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Belize’s forests vanishing!

We’ve heard recently of the use of satellite imagery in petroleum exploration work in Belize. Local and global observation systems are now being advanced that would allow people around the globe to collect and share data, as easily as one browses the Internet.

According to GEO – Group on Earth Observations, a system dubbedGlobal Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) will, just as with the Internet, “…be a global and flexible network of content providers allowing decision makers to access an extraordinary range of information at their desk.

“This ‘system of systems’ will proactively link together existing and planned observing systems around the world and support the development of new systems where gaps currently exist.”

GEO claims that the systems have many useful applications such as forecasting meningitis outbreaks, supporting disaster management in Central and South America, improving agriculture and fisheries management, and mapping and classifying ecosystems.

As a part of this global scheme, and in the context of SERVIR (Sistema Regional de Visualización y Monitoreo or the Regional System of Visualization and Monitoring), a 30-year study was just released for Belize, which is a GEO member.

A September 2010 report, Forest Cover and Deforestation in Belize: 1980-2010, was produced by a team of scientists led by Emil A. Cherrington, Senior Scientist, Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America & the Caribbean (CATHALAC — Centro del Agua del Trópico Húmedo para América Latina y El Caribe); along with Dan Irwin of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the US); Edgar Ek; Percival Cho and others.

They say that Belize has the highest relative forest cover in the region. While Belize comprises 5% of Central America’s land mass, it accounts for 10% of the region’s forest carbon stock.

Cherrington, who also coauthored the article “SERVIR supports forest management in Belize” with Irwin, says that, “Belize’s forest cover has declined from 75.9% in 1980 to 62.7% as of late February 2010.”

This finding, he notes, is based on imagery analysis for 1980, 1989, 1994, 2000, 2004, and 2010. They used satellite technology from the Landsat series, a system managed by NASA and the US Geological Survey.

The document notes that Belize’s annual deforestation was estimated at 0.6% or about 10,000 hectares of forest per year.

While the report commends the forest conservation afforded by putting a large percentage of Belize’s land mass under protected status, we note that the images confirm clearings that authorities say have been happening illegally due to cross-border incursions inside the Chiquibul Forest Reserve and other parts of Cayo. This largely deforested area, clearly visible on the 2010 map, was densely forested before Independence in 1980.

While Orange Walk, for example, appears largely unchanged, Toledo shows a stark contrast. Only a sliver of land in the central part of the district and an area in the north east seemed properly cleared in 1980, but a sizeable span of the district has now been cleared, as the district is now home to more than 30 Maya villages and other settlements—many of them founded between the time span of the two satellite surveys—as well as tourism and agricultural investments.

“Of particular significance is the study’s illustrating that protected areas have been extremely effective in conserving forests, with only a small percent of forests within protected areas being detected as cleared within the past 30 years, compared to a quarter of forests outside of protected areas being cleared in that period,” note Cherrington and Irwin.

As Amandala has previously reported, it is estimated that 36% of Belize’s land mass is under protected status.

“While this assessment utilized an exhaustive 27 gigabytes of imagery and intermediate outputs which required significant computational resources, the entire study was completed in just four months, including the analysis of pre-collected field data to ‘ground truth’ the outputs,” the authors say, adding that the study was completed in August.

Cherrington and Irwin comment, “This work complements a European Commission-funded study, by CATHALAC, of land cover change across all of Central America. Representatives of the Government of Belize have expressed interest in using this study as an input to international reporting for a range of commitments ranging from the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to the emerging Reducing Emissions from Deforestation & Forest Degradation (REDD+) initiative.

“Making use of the TROPICARMS 2.0 system implemented by CATHALAC, the report also estimates Belize’s current stock of forest carbon – an important requirement of REDD+.”

The study notes that Belize’s forest carbon stock is over 300 million tons of carbon, which means it has potential for being accepted under the REDD+.

Belize has expressed interest in using this sort of data on forest cover to earn credits and funds through the UN REDD+ project.

Ambassador David Gibson, foreign affairs consultant for Belize, told Amandala earlier this year, in discussing the issue of continued deforestation in Belize by Guatemalans, that Belize wants to use “science diplomacy” to help dissuade this type of illegal activity.

“What we have done under the heading of science diplomacy, is to harness science and technology to deal with this problem under the heading of the Copenhagen UN REDD Plus … to which all countries subscribe, including Guatemala.”

He had noted that Guyana was able to access millions because of its large forest cover.

(Author’s Note: In 1954, Belize’s population was under 80,000. Today approaching 4 times that.)