Belize: Help stop over-harvesting of floral industry’s Xate

Don’t spend another penny encouraging illegal or unsustainable collection of forest products for the floral industry. As long as people are willing to buy a product, someone will take whatever risk necessary to supply it.

We urge you to make every dollar you spend one that does not support the destruction of the environment or the abuse of human rights or put people at risk to supply it. Xate (sha-tay) are leaves from three Chamaedorea palm species (C. elegans, C. oblongata and C. ernesti-augustii) used in the floral industry.

They are used
commercially because they are attractive leaves that can last for up
to 45 days after being cut. This makes them popular for flower
arrangements, Palm Sunday services and decoration. The leaves are
harvested from palms in the forests of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize
where they grow naturally.

Many people, called xateros, rely on the harvest of palm leaves as their source of income. Unfortunately so much leaf is collected it has made a large impact on the health and population of the palms in the wild. Xate in general but particularly Chamaedorea ernesti-augustii, also called fishtail, is causing a stir in Belize. Fishtail leaf has been overcollected in the forests of
Guatemala and now xateros, from Guatemala, risk crossing the Belizean
border to gather the leaf. These xateros generally earn less than
USD$5 a day.

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The Forest Department license was issued to Mr. Ruben Hernandez of
Cotton Tree Village outside Belmopan. It stipulated his permission to
(1) harvest xate from the Maya Mountain Forest Reserve, Mango Creek
Forest Reserves No. 1 and 2, and Swasey Bladen Forest Reserve, (2)
legally hire Guatemalans to perform this work, and (3) to harvest the
xate in a sustainable manner.

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However, when confronted the Xateros were able to produce no identification beyond a simple card printed by the Forest Department. None carried a passport nor any kind of Belizean work permit or visa. The plants that were cut were not cut in a sustainable manner either. For a xate plant to live, no more than one of its mature leaves may be removed. Inspecting rangers spotted nearly every harvested plant to have been stripped of all of their leaves, many of them completely removed from their rooted stem. It’s not uncommon to find Guatemalan Xateros illegally harvesting within Belize borders (additional story), but this incident is unique in its sponsorship by a Belizean citizen. Even more confusing are the locations stipulated in the Forest Department license.

Of the four harvest regions indicated in the license, only Maya Mountain Forest Reserve has the appropriate landscape to produce xate. The other three regions – including Swasey Bladen, the one that shares the “Bladen” name – are pine savannas and are completely void of any naturally-occurring xate. Conversely, Bladen Nature Reserve – which restricts access to all except researchers and education groups with valid permits – is rich in xate, prompting suspicions that the incursion was not accidental. We, along with all concerned Belizeans and conservationists are waiting to hear what comes next for these 16 Xateros and Mr. Hernandez. It is likely he will be heavily fined and his harvest license will be revoked. Unfortunately this story is far too common in Belizean protected areas. A typical excuse, and the one offered by this group yesterday, is that the Xateros mean to harvest legally but do not know the boundaries between where they are allowed to harvest and where they are not. The same happens in the illegal logging industry. We would like to see greater support from the Forest Department, and the government of Belize, in enforcing these boundaries. Additionally, monitoring the validity of harvest permits and the adherence to the rules set within them must be strengthened.

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UpdateMarch 30th, 2009 at 8:29 am

Updating an earlier report, Ya’axche has just learned that the 72,000+ leaves of illegally-harvested xate confiscated on Wednesday were released back to Mr. Ruben Hernandez last night. In addition, the 16 xateros were released (and not deported) and Mr. Hernandez’s license was not revoked.

These actions were facilitated by Marlon Mar of the Belize Forest Department and predicated on the fact that they were not apprehended within the Bladen Nature Reserve boundary, nor that they entered the country illegally. However, the xateros admitted to Ya’axche rangers, the Forest Department representative and the police officer that they knew they were in Bladen Nature Reserve and indeed signed in on the BNR Ranger Base log book. Moreover, the xateros admitted to entering the country last week Tuesday to start work, while their work permit was only valid as of the 23rd.

Obviously we are extremely disappointed with this news. Not only does undermine the laws and procedures our staff are charged with maintaining, but it sets no precedent for proper land use enforcement.

Having transported the now-released xate out of the jungle for evidence, these actions in effect reduce the role of dedicated forest rangers to that of mere delivery men.

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