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Establishing the balance: Eco-tourism and farming

"Vampire bats," Don Anhill says with a grimace, pointing to a wound on the nose of a calf he had just lassoed for us. This is just one of many incidents on Don Anhill's farm where wild animals affect his crops and animals.

Don Anhill with one of his herd
credit: Ben Mackinnon

In Belize, eco-tourism is actively promoted and it is now one of the biggest contributors to the country's GDP with the result that much of the country is preserved from development.* One such reserve is Pook's Hill; encompassing 300 hectares, it lies in the southwest of the country forming part of the Golden stream corridor preserve which sustains a diversity of animals including jaguars, ocelots and a variety of rare birds. But, as with many Central American countries, a large percentage of Belize's population depend primarily on agriculture, which offers low incomes and contributes little to the GDP. And, unfortunately, this is where a conflict of interests lies; Belize recognizes the long term rewards of protecting its diverse ecosystems, but the abundance of animals is at a divergence with the production of food.

From forest habitat to farm homestead

On his 100-acre plot in southwest Belize which borders Pook's Hill, Don Anhill greets me with a warm smile as I arrive to spend a day with him on his farm. Emigrating from Guatemala, Don Anhill set about clearing the previously pristine rainforest in a traditional slash and burn manner. With 8 men and machetes it took only 2 months to clear 50 acres. He has now farmed here for 10 years.

In the early days he grew maize, but he tells me the market was not strong enough in Belize and he had to export it to Guatemala, which was not economical. Over time he has reduced his maize crop to 5 acres, which supports his family and chickens, and he now grows oranges that flourish on Maya built terraces, coconuts around his house, elephants ear (a yam-like tuber), pineapple, cassava, papaya and plantain. In addition, he has fruit-bearing forest trees, such as Hog plum (Spondias mombia), Mamee apple (Calocarpum mammosum) and Sapodilla (Manilkara zapota), which he retained when clearing the land. The Mamee apple is rarely cultivated in South America but the wild fruits are popular and Don Anhill sells them for a dollar a piece at the local market. The tree also attracts animals such as Agouti, or gibnut as it is known in Belize, a prized game animal which is hunted with dogs or trapped. Sapodilla also produces an edible fruit, a good hard wood, and the latex of the tree produces chicle, the chewing gum of the Aztecs, which can be exported.

However, cattle have become Don Anhill's most profitable export commodity. He has around 30 head of cattle that are maintained on rough pasture land, which Don Anhill burns on approximately a 10 year cycle. From the cattle three products are made on the farm; cream, and two types of cheese, which are traditionally mixed in with beans as a meal. Oranges, the other major commodity produced from the farm, are also sold for export.

His latest venture is a pond, recently dug, in which he raises tilapia acquired from the local river, where tilapia have established populations following government trials with this species. To support his diversity of activities, Don Anhill is assisted by a local NGO, Help for Progress, which specializes in providing advice to small-scale farmers. Don Anhill is amongst those who have benefited from vaccinations for his cattle, and in the provision of vehicles to transport his products.

Maintaining the status quo?

The farm sustains a rich diversity of plants, and around the fruit trees one sees a vegetation structure similar to that of the neighbouring rainforest. The diversity attracts an abundance of animals. Besides the vampire bats attacking Don Anhill's prize cattle, white-fronted parrots, brown jays, coatimundi and raccoons regularly feed on his corn, and woodpeckers and montazzoma drill into his oranges opening them up to infections.

However, Don Anhill is not blind to the potential of eco-tourism on his farm as he realises that the damage resulting from the animals could be mitigated by the financial rewards of bringing tourists onto his farm. Guided bird trips, for instance, could bring in an income of $4 per visitor. Overall, his outlook is calm, as he reflects that the land has to be home to his family as well as the animals. He is therefore willing to give a little back, just so long as he and his family do not go hungry.

The conservation of biodiversity is often said to provide bread for the soul not bread for the stomach. The plain fact is that the balance between eco-tourism and farming must be right.

*See In Print 'A Trip too Far' for an alternative assessment of eco-tourism in Belize, and how it can hinder development in rural communities.

Article submitted by Ben Mackinnon

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