Belize, a coastal Central American country that is slightly smaller than the state of Massachusetts only recently gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1981 and has a growing population that is currently estimated to be 347,369. This young country, however, has a long history of exploiting and overharvesting natural resources such as timber. Today, Belize’s primary source of income is tourism, followed by exports of crude oil, marine products, sugar, and citrus, respectively (CIA World Factbook). By examining Belizean timber resource management and agricultural techniques that work with nature to improve environmental conditions after historic overharvesting and degradation, we can better understand the need for such practices in the Chesapeake watershed of America.
Historic timber exploitation and overharvesting of fisheries, which continues today, are two examples of industries that have caused extensive environmental degradation. As far back as the 1600’s, logwood trees were extracted from coastal Belizean forests for the production of a popular European dye in such high demand that the Spanish brought African slaves to Belize to sustain the supply. By 1780 the market for logwood had declined significantly and mahogany, an inland species, became the main export. More slaves were brought to Belize for labor, and roads and even a short railway were implemented to make logging feasible. Mahogany was in high demand, extraction was greedy, and the resource quickly became depleted (Bridgewater, 162).
Traditionally, only the largest mahogany trees were harvested, which was unsustainable because the species needs significant sunlight and disturbance to regenerate. So the management practice of a monocylcic system was put in place in the 1990’s, where eighty blocks of 500 hectares each were divided up and two blocks are completely harvested every year. This creates a forty-year logging cycle that is sustainable and still allows 1,000 hectares of mahogany to be harvested annually. Other practices, such as leaving at least ten reproductively capable trees per 100 hectares and not harvesting trees greater than one hundred centimeters in diameter to ensure the quality of future generations are required (Bridgewater, 174). Instead of just taking what we want without regard for ecological repercussions or forcing a completely unnatural system onto a ecosystem to obtain specific economic services, these management practices take into account the biological needs of the species and in doing so, create a sustainable industry.
Mimicking the natural growth process of the tropical forest is another technique used in some of Belize’s agriculture. Ecoagriculture, such as agroforesty, focuses on integrating “biodiversity, conservation, livelihoods, and productivity in agricultural landscapes,” (Schroth and Socorro, 2007). So instead of using slash and burn techniques in an area and then planting a crop of one species that will quickly deplete the soil nutrients and require a lot of intensive agriculture to be productive, ecoagriculture takes into account the health of the ecosystem. By planting multiple species of varying canopy heights, a farmer can take advantage of the vertical structure and increase their production of different crops, as well as create more habitat for other species. These are just a few of the many benefits of ecoagriculture, but they highlight both the ecological significance and economic benefit of wedding ecology with economy.
In the Chesapeake we have created a trade-off between the health of the bay and economic production, specifically in agriculture. There are some best management practices encouraged with monetary incentives from the government such as planting cover crops, implementing controlled drainage structures, and buffer zones, but they are not enough. When compared to the amount of land within the watershed that is used for monoculture crops like corn and soybeans, the effects of these practices seem negligible. What we need are management practices that work with nature, instead of imposing artificial systems that create a chain of problems- for example, we add fertilizer to cornfields to fix nutrient depletion from the soil, which then runs off into the bay and contributes to eutrophication. In Preserving Wildness, Wendell Berry says that, “Looking at the monocultures of industrial civilization, we yearn with a kind of homesickness for the humanness and the naturalness of a highly diversified, multipurpose landscape,” ( 529). In the Chesapeake watershed we need to discover management practices for resource extraction and agriculture that work in harmony with the ecosystem to improve and preserve our environment since monoculture is unnatural and overly demanding.
Berry, Wendell. (1987). Preserving Wildness. Collection of Essays.
Bridgewater, Samuel. (2012). Belize: Inside the Maya Forest.
CIA World FactBook. Website.