras was formally declared a British colony. It remained a colony until September 21, 1981, when a new constitution was introduced and independence was formally declared. The name of the country was changed from British Honduras to Belize prior to independence, in 1973.

Map of Belize

Programme For Belize signed by the Government of Belize
Biological assessment of Columbia River Forest Reserve
Government of Belize began granting long-term logging concessions in Mayan territory to foreign-owned companies
April 1995
Atlantic Industries logging plan approved by the Government of Belize
September 1995
200,000 acres of nature reserve were opened to Atlantic Industries
June 1996
Government of Belize revoked the protected status of a nature reserve in Mayan territory and granted logging rights for that land to Atlantic Industries
Table of Contents

5. Actors: Belize and Malysia

II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Deforestation

The most obvious environmental problem with Atlantic Industries' logging operation is the deforestation of the Belizean rainforest. However, there are two indirect results of the logging operation which are just as problematic for the environment. The first is the loss of habitat for those species unique to the Columbia River Forest Reserve. A 1992 biological assessment of the reserve, conducted by Conservation International, found the plant and animal communities in the area to be species-rich, labeling it "a reservoir of biological diversity" (Rainforest Action Network). In addition to the potential loss of a habitat which supports diverse biological life, the rivers of the region are being filled with mud. This is due to soil erosion that is accelerated by Atlantic Industries' practice of continuing to cut trees during the rainy season. The rivers are becoming muddied, creating a lack of drinking water for those Mayans living downstream and changing the habitat of the organisms living in the river.

7. Type of Habitat: Tropical

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Act Site       Harm Site           Example

Belize         Belize              Deforestation in Belize

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict: Civil

Although there have been no acts of violence thus far, tensions are mounting in the Belizean Toledo District. The logging companies, specifically Atlantic Industries, are taking steps to increase the rate of logging, and the local people are increasing their pressure on the Government of Belize to halt all activities until an arrangement beneficial to the Mayan people is put in place.

 Two developments for which Atlantic Industries is responsible will speed the rate of deforestation. First, a high capacity sawmill is being constructed in the forest to process the logs on-site as they are felled. Second, a road into the forest is being paved, enabling Atlantic Industries to transport logs more quickly in areas where its operation is already established, and allowing the company to move into new areas more quickly. The combination of the two construction projects will result in the increased capacity and speed of the logging operation.

 The Mayan people are well aware of the implications of the sawmill construction and the road through the forest, and are responding with pleas to the government to acknowledge the mass destruction to the forest and follow five recommendations:

  1. The Mayan people should become the true beneficiaries of logging operations or business activity related to forest produces, such as chicle and ecotourism.
  2. The government should commit resources to train Mayan people in sustainable forest management, saw milling, engineering, conducting tours, building roads, and related areas.
  3. Set up a development corporation to assist business-minded Mayans.
  4. The local people must be involved in decision-making on the granting of all logging concessions.
  5. The Mayan people should be given legal jurisdiction over all traditional Indian Lands, so they may be able to log sustainably. (E nvirolink)
The pressures are originating from all sides and creating a tense and precarious situation. On one hand, the Mayan people want to preserve the rainforest which is their homeland and their livelihood, and they are pressuring their leaders to solve the problem. The Mayan people are frustrated that their leaders' appeals to the government are "falling on deaf ears" (The Reporter). On the other hand, the government is faced with the challenge of economic development and sees Belize's comparative advantage in the natural resources provided by the rainforest. If it decides to halt logging operations, then Atlantic Industries will simply move to the next developing country and give its business to another government. Therefore, there is pressure by the government on the Mayan community to recognize the opportunity for foreign investment provided by the rainforest. On a third front, Atlantic Industries has its own way of applying pressure. Through bribes, the company is convincing Belizean government leaders not to heed the demands of the local Maya community, but instead to allow logging to continue without an environmentally sustainable plan. The different parties have clashed verbally, but as tensions mount, one or all of them could be seeking an alternative solution. Julian Cho, Chairman of the Toledo Maya Cultural Council, wrote, "On April 3, [1996] TMCC, along with the Chairman of the Alcaldes Association, met in Santa Anna to discuss the logging situation. The villagers showed their outrage at the company. They said the cutting must stop. They are being pushed in a corner and the only alternative should not be violence" (Belize Times, May 22, 1996). When asked if a peaceful solution could be reached in which the Maya would have rights to their lands, one Mayan replied, "Possibly, but by that time, I'll be dead" (Wainwright). No peaceful settlement is in sight.

Table of Contents

10. Level of Conflict: Low

11. Fatality Level of Dispute: about ???

III. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Indirect

The threat of conflict between the Mayan people and the Belizean government, and potentially between the Maya and Atlantic Industries, is directly linked to the environmental issue of deforestation. Disagreement about appropriate use of the forest in Belize's Toledo District is the direct cause of the conflict. The causal loop diagram below illustrates the relationships between Atlantic Industries, the rainforest cover of Columbia River Forest Reserve, and the Mayan people of the Toledo District.

In a direct relationship, rainforest cover provides natural resource inputs for commercial logging operations. In an inverse relationship, commercial logging reduces the forest cover. Together, these two relationships form a negative feedback loop. The third element in the diagram, the Mayan world view and traditions, adds one direct and one inverse relationship to the system. The Mayan world view informs practices which preserve and even increase forest cover. These practices include reliable and environmentally sound management of the forest as a commons rather than as smaller, individually-owned parcels of land, and ecologically sound agriculture and forestry -- periodically fallowing fields, maintaining crop diversity, and limiting clearing to specific areas. (For more information, see PETEN.)

Commercial logging practices, in many ways, disrupt the Mayan people's lifestyle and habitat, negatively impacting their culture, world view, and the traditional practices listed above. Hunting activities are disrupted as animals are frightened away by the noise of chain saws and heavy machinery used by Atlantic Industries. The river, muddied from soil erosion from logging operations' continuation into the rainy season, no longer provides the appropriate habitat for native species of fish, and therefore fishing activities have also been affected. Finally, it is not only the trees of the rain forest which are damaged or eliminated by Atlantic Industries' work in the Toledo District, but also secondary forest growth. When heavy machinery is brought into the forest on large trucks or roads are built into the forest, all plant life in the path is destroyed -- driven over and crushed or paved over. The plant life destroyed includes medicinal plants traditionally used by the Maya. This practice, too, has been disrupted by commercial logging.

This system is essentially a set of relationships that exist when commercial interests clash with cultural interests and basic needs over natural resource use. Atlantic Industries regards the rainforest of southern Belize as a commercial asset -- an input to production available in a comparatively unregulated context. The Maya, on the other hand, view the land, plants, and animals of the rainforest as gifts from god, for whom they serve as stewards of these natural resources. These disparate views of the rainforest have led to the clash of interests fueling this conflict.

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Sub-state

14. Outcome of Dispute: In Progress

IV. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE and TED Cases

TED Cases
Malay Log Export
Belize Wood Tourism
Thai Logging Ban
Philippines Wood Exports
Guatemala Deforestation
Peru and El Salvador Conflict
Guatemala Forest
El Salvador Conflict



16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Toledo Maya Cultural Council


Official Country of Belize Homepage

Rainforest Action Network

Maya Cultural Foundation

U.S. News

Belize Home Page

Cho, Julian, "Mayan Leaders Confront Malaysian Logging on the Spot," Belize Times, May 19, 1996.

Ito, Timothy M. and Margaret Loftus, "Cutting and Dealing: Asian loggers target the world's remaining rain forests," U.S. News, March 10, 1997.

Wainwright, Joel, "By That Time I'll Be Dead," Bucknell World, March 1997.

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November, 1997