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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Belizan Farmers Protect Forests and Monkeys

Air Date: Week of

Matt Binder reports on a new sanctuary for howler moneys, run by subsistence farmers in the Central American country of Belize. The trees in the sanctuary have helped stem soil erosion, and the large population of monkeys has helped bring tourist dollars to the area.


CURWOOD: While some Ecuadorans are regretting the extraction of resources from their jungle, some folks in the tiny Central American nation of Belize are celebrating -- and cashing in -- on the preservation of their local ecosystem. Farmers along a section of the Belize River have agreed to stop cutting the forest that's home to the howler monkey. They've set up a private sanctuary, run by local people with no government support. It's already attracting visitors--and money--from other parts of the world. From Belize, Matt Binder reports.

(rainforest sounds)

BINDER: The rainforest along the the Belize River is filled with myriad species of life, all clamoring to be heard above a continual din. One animal here is, pound for pound, among the loudest in the world.

(Monkey sound)

This single twenty pound male black howler money can be clearly heard from two miles away.

(Monkey and cricket sound)

Six years ago, near the small village of Bermudian Landing, about 800 of these monkeys were living in the high canopy of the trees along the river bank.

(Sound of machetes cutting through brush)

But those trees were fast disappearing, as local subsistence farmers slashed and burned their land to make rise, corn and bean fields. The monkeys were disappearing along with the trees.

(Village sounds)

Then twelve farmers, following the advice of a North American biologist who was studying the monkeys, got together and promised each other they wouldn't cut down trees that the monkeys needed. The biologist had told them that preserving the monkeys could bring tourists to the area, and in any case, he said, preserving the trees would help protect the soil from erosion. And according to Bernard Herrera, one of the first to join the sanctuary, that's just about the way it's worked out. The monkeys, which in Belize are called baboons, have grown in number to over a thousand. The village has gotten a new source of income, and the people have found a new appreciation for their unique environment.

HERRERA: The sanctuary's a good thing, especially in our village here. First time I never used to feel about the baboon, just take it simply, you know the way? But no, I see something very interesting in the baboon.

BINDER: The sanctuary is made up completely of private lands, with no legal status and no government involvement. Each participating landowner signs a non-binding contract and promises to follow certain conservation practices that help the monkeys flourish. A typical contract will include a pledge to preserve trees on the river bank, to keep an aerial pathway on their property so that the monkeys never have to walk on open ground, and a promise not to cut down the monkeys' favorite food trees. By following these practices, the rainforest in the sanctuary has become incredibly abundant, with just three acres of forest providing enough food for a typical family of six monkeys to live on for a whole year. And that's where they use their amazing noise-making abilities, to defend their small territories from neighboring families.

(Monkeys howling)

Four years ago, Fallet Young was another subsistence farmer in Bermudian Landing. Now, as the manager of the community baboon sanctuary, he's responsible for the monkeys' well-being. He says the sanctuary works better than a government-run park, because the local people here give their preserve so much support.

YOUNG: I think it is a very good approach when you can get the local people involved in this, because then they are the ones that will be doing the work and they feel they are a part of it. I do not think you are going to have much problem. But even in areas that are reserves or national parks and whatnot that is controlled by the government, and so if people are living there, they are not really getting any direct benefits from these areas, then it creates problems.

BINDER: The benefits of conservation, in addition to stemming erosion, have been the welcome tourist dollars that are boosting the local economy. There aren't a lot of things to buy in Bermudian Landing, but what there is is unique: jam and wine made from wild jungle fruits, canoe rides up and down the crocodile-infected Belize River, horseback rides through the rainforest, a few crafts, and food and lodging in the homes of the local people. Attanasio Soleri adds a couple of dollars a day to his meager farming income by taking tourists deep into the jungle to see the monkeys.

SOLERI: It really changed the whole system because you have more tourists, probably right now, like you come right here, you say I would like to have some local meals, and you go to a private home and get some local meals there, you come and stay for two, three days in the village and I take you on a tour, that's something that never happened before. Since the sanctuary opened, all of these activities have taken place.
BINDER: How does that affect your village -- do people like it now better, or are they starting to feel that it's too many people?
SOLERI: Well, as far as I know everybody just likes that more because they know their village is coming to be more famous because you to probably to England or Australia or Jamaica or different other parts of the world and you will say, I went to such a place, Bermudian Landing, where is the baboon sanctuary to see baboons, I get some nice local meals, I met some nice friends, and I also went up the river and take a nice bath up the river.

BINDER: Today about twenty people a day come visit the sanctuary, and over the last six years a hundred other farmers have added land to the preserve. This idea of how to run a wildlife sanctuary is now beginning to spread. There's now a community manatee preserve in northern Belize, and a community bald eagle sanctuary in Wisconsin, both modeled on the structure developed by farmers in the tiny Belizean village of Bermudian Landing. For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Binder.



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