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The Beginning of the
Elijio Panti National Park

8-22-01
Maria Garcia's story:

The Dream

On December 5, 1998 a dream was given to us. Five Mayan people came together and started to talk about a national park for our communities. I was one of them. We knew that our lands were in danger of disappearing, being destroyed. There were destructive activities taking place in the reserve area at that time: logging of endangered hardwoods, extraction of various ornamental plants, like orchids, and hunting activities. During the last UDP administration, the government distributed land in the reserve area to more than 100 people, which could cause heavy impact to the reserve. Our land is fast disappearing, so we have to take action quickly.

That same month, our Minister of Agriculture, Daniel Silva, came down to our village to have a meeting with our villagers and the park was one of the issues that were discussed. On that day a committee was officially formed to negotiate with the government. Surprisingly, our men elected me to be the chairperson for that committee. Twice, I asked them if they really wanted me to perform that mission and both times they said yes. I knew that it would be a challenge, but I also felt that it was time for me to accomplish a mission. We have our Mayan culture but we have become separated from our real environment, which is our natural resource. Culture without environment is not true culture. Environment without culture is not true environment.

It was the first time that I was to work with so many men. I wondered if the men would allow me to voice my opinions or if they would disagree with me. In my culture it is our men who always head things within the villages, even at home. Our women are very timid. As well, our Mayan women like to work with other women not with men. The men are the same way, so I was very afraid that I wouldn't be able to work with all these men. Some men said: 'Why did you all elect a woman to do that job? What does she know about the jungle? That's men's work.' I told them: "Like you, I grew up in the forest, so the forest is my home too."

Now it's been three years that I've been working with them and have not encountered any problems. They have supported me in all decisions made. They now have confidence in me and they know that I can get things done.

The Organization

That committee was headed by seven of us at that time. We saw that there was a need to organize the committee, so we formed a board of governors, which gave birth to the Itzamna Society for the protection and Conservation of the Environment and Culture and Community Development. ( Itzamna is God who created all things on Earth.) This community development took place in January, 2000 and included representatives from the three villages, El Progreso 7 miles, Cristo Rey Village, San Antonio Village. It also included the former police officers, doctors, teachers and tour guides. Thus, we became fourteen people in all. The Society was legally registered as a NGO on the ninth of February, 2000.

In the month of February, 1999, along with the forestry department, the chairman of San Antonio village and the park committee, we flew over the area to familiarize ourselves with the areas to be negotiated with the government of Belize for the proposed National Park. This is when the committee started to try to think of a name for the park. We all decided that there is no better name for our park than our beloved bush doctor's name, Elijio Panti. Elijio was a spiritual healer who passed away in 1996 at the age of 103. He used to treat people from all over the world with his magic hands. He healed thousands of sick people, only by speaking to them or by treating them. Also, he was the high priest of our village to whom our people went for consultation when having problems with their neighbors, families, etc.. For healing, he used his crystal balls, prayers and herbs. One of his favorites was 'primicia' a Mayan ceremony, to give thanks to the Gods or ask them to help in his healing, especially if the sick person was very ill. Elijio dedicated his life for our village, his people. So, in return, we honored him by naming the National Park Elijio Panti. Now, our future generations will come and continue to remember him so that his legacy will never die but live forever with us.

The Farmers

90% of my fellow villagers in San Antonio are farmers. When they heard that the reserve area was going to be converted into a National Park, some questioned continuing to protect it. Our people don't know the reason to preserve the ecology. The only thing they know is that they need to survive. We can't blame them. To find a flat area of the reserve suitable for farming, 25 of the farmers explored the reserve area, only to find land in the heart of the reserve. They went to the government to demand this land for farming. The farmers told the government that the hilly areas should be made into park and the flat areas be given to them for cultivation. The government told them that they might convert the area into park but not into farming area and if their demand was realized, there will be no park for their future generations to come to. So, the park committee was caught in the middle. On one hand, there were the farmers, and on the other the government. We knew our people must stick together, as that is the only way to be strong, so we met to discuss why we need to conserve and how by uniting we can demonstrate our needs to the government. Then, we united and started our requisition of the government of Belize, demanding the National Park and land for cultivation.

The government decided to look for land for the farmers. Within the Mountain Pine Ridge, there was a 1500-acre area that the government de-reserved more than 20 years ago. At that time, a Peanuts and Grain Growers cooperative was formed of about 60 farmers from my village. However, after every governmental election they would lose their land. This made the farmers very disappointed and many started to leave the area. Then about 15 years ago they were also harassed by the forestry officers and taken out of the area. So, more and more they started to abandon the area. Only seven farmers continue to live on the land and to this day, not a single one of them has legal papers for their land. If government changes, these farmers may lose their land again.

Now, the government decided that the land would be distributed among the farmers who went to the government demanding land for cultivation, which had now become 85 farmers: the Peanut and Grain Growers were not included in this distribution. To prevent the problem from reoccurring, we required of the government that these farmers be given legal title to their land. The government agreed to it. We then had the problem that the other seven farmers in this enclave felt that their land was going to be taken away. To begin our negotiations with the co-op, we held our first community meeting in June, 1999 to let them know about the proposed National Park. At the meeting other villages came in to give their experience on their parks and their villages: Help for Progress, an NGO, Maya Center with the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Five Blue Lakes National Park with the community of Saint Margaret, El Pilar and the village of Bullet Tree, the cooperative from our village (San Antonio), the Minister of Agriculture, Daniel Silva, the forestry department and PACT, (protective areas conservation trust) from the government. In general at the beginning of the meeting the co-op. was against the National Park, but by the end they supported it and even gave 500 hundred acres of the hilly enclave area to the park. So, a balance of one thousand remained for farming. However, the forestry department alone decided that this enclave area be brought down to 500 acres and the other 500 be added to the park as well.

So, the area with 500 acres for farming remained. We continued to negotiate with the co-op. They started to bring in more farmers to their group and became fifteen farmers in the enclave. We told them that if we work together they could also take advantage of the same offer that was given to the new group of eighty-five farmers. By uniting, there is more strength.

On May 17, 2001, the coop called a meeting with the Park Committee, Daniel Silva, the chairman of our village, the 85 farmers and BAPO, the NGO that works with farmers. The co-op informed us that they are willing to work with the newer farmers group; they would claim 225 acres of the 500 and the rest would go to the other farmers. To represent all of the groups, another committee was formed that day.

I went as the representative of both the park and the new farmers, with the chairman of my village, the president of the Peanut and Grain Growers co-op and the government co-op representative to a meeting in San Ignacio town on the 27th of June. At this meeting, the co-op presented a map of the area and we decided on a date, the 10th of July, to visit this farming enclave. When the four representatives visited the area and we all found out that there is 250 acres of land that is available for farming. The area is a very beautiful, humid, high jungle with very rich and fertile soil.

Last year, knowing that our farmers will be given land that is very fragile, we started to let our farmers know that there is no need to cut down the forest. If we leave the trees, the very thin layer of topsoil will not be as easily washed into the two nearby creeks. Also, if they use chemical pesticides or fertilizers these too will end up in the creeks and flow down to the sea. So, they could end up contaminating the whole Macal River, Belize River and the Caribbean Sea, which right now is not very contaminated. So, one of the main projects of the Itzamna Society is to start a project with organic cultivation and create a market for the farmers for their product. We know it's hard, but we have to start to change the type of farming of our farmers. To begin to teach them about natural cultivation and organic farming, we took a two-day field trip to Punta Gorda, Toledo District (in Belize). There we met with our Mayan farmers down there who are cultivating organic cacao. We know that using these new methods is another challenge to take, but we have to start somewhere. Our farmers are used to using chemicals during cultivation, while slashing and burning the fields to clear them. We have to start with these new farmers who are going to have this new land in the enclave. Fifteen farmers are there, but only five of them are cultivating. Because it's hard for them to take out their products, especially during the rainy season and they can't cultivate only during the dry season, the co-op group took the land along the creek sides in hopes of irrigating their crops. But, we had made a condition that stated 100 feet along any creeks and rivers be left as riparian buffer zone. The area is fragile as well since the farming enclave is in the middle of the National Park and the Pine Ridge.

We all negotiated with the government for the co-op to get lease papers for their lands as well. And again the government agreed to it. Currently, we are setting up a meeting with the farmers to distribute the land. The co-op farmers will get between 15-20 acres apiece, while the newer farmers will receive 5-10 acres. During our negotiations, the government stated very clearly that of the new farmers, only the young people who don't have an acre of land to do his or her farming on would get land. We will find out how many of them will be able to get their land since they will have to pay for the surveying of their land, which cost $800.00 Bz. ($400.00 US) to survey 10 acres. We plan to tell the government to negotiate the price with the surveyor, to reduce it for the farmer, and get a paper of support from the Minister of Agriculture so that the farmer's bank can give a small loan to each farmer in his or her own names. Hopefully, then they can all pay for the surveying of their land and get their areas

So, after three long years in negotiation with the government the farmers will finally get their land. One of the other villages supporting the park, 7 Miles, has also encountered the same problems with the government for the past twenty years. They were located on the boundary line of the park, so we negotiated with the government and the land was de-reserved and given to the farmers in December, 2000. In return, they agreed to help us patrol that area or section of the park. They participate in the different necessities that the park has. For example, when we need transportation, they provide it.

The Negotiations

Coming back to the beginning of the negotiations for the park in 1999. The committee visited different institutions to start to let them know what was happening in our small village and to get their support. Some were very encouraging. Some thought we were crazy and that our words were only words in the air. The late Mrs. Jean Shaw from Hotel Mopan said: "you will find people to support you; some will not, but always remember this: whenever you encounter a problem, pray.". That's what we have been doing, praying to the Gods. We continued the negotiation with the forestry department on the identification of the boundary line. They told us that the government doesn't have the power to turn the reserve area into a national park and that the government lied to us and wouldn't fulfill the Minister of Natural Resources' words. They were wasting our time. We all went to Daniel Silva and told him: "we are not kids and we want to know the truth.". He said that he didn't see why the forestry or the conservation division said those things and he agreed that they needed to work on the boundary line. With much support from Mr. Silva, we finally convinced the Forestry Department to help turn the reserve into park. It took two weeks of intensive work for our committee and the Forestry Department to walk all the boundary lines, but at last, the borders were clearly identified.

The Work

In the month of October, 1999, we had some volunteers from Guatemala, a museologist, an agronomist, an environmentalist and an archeologist. This group, headed by Emilia Toralla, came down to do the first park exploration along with our group and the farmers from my village. On our excursion, we discovered the huge Offering Cave named Kaam Actun in Mayan, which dates to 250 AD. At the very end of the tunnel, lie many massive vessels that the ancient Mayans used during their ceremonies. We also came across three Mayan sites towering through the canopy a mile away from the cave. When we started to explore the area, there was no open road, only animal trails with poisonous plants and trees on the trail. The hike or horse ride is 18 miles from the Pine Ridge area to the mountains. When it is raining, there is a lot of mud. The land that we were negotiating with the government was at that time 80,000 acres. Later, it got to be 13,006 acres. We believe it will eventually be more since the government at this point may add some more acres to the park.

In the pristine jungle, there are a lot of wild animals, like the jaguar, howler monkeys, tapirs, mountain lions, birds, toucans, curassows, etc.. The canopied rain forest also contains 75 years old, endangered species of hard woods, endangered medicinal plants, large waterfalls, and many holistic caves. Upon discovering so many precious sites, we made it our priority to identify a campsite, to work on the road to the campsite and to train wardens for the reserve area immediately. We decided to reopen the old logging road to have access to the park. There was a need to get a warden in the park to stop the extraction of plants, looting and hunting that was taking place. Once again, we approached the government for our needs, only to find Daniel Silva most helpful. So, on the 10th of January, 2000, we posted the first two wardens from San Antonio in the reserve area, began the construction of a camping area, made a hut for the warden and cleared the trail to the cave. By patrolling of the area, hunting was minimized and the logging was stopped. We drafted and started our plans for a Visitor Center and for fire control. The wardens from my village were posted there for six months; then, Cristo Rey Village took over for the next six months. But, once again, we encountered a problem. Last year a hurricane affected Belize and the Minister of Agriculture needed to reduce the payment of the warden and could afford to pay only one warden, so as of now we only have one warden posted in the National Park. Currently, one warden from 7 Miles is doing 6 months. Since we are working with the three villages, we have to give opportunities to all of them.

Last year the government, through Mr. Silva, reopened the old logging road but it was quickly affected by the hurricane. The road is accessible during the dry season with a vehicle, but not during rainy season. To make it accessible the whole year, we need to put some culverts and bridges in and fill in parts of the road. In the month of January 2000, we took over responsibility for the reserve area.

That was the time when officially we became guardians of our own lands.

On the 6th of September, 2000, some young persons from my village took a course on cave touring. Our caves are fragile and need persons with a clear vision and respect for these deeply spiritual areas. Four persons who are training to be wardens as well took the training from Mr. Emilio Awe from the Department of Archeology in Belmopan, a government department. But, that was only the beginning of their training. They need to have training on first aid for caves, which is very expensive. Then, wood or lumber rails need to be made for our caves so that people can come down safely in some parts of the cave without doing damage to artifacts and structures within the cave.

Because each of our villages is of impact to our environment and the park itself, we thought it was necessary to create a management plan for each village. That's something new that we are planning since all the different parks in Belize only have a management plan for the park not for the villages adjacent to the area. We also realize that the majority of parks have management plans adopted from other parks. We disagree with the idea to make a management plan fast, without taking in consideration the villages and the differences of the areas. Each area is totally different.

Problemas

The first thing that happened was that the thatched building by the campsite suffered damage from a very tall tree that fell over the house. Now we have to build another one. That happened on the 23rd of July, 2001.

But even worse, on October 7, 2000, the proposed National Park was supposed to be inaugurated. Mayan spiritualist leaders from Guatemala and Belize planned to dedicate the Park to the Gods. The people from the institution or foundation 'Regoberta Menchu' were due to attend. But, everything was postponed due to hurricane Keith. The gods know how to predict things. Hurricane Keith was a blessing. That same day we found out that one quarter of the proposed park was handed over in exchange for the Thousand Foot Falls which has one thousand acres of land. In the area that was given away, there were some farmers, a total of about 20 families that have lived there for more than twenty years. Neither our committee nor the heads of the three villages were notified. No one knew what was happening. It had been three months already since this land was handed over with legal papers by the government to a gentleman. The amount of land was 30 thousand acres, plus money that the government had to pay him.

The three communities got together. The farmers and the park committee headed to Belmopan to negotiate with the government and to find out whether this information was true. We visited the chief officers of forestry. They told us it was true and that it was handed to this gentleman about three months ago. So then, we visited our friend Mr. Silva, who is our area representative, and let him know about our problem. He told us to come down and work on our map for the area that is the proposed National Park. We went and sat down with the farmers, the committee and village leaders and made our map. The following Monday, we all visited the government again. At that time we told the government that we didn't want sweet words, but that we were demanding our lands. We told them that we were tired of our toes being mashed, and that we will not give a centimeter of our lands. We all got to see the Minister of Natural Resources, as well and let him know that we felt so very insulted that we, being farmers living in villages, who do not know how to read and write, were not consulted. And because we were left in the dark, we were coming to demand our lands.

We have been working with them two years. The Forestry Department and Conservation Department know very well our boundary lines. How could they even consider that specific area be given away if they know that that is the proposed National Park area? At that time, we no longer had confidence in them. But, the Minister of Natural Resources promised to solve the problem. We started to explore the area again. Within the area there are three waterfalls, a canopied rain forest at least seventy-five years old, a lot of wild animals, a holistic cave, etc. We started to document this area and video the whole area, including the area where the farmers are. We started to get different towns and villagers to support us. We were planning to put it to the national and international media in case we should have to protest. The last option was to let our farmers know what was happening and for them to take over the reserve area, since the government was violating it's own laws. We also presented the map that we made demanding that that is the whole area that we wanted. If it's more, then fine, but if it's less, then no. So, we were ready for what ever would arise.

In the month of December, we were notified that the government canceled giving the land to the gentleman and that they would give the land to the farmers as well to de-reserve it. They also would start to survey their land and the National Park. So, we were all happy for that good news.

People are always hungry for more land. We were just informed on the 31st of August, 2001 that a group of individuals are trying to get lease papers on two large properties of land that lie within the National Park boundaries, the Privaccion and the Pine Ridgito area. They are trying to do this secretly without our and the proper government's involvement. Again, we will have to go to the government and demand the protection of these sacred areas. This is just another example of how our lands are being threatened every second of the day.

The Inauguration

The beginning of the New Year was good. On the 23rd of February, 2001, the reserve area was turned into National Park. At a ceremony within our community of San Antonio Village the documents were signed. On that day, we started to negotiate with the government. On the 2nd of June,2001, the inauguration and the signing of the co-management agreement with our communities took place. For that occasion, 175 Mayan spiritualists from Belize and Guatemala came down to make a Mayan ceremony to dedicate the Noj Kaax Meen Elijio Panti National Park to the Gods. The ceremony started on the afternoon at 7pm and went on through the whole night. As the morning sun was to appear, we all went to a Mayan site in my community to finish the Mayan ceremony that concluded at 12 p.m. At 2pm, the official inauguration was made by the government officials and other invited guests, such as Miss Witth from the US embassy.

For your information: the Mayan words 'Noj Kaax' mean 'canopied rainforest' and 'Meen' means Mayan Spiritualist Healer, referring to our beloved Elijio Panti.

The Work Continues

From the 18th to the 30th a Venezuelan planner, Ana Maria Ramirez Yanez, came to start to prepare a project for the management plan of the National Park and it's villages. On Aug. 11th, we went to the National Park with the Peace Corps volunteer, Susanne Giattina, so that she could start to familiarize herself with the area. Thanks to the Janus Foundation, on the 18th and 19th of August, 2001, seventeen villagers completed an educational workshop on protected areas of Belize, which awarded them the title 'volunteer for conservation'. I was so surprised to see how many young people are very interested in conservation. On the 22nd of August, 2001, the Peace Corps volunteer came down to my village to live for two years and to work with our villages and the National Park.

One of the other projects that we are starting is the exploration of the 30,000 acres of land that are declared for the preservation of our Mayan medicinal plants, endangered species and for scientific research.

Now we face another problem. This year Belize suffered one of the worst diseases in our pine forest. The Southern Pine Beetle devastated 90% of our pine trees in the Mountain Pine Ridge. Slowly, the animals are finding refuge in the National Park. This will worsen during the dry season because all the rotting pine will catch fire quickly and force the rest of the animals to find refuge in the park. We need to monitor and patrol the area even more because the hunters of wild animals and birds will want to make their way in as well. We asked for help from the Belize Defense Force who agreed to work with us to help patrol the area.

We are grateful to people who will grant us funding and who will volunteer to help with this immense and wonderful project.

Maria Garcia, Chairperson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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