New Deal for Nature: Paying the Emperor to Fence the Wind

by Stephen Corry

Stephen Corry has worked for Survival International since 1972 and has been its Director since 1984. Survival International exists to protect tribal peoples from annihilation and to give them a platform to speak to the world.

24th February 2020

This article by Stephen Corry is more general and less Central America specific than most of the material included in this website. We have selected it for inclusion here because of the cogency of its arguments, its relevance to protected area management and conservation in any region of the world and its exposure of the destructive role of the Big International Conservation NGOs. It also exposes the myth that palm oil plantations (which have taken over large tracts of Central American land) are in any way beneficial to wildlife and biodiversity. The article first appeared in the CounterPunch journal. We are grateful to Stephen Corry and Survival International for permission to reproduce the article here.

Key words: conservation; climate change; protected areas; biodiversity loss; plantations; land theft; ‘New Deal for Nature’; community managed forests.


The conservation industry says 2020 is its ‘super year.’[1] It wants to set aside thirty percent of the globe for wildlife, and divert billions of dollars away from reducing climate change and into ‘natural climate solutions.’[2] This would be a disaster for people and planet. Conservation was founded in the racist ideology of 1860s USA but it committed thirty years ago to becoming people-friendly. It hasn’t happened. There will be more promises now, if only to placate critics and funders like the U.S. and German governments, and the European Commission, which are paying for conservation’s land theft, murder and torture.[3] More promises will be meaningless. No more public money should go for ‘Protected Areas’ until the conservation bodies recognize their crimes, get rid of those responsible, and hand stolen lands back, with compensation. Conservation NGOs must also stop cozying up to mining, logging, oil, and plantation companies.

The latest idea to be heavily promoted by big conservation NGOs is doubling the world’s so-called ‘Protected Areas’ (PAs) so that they cover thirty percent of the globe’s lands and oceans. This is now their main rallying cry and response to two of the world’s biggest problems – climate chaos and loss of biodiversity. It sounds good: It’s easy to grasp and has numbers that are supposed to be measurable, and advertisers do love numbers.

What better answer to climate change and biodiversity loss than to ban human ‘interference’ over huge areas? If, that is, you think ‘everybody’ is guilty of causing both crises and that everything’s solved by keeping them away. The idea’s been around for years, but now governments and industries are promoting it to the tune of billions of dollars,[4] so it’ll be difficult to oppose. But it’s actually dangerous nonsense which would have exactly the reverse effect to what we’re told, and if we want to save our world, it must be stopped.

Let’s be clear that cutting destructive pollution globally is vital for the climate, and that stopping industrial exploitation of unspoiled areas is essential for the flora and fauna, and the physical and mental health of inhabitants and visitors. None of that is disputed, but these are not the arguments advanced for asserting the right of this ‘New Deal for Nature’ to more taxpayers’ cash. It’s a marketing gimmick designed to funnel even more money to those who have for decades demonstrated their failure to mitigate either climate change or biodiversity loss.

Let’s assume they did succeed in putting so much territory ‘out of bounds.’ As with the emperor in his new suit, it’s childishly obvious that this wouldn’t necessarily bring any reduction to climate chaos: That’s simply because it wouldn’t affect what happens in the remaining seventy percent of the world – where most pollution originates. If just as much pollution carries on outside, then it doesn’t matter what’s going on inside PAs, because they too depend on the world’s climate, and you can’t fence the wind. Without reducing industrial emissions globally, leaving existing forest intact or planting lots of trees just won’t be enough to solve the problem. Wreck the atmosphere – even from a tiny proportion of the Earth – and you wreck it everywhere.

Not for the first time, the ‘experts’ are promoting a policy which a child can see is senseless, but if they tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

What about the second claim, that more PAs are needed to ensure the protection of biodiversity? Everyone rightly wants more of that: The more diverse an ecosystem, the more likely it is to adapt and survive. ‘Biodiversity’ means the enormous variety of life, and life forms are interconnected: they depend on each other. Where the flora and fauna is reduced to just a few species, there’s a domino effect that cuts the number still further.[5]

However obvious, it merits restating: to mix metaphors, when the domino becomes a snowball effect then ecosystems become deserts, even when visibly green. Oil palm plantations carved out of tropical forests are a famous example of lots of trees being planted in an area where biodiversity has been slashed to just a few species. Such plantations are effectively ‘green deserts.’

Putting the propaganda aside, it’s impossible to determine scientifically how effective PAs are for enhancing biodiversity. For example, a line drawn around a highly biodiverse area, which is then declared a national park, proves nothing about the park: The biodiversity was there in the first place. There is, however, considerable agreement about one thing, and it’s not that PAs are the solution at all.

It turns out that the most diversity is not found in areas where all human interference is banned, but actually the reverse – it’s found in places where tribal, indigenous, and other local, communities have stayed put and carried on doing what they’ve always been doing. It’s simply not true that everyone shares responsibility for biodiversity loss. Studies show that community-managed forests have less deforestation than inside PAs, and that ‘nature’ is doing better in areas managed by indigenous peoples than elsewhere.[6] In places as different as Australia, Brazil, and Canada more diversity is found in indigenous territories than in PAs.[7] It seems clear that biological and human diversity are interlinked.

This is a key point which conservation NGOs haven’t wanted the public to know as they clamor for yet more cash: Areas managed by local people, especially if they’re indigenous, are much better than PAs imposed by outsiders. One study concluded, albeit limply, the “notion that indigenous reserves are less effective than parks… must be re-examined.”[8] You can say that again! They are already reckoned to contain no less than eighty percent of global species diversity. That’s the very reason conservationists want to take control of them. Indigenous peoples are now being victimized precisely because of their expertise in environmental stewardship.

Even where PAs are hyped as being about preserving iconic species, the evidence is mixed. For example, the former head of a conservation NGO thinks there could be more Indian tigers outside protected areas than inside. No one knows, but what’s certain is that when the British colonizers imprisoned the Waliangulu tribal elephant hunters in 1950s Kenya, elephant numbers did skyrocket, but only to plummet when the next drought hit and the herds proved too numerous for the environment. Thousands died of starvation, restoring a balance that the Waliangulu had achieved for generations or millennia. In South Africa, an average of nearly 600 elephants were culled every year from 1967 to 1996 (without publicity, to avoid upsetting conservation donors).[9] Banning traditional indigenous hunting generally harms biodiversity.

Protecting ‘nature’ by fencing it off from the locals simply hasn’t worked. It doesn’t help that many PAs aren’t really protected at all. They include industrial exploitation – mining, logging, plantations, trophy hunting concessions, or extensive, usually high-end, tourist infrastructure – but that’s the reality. The locals are thrown out as the land is grabbed by one or other industry, partnering with one or other big conservation NGO.

Like it or not, many PAs are as much about stealing the land from local people to make someone else a profit as they are about conservation. The famous Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana is the second largest ‘game reserve’ in the world but it’s also leased to mining exploration. There’s a diamond mine, with its roads and heavy machinery, where a tiny handful of the Bushmen who have lived there for generations are occasionally given menial jobs. (The government kicked them out until forced to backtrack by the high court.) As in almost all African PAs, wealthy tourists enjoy luxury accommodation inside the reserve. The man responsible for both the tourism and mine was the former president, General Ian Khama, a much-feted conservationist who was on the board of Conservation International.

This land theft is a problem for us all, and not only because the indigenous people are generally much better conservationists than ‘us’: Not surprisingly, the locals object when their land and self-sufficiency are looted for someone else’s gain, and their need for food, and sometimes their anger, translates into defying hunting bans (making them ‘poachers’ for trying to feed their families), as well as taking action to recover their ancestral territory. For example, pastoralists whose herds are banned from private ‘conservancies’ in East Africa are cutting the fences and going back in. They can be armed and violent clashes are increasing. Some researchers fear increasing bloodshed is inevitable[10] and the increasing militarization of conservation will just make things worse. Yet this is the model touted as the future of PAs, one supposedly enacted with the support of local communities (which is often a lie). They’re supported by the American NGO, The Nature Conservancy, and are largely profit-making investments aimed at wealthy companies and tourists. They’re now taking over huge areas of East Africa and beyond.

Just as Africans extricated themselves (at least, partly!) from European rule in the last century, they are unlikely to accede quietly to what is seen as more colonization, this time by conservationists. Unless things change, PAs in Africa will become real, not metaphorical, battlegrounds. Serious environmentalists know that you can’t have a PA for long if it’s surrounded by an angry population, yet conservation groups seem incapable of changing their practice. They exhort industry to become sustainable, while promoting their own model, which palpably isn’t.

WWF, for example, routinely violates human rights, the law and its own policies. It’s already spent millions of dollars illegally pushing for a new park in Congo, Messok Dja. The money comes from WWF itself and its accomplices, including a logging, oil palm, and luxury tourist company, as well as the Wildlife Conservation Society, the U.S. government, the EU, and the UN. As with the creation of almost all African PAs, the first step has been to kick out and terrorize the local Baka (so-called Pygmies) who’ve probably lived there for thousands of years, and who have adapted and sustainably managed their biodiverse-rich environment. Now they are kept out of their ancestral lands and terrorized, beaten and arrested if they return to seek traditional foods or plant medicines.

This is what the thirty percent of the globe taken for the New Deal for Nature will look like – a third of the globe stolen for profit. It’s a new colonialism, the world’s biggest land grab, supposedly ‘green’ and supposedly to save the world – a really big lie. As Odette, a Baka woman from Congo, says of such imposed conservation projects which don’t work, “We’ve had enough of this talk of ‘boundaries’ in the forest. The forest is ours.”[11]

The last couple of generations have amply demonstrated that meetings of corporate heads, NGOs, politicians, and celebrities are not going to solve the crises of climate and biodiversity. Those attending are amongst the major contributors to the problems, and least willing to accept any change which might threaten their position. They argue over statements that no one actually applies, or even intends to, and which are replete with clauses ensuring ‘business as usual.’ The meetings and declarations attract an enormous media circus, but are akin to the emperor’s workshop, with hundreds of tailors busily cutting suits of such rarefied material that they don’t cover his nakedness.

The real answers to the crises of climate and biodiversity lie in an inversion of the current approach, and a rejection of the New Deal for Nature and its failure to understand the relationship between indigenous peoples and nature. If we really want to save our world, then we have to start with the rich cutting their massive overconsumption. The wealthiest ten percent cause about half the world’s total pollution,[12] so they must work hardest to cut it. Both military conflict and the growth of information technology must be seen as the major polluters they are. The first is barely mentioned in climate activism, and the plan for the second is the exact opposite of what’s needed, with yet more energy-hungry ‘artificial intelligence’ lined up to monitor our lives for the benefit of industry and state control.[13] If we’re going to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, we must also reduce dependence on ‘smart’ tech, and we must accept the fact that real solutions aren’t found in marketing gimmicks like ‘net zero,’ offsetting, carbon markets, or ‘pricing nature.’ Real solutions are found with the local peoples that have successfully been creating and managing the world’s biodiversity since prehistory.

Humanity as a whole isn’t responsible for these problems, one particular sector is, and it’s same one coming up with the New Deal for Nature. Those promoting it want to dictate how the rest of the world should live, but they’re acting primarily for themselves. Banning human activity from yet more so-called ‘Protected Areas’ is another manifestation of the hubris that got us into this mess in the first place. Local people – those who retain some self-sufficiency, common sense, and connection with their environment – remain the strongest backbone of humanity, even today. They have better answers than the conservation technocrats and other global elites who lack their perspective. Kicking even more of them out at best reduces them to landless poverty and at worst destroys them and the environment. It would be disastrous for everyone.

We should be respecting land rights and encouraging indigenous peoples and other local communities to remain where they are – if they wish – to carry on managing their lands in their own ways, and we must, above all, stop the theft of their territories for conservation. Those who want to, should be maintaining their self-sufficiency, not forced into global markets that profit the polluters more than anyone. We must ‘give’ them back previously stolen lands, to manage themselves. We must listen to them rather than destroying them, as we are now.

Whether this happens remains to be seen. The few voices pointing out that the emperor has no clothes at all, are up against a deafening scream from conservation propagandists and mainstream media, baying that the New Deal for Nature is the perfect solution. Whose voice will prevail depends on people’s gullibility and ability to challenge both their own prejudices and powerful vested interests. It’s a real battle, and the outcome will determine how much more nature is stolen from this beautiful world we have helped create.


1) WWF Ecological. ‘2020: let’s put nature top of everybody’s to-do list.‘ April 20, 2018. (accessed 13/02/2020)

2) Tollefson, Jeff. ‘Global deal for nature’ fleshed out with specific conservation goals.’ Nature, April 19, 2019. (accessed 13/02/2020)

3) Baker, Katie & Tom Warren. ‘The US Government Spent Millions Funding WWF-Backed Forces Accused Of Torture and Murder.’ Buzzfeed News, September 24, 2019. (accessed 13/02/2020); Baker, Katie & Tom Warren. ‘WWF Says Indigenous People Want This Park. An Internal Report Says Some Fear Forest Ranger ‘Repression.’ Buzzfeed News, March 8, 2019. (accessed 13/02/2020)

4) The estimate for the total global ecosystem services in 2011 is $125 trillion/yr

Costanza, Robert, Rudolf De Groot, Paul Sutton, Sander Van der Ploeg, Sharolyn J. Anderson, Ida Kubiszewski, Stephen Farber, and R. Kerry Turner. ‘Changes in the global value of ecosystem services.‘ Global environmental change 26 (2014): 152-158. (accessed 13/02/2020)

5) Carrington, Damian. ‘What is biodiversity and why does it matter to us?‘ The Guardian, March 12, 2018. (accessed 13/02/2020)

6) Porter-Bolland, Luciana, Edward A. Ellis, Manuel R. Guariguata, Isabel Ruiz-Mallén, Simoneta Negrete-Yankelevich, and Victoria Reyes-García. ‘Community managed forests and forest protected areas: An assessment of their conservation effectiveness across the tropics.’ Forest ecology and management 268 (2012): 6-17

7) The study measured vertebrate animal diversity only.

Schuster et al, 2019, Vertebrate biodiversity on indigenous-managed lands in Australia, Brazil, and Canada equals that in protected areas, Environmental Science & Policy Volume 101, November 2019, Pages 1-6

8) Woods Hole Research Center. ‘Satellites Show Amazon Parks, Indigenous Reserves Stop Forest Clearing.’ ScienceDaily. (accessed February 13, 2020).

9) Dickson, Paul, and William M. Adams. ‘Science and uncertainty in South Africa’s elephant culling debate.’ Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 27, no. 1 (2009): 110-123.

10) Letiwa, Paul. ‘Herders protest as wildlife conservancies drive them out.’ The Daily Nation, August 18, 2019. (accessed February 13, 2020).

11) Survival International. ‘We’ve had enough of this talk of ‘boundaries’ in the forest.’ YouTube video, 01:00. 4 Jan 2019. (accessed February 13, 2020).

12) Gore, Timothy. Extreme Carbon Inequality. London: Oxfam. Dec 2, 2015. (The report can be found in Spanish and French at (accessed February 13, 2020).

13) See: Lu, Donna. ‘Creating an AI can be five times worse for the planet than a car.’ New Scientist, June 6, 2019. (accessed February 13, 2020).

14) Berners-Lee, Mike and Duncan Clark. ‘What’s the carbon footprint of … email?‘ The Guardian, Oct 21, 2010. (accessed February 13, 2020).

The danger of biodiversity offsetting

The following press release from Friends of the Earth UK refers specifically to the situation within the UK and case studies within the UK. It is given here because of the danger of the use of biodiversity offsetting on an international stage, especially in relation to the rich biodiversity in Central America.

FOE Press release: Offsetting is a massive threat to wildlife, warn environment groups
Monday, June 2, 2014 – 10:57

Biodiversity offsetting is already being used by developers to justify schemes that will cause irreversible harm to nature, warn over 15 environment groups across the world today (Monday 2 June 2014), ahead of a major biodiversity offsetting conference in London this week.

It comes as Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is soon to decide on controversial plans to allow developers to destroy precious wildlife habitat, provided there is an attempt to offset the damage elsewhere.

Such schemes are known as biodiversity offsetting, and FERN and Friends of the Earth are concerned that its introduction could allow developers to push through projects that would have devastating impacts on irreplaceable habitats and our wildlife.

New evidence published today by Friends of the Earth and FERN identifies a number of cases around the UK where offsetting is already being proposed by developers. This evidence and the accompanying photographs will be showcased in a public meeting in London tonight organised by environment groups from around the world.

One such case is Smithy Wood, near Sheffield, an ancient woodland much loved by local people, which is now threatened by a motorway service station. The developer has proposed planting new trees and improving management of another woodland to offset the damage, but local campaigners say they would still lose a forest that it would take 850 years to re-establish.

Friends of the Earth Nature Campaigner Sandra Bell said:

“Developers are already gearing up to use biodiversity offsetting to bulldoze some of our most precious wildlife sites.

“There is no clear evidence that biodiversity offsetting works – attempts abroad have frequently ended in failure.

“Owen Paterson should stop gambling with our green and pleasant land, abandon his ill-conceived offsetting plans and give UK nature the protection it so sorely needs.”

FERN Biodiversity Offsetting Campaigner Hannah Mowat said:

“Offsetting is already weakening the UK’s planning laws and exposing nature to new threats.

“The EU – which is considering similar legislation – should watch closely before going further.

“Together we can prevent offsetting from creating chaos and upsetting nature laws across Europe.”

Notes to editor
1. Case studies and photos are available in the biodiversity offsetting evidence published by Friends of the Earth and FERN:
2. Campaigners and biodiversity experts will gather this evening (Monday 2 Jun 2014) in a venue in Regent’s Park for an open meeting to discuss the problems with offsetting schemes in the UK and overseas Photos of offsets from around the world will be exhibited.
3. The conference ‘To No Net Loss of Biodiversity and Beyond’ will take place on 3 and 4 June. It is hosted by BBOP, an organisation committed to biodiversity offsetting along the ZSL, Defra and Forest Trends Isaac Rojas from Friends of the Earth International and Hannah Mowat from FERN will be speaking in a plenary session on Tuesday 3 June 2014 to offer an alternative to the pro-offsetting perspective being promoted at the conference.

Friends of the Earth
26-28 Underwood Street
N1 7JQ

Reproduced by kind permission of Friends of the Earth UK

Coral conference in Belize, 2016

July 7, 2016. Channel 5 Belize | Article reproduced here by kind permission of Mike Rudon.

Government of Belize Scores Poorly on Environmental Regulations

Of the six indicators, G.O.B. received the worst marks in the area of environmental regulations. Candy Gonzalez was environmental-regulations-1scathing in her evaluation, and told News Five that recent projects have shown that developers have a definite impact on the decisions made by the Department of the Environment.

Candy Gonzalez, President, Belize Institute of Environmental Law & Policy

“I think that we have proof of that in seeing some of the, let’s say, they are called financial investment contracts or host country agreements – the agreements like were made between NCL and the government – and you have to really question where the balance was in terms of the environment and development. I think a lot of things that are already in the pipeline in terms of development highlight the fact that development is taking the lead in the race over protection of the environment, and I think it’s important to each and every one of us to try and direct attention to the fact that you might put money in your pocket today, but tomorrow you might be left with nothing and no way to make a dollar because you’ve sold everything that was of value, and there has to be a balance. There has to be a balance that looks toward the future.”

A Reef Scorecard for Belize’s Barrier Reef System

political-will0005Today, various entities dedicated to the important work of preserving and protecting our natural heritage presented what they are calling a reef scorecard. It’s all about getting Belize’s Barrier Reef System off the World Heritage Site’s endangered list, where it has languished since 2009. So is enough being done to ensure that happens anytime soon? News Five’s Mike Rudon attended G.O.B.’s report card day and has the story.

Mike Rudon, Reporting

Belize’s Barrier Reef System is responsible for fifteen percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. But it is in danger. It’s a World Heritage Site, but it’s been on the endangered list since 2009 and obviously not enough has been done to get it off.

Valentino Shal, World Wildlife Fund

political-will0010“What we are doing here today is to look at what needs to be done to get the Belize Barrier Reef System off the endangered list and also to ensure that it is a healthy and functioning resource. The indicators of this score card are based on the exact same indicators that are included in the desired state of conservation report that the World Heritage Committee and UNESCO gave to the government. So this is a report that outlines all of the indicators and issues that the government must address in order for it to be reinstated.”

This scorecard is really a report card of how effective government has been in implementing policies and actions to address the indicators. A score of one signified major concerns. A score of two – Some concerns and a score of three – good progress. None of the six indicators received a three, but five of six received a two – meaning that there has been some progress, but not enough. The first indicator was oil, specifically offshore drilling.

Janelle Chanona, Vice President, OCEANA Belize

political-will0004“Roughly eighty-five percent of our exclusive economic zone and our territorial waters would be vulnerable to offshore oil activity if the moratorium was ever lifted, and that really is the key takeaway for where we are on oil that there is pressing need for us to get the moratorium formalized for the government to outline the specific conditions under which that moratorium would be lifted and that is why we have come concerns regarding progress.”

Mangroves was the second, particularly the unregulated removal of mangroves from sensitive zones.

Roberto Pott, Country Coordinator, Healthy Reefs

political-will0009“We have to be able to catalog and recognize the areas that are sensitive in terms of our fishing industry, our tourism industry and in terms of shoreline protection. There is little to no incentive for development to maintain mangroves intact and so we need to revisit that and see how we can improve that.”


The third indicator was Coastal Development and Tourism.

Valentino Shal

“In February of this year the Cabinet adopted the Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan after several years. It’s a little late but still good. We welcome that. But at the same time it’s clear that there are insufficient resources being put towards the implementation of the plan, so we have a problem there.”

The fourth – Fisheries.

Roberto Pott

“We were so optimistic when the Coastal Zone Plan came through, at least I was optimistic that when the plan passed the Fisheries Bill would have followed shortly. We have to give recognition to the government that they did give the Managed Access Program started, and that’s major progress. It’s a major milestone for the region and maybe the world. But we need to get the policy in place that would support Managed Access.”

And the fifth – World Heritage Value.

Amanda Burgos-Acosta, Executive Director, Belize Audubon Society

political-will0007“Yes, we have mentioned the Integrated Coastal Zone management Plan and the fact that that policy is now Cabinet endorsed, but it’s difficult to enforce it, so it needs some kind of legal teeth. What we really were recommending is that within the World Heritage Site that there is an Act or a Bill that can guide development. That was one of the triggers that actually led to our inscription on the endangered list, because we had development within some of the more pristine sites within our World Heritage.”

While those areas received scores of two, the area of Environmental Regulations received a definite score of one – meaning major concern.

Candy Gonzalez, President, Belize Institute of Environmental Law & Policy

“We can’t applaud the Environmental Protection Act like we used to be able to. We’ve had a lot of promises that it’s going to be improved, but until those things are actually put into law, then they’re just words and that’s the problem with a lot of the things called Cabinet decisions and Memorandums and understandings of one kind or another. They can be made in a day and they can be changed in a day.”

According to the organizers and presenters of the scorecard, it’s about making sure that all of us realize that we play a role.

Janelle Chanona

“Government knows…we have regular meetings and regular conversations with our government partners to consult and to talk about how we move forward from here, but it’s just as important for the public to be constantly updated with what is happening, why it’s not happening, how it needs to happening, what are we talking about long term. We are custodians of this but we’re not just custodians, we are direct beneficiaries – every single one of us through all these goods and services and it’s about really thinking about long terms and balancing everything that we have to balance to ensure that we can always benefit from this.”


Initiatives to protect Belize sea life show good results; but threats remain a worry

Summary prepared by Pamela Machado (Pamela Machado is a Brazilian student of journalism in London)

October 2017

Belize’s coral reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world, shows strong signs of resilience as corals keep growing despite environmental threats and damages from tourism and man-made activities.

A restoration project in Laughing Bird Caye, southern Belize, has succeeded in giving hope to threatened marine species, reports the Guardian1. Despite survival pressures caused by external environmental factors, 90% of sea life has survived and is thriving, marking the endeavour as “the most impressive coral restoration effort in the Caribbean”. The project is led by a grassroots group born from the efforts of fishermen, tour guides, environmentalists and scientists.

Another step to keep marine creatures safe was taken early this October by the government of Belize when it announced the inauguration of the world’s first ray sanctuary. The waters of Belize are home to more than 20 species of rays, according to Florida International University2, whose scientists’ research inspired the creation of the sanctuary.

Due to an unhealthy environment – a result of the combination of climate change effects, overfishing and habitat loss, rays are threatened with extinction, with some species being critically endangered, such as the smalltooth sawfish and Ticon cownose rays. “I was surprised to hear how threatened rays are globally and decided that Belize could be a good global citizen by protecting them,” said Belize Fisheries Administrator Beverly Wade.

Regardless of the efforts from authorities and independent groups, numbers are far from representing an ideal scenario for environmental protection and preservation of the ecosystem in the waters of the reef. Laughing Bird Caye, for instance, although declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1996, entered the danger list in 2009.

Initiatives such as restoration projects and sanctuaries can only do so much in protecting their fauna and flora. Finding a healthy balance between human intervention and nature’s own pace can be a challenge, particularly in a country where preserving nature is also an important source of economic earnings. Approximately half of the Belizean population depends on activities such as snorkelling, diving and fishing – which come mainly from tourism.

The increasing levels of pollution and water contamination are causing fleshy macro algae to flourish excessively, impeding the further growth of corals. On top of that, oil extraction, poor law enforcement and construction of hotel resorts around the reef could be factors holding back the development of sea life in the future. If so far actions to preserve the reef ecosystem have been thriving, the growing exploration of and other pressures on these resources leave uncertainty on how long a sustainable balance can be kept.

1 Nina Lakhani, The Guardian, 22 August 2017

2 Florida International University, 4 October 2017


The lion fish and fish diversity in two protected marine areas of the Caribbean Sea

By Martin Mowforth (Photo credits: Blue Ocean Network and Activist Angler).

Lion fish (Pterois volitans) are native to the Indo-Pacific, but are now established along the southeast coast of the U.S., the Caribbean, and in parts of the Gulf of Mexico. It is thought that their ‘invasion’ of these areas of sea over the last 25 years may have been due to humans dumping them at sea from their personal aquaria, although earlier reports that they escaped from one large, breached aquarium after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 are now thought to have been mistaken. They present a problem to many native fish as they are able to eat anything at least half of their own size on account of their extremely wide mouth and expandable stomach.

In 2016 the Environmental Network for Central America (ENCA) supported a programme of protection for young lobsters on whose growth many families of the indigenous Guna Indians depend (for both nutrition and finance) in and around the San Blas Islands off the Caribbean coast of Panamá. Through the local Centre for Environmental and Human Development (CENDAH), the Guna fishermen and lobster catchers devised a system of ‘casitas cubanas’ under which the young and adolescent lobsters could hide during the day when they would be vulnerable to prey by the lion fish. A report of the programme was given in ENCA 68 (November 2016).

Lion fish have few predators and they eat small crustaceans and fish, including the young of commercially valuable fish and, as the Guna have discovered, young and adolescent lobsters. Their potential danger is not restricted to fish species, but also relates to the health of the coral because they eat what are known as ‘grazers’ and ‘cleaners’ of the coral which eat the algae that grows over the reef. The presence of the grazers and cleaners keeps the algal levels low and allows the corals to get enough oxygen to survive and to spawn.

A paper by Cobián-Rojas and Schmitter-Soto (2018 in the International Journal of Tropical Biology) reports on the results of research with the title given above. The two protected marine areas in which the study was carried out were the Guanahacabibes National Park (Cuba) and the Xcalak Coral Reefs (Quintana Roo, Mexico); and the study carried out visual censuses of fish species in coral reef habitats during both dry and rainy seasons in 2013 to 2015.

In general, the results showed a greater wealth of species in the Cuban protected area than in the Mexican area. The species diversity was shown to decrease in only one census site in Cuba and in two sites in the Mexican area, although it is posited that this may have been due to fishing activity rather than to the lion fish. It was further posited that the effects of the lion fish on species diversity may not yet be detected.

Mass turtle deaths

Around 300 endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles were found dead and floating off Mexico’s southern coast in August. This follows a similar die-off close to Jiquilisco Bay on the coast of El Salvador in November 2017.

It is thought that the most recent case may be due to asphyxiation, fish hooks or harmful algae, but the matter is still under investigation. In the earlier case of the Jiquilisco die-off, the turtles are believed to have died in what is known as a ‘red tide’, in which nutrients or chemical runoff causes toxic algae to bloom, releasing deadly compounds into the water.

The articles in the following links give further details about both die-off events.

Costa Rica increases its marine protected areas to pay off its historical debt (1)

Report by Lucy Goodman, for The Violence of Development website.

Lucy Goodman is a marine conservation specialist who in 2010 was an assistant researcher with Martin Mowforth in Central America during the work conducted for the book ‘The Violence of Development’. The positive environmental factors in Costa Rica described by Lucy should be set against the regular reports of environmental contamination associated especially with the cultivation of the country’s export crops.

This year Costa Rica has surpassed a reforestation target by achieving 75 per cent forest cover after a low of 21 per cent in 1987. Since 2014, the country has satisfied more than 95 per cent of its energy demand from renewable sources – predominantly hydroelectric power (‘renewable’ but certainly not impact-free). And in 2017, the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity boasted a record-breaking 300 days of power supplied solely by renewables. Complete electrification of Costa Rica’s buses and taxis is expected by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement’s net zero emissions target.

The country’s exemplary role in nature conservation, and dedication to climate change mitigation, won it the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) ‘2019 Champions of the Earth Award’. The UNEP declared Costa Rica pioneers of sustainability and hopes other nations will emulate their decarbonisation template.

For a relatively small country of five million people, Costa Rica, ranked 126th by land area, has a big reputation for ecological and climatic stewardship. This environmental accolade may precede it, given that Costa Rica’s marine territory is ten times larger than its terrestrial equivalent, and until recently, management efforts have solely focused on the latter. The country ostensibly lags behind in marine and coastal protection. Key threats come from pollution and water contamination, the illegitimate development of coastal infrastructure, unregulated shipping and the illegal extraction of marine resources.

Photograph of a mangrove in the Lower Sea Zone which subsists in the coastal waters of Costa Rica’s central Pacific coastal zone. | Photo: EFE

To start paying off its historical debt to oceanic biodiversity, Costa Rica has added more than 11,000 sq. km. to its charted marine management area. Four new zones:

  1. Montes Submarinos,
  2. Cabo Blanco,
  3. Bahía Santa Elena, and
  4. Barra Del Colorado

only equate to less than 3 per cent of the country’s marine territory under some level of protection. Although progressive, this figure falls short of the 10 per cent Costa Rica pledged to protect by this time. By contrast, 13,000 of Costa Rica’s terrestrial area is protected; representing 25 per cent of the 30 per cent target.  Each marine protected area (MPA) has unique characteristics and a high ecosystems service value:

  1. Montes Submarinos is an oceanic mountain range, connected to the Galapagos Islands, which hosts sharks, rays, whales and is valued by migratory species, and fishermen
  2. The Nicoya peninsula has a few protected turtle nesting beaches already. The continental shelf slopes rapidly here facilitating whale, dolphin and orca watching. Cabo Blanco, was also designated for its submarine coral and rocky reef habitats.
  3. The Saint Elena Bay area, on the northern Pacific coast, also has valuable ‘black coral’ reefs and the country’s oldest rock formations.
  4. The case for Barra del Colorado, in the northern Caribbean, was made because of its coastal lagoon and channel network which support a very high concentration of migratory birds, nesting sea turtles, sperm whales, manatees and tarpon, a valued species for sport fishers.

Photograph of two herons seeking prey in a mangrove in the Lower Sea Zone, which subsists in the coastal waters of Costa Rica’s central Pacific coastal zone. | Photo: EFE

These new marine protected areas incorporate a governance system and local training programmes. To promote ecosystem recovery, the MPAs support ecotourism initiatives and local marine tour operators through the creation of business and management plans, improved internet access, family-run inns and endorsing fishing in combination with less invasive activities (e.g., snorkelling).

The ‘Costa Rica for ever Association’ encourages the government, private sector and civil society to fulfil the country’s environmental commitments. Director Zdenka Piskulich said “We may not have reached 30 per cent conservation, but what we are protecting, we are doing well and that is what we, as a country, can showcase to the world.”

Central America has a half century of experience with MPAs; the first official designation was the Peninsula de Cosiguina on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast in 1958.

An assessment by Carlos Espinosa in 2018, identified almost 200 sites in Central America purposefully created to protect oceanic and coastal habitats – although very few are official MPAs and there is dubious variability in their governance and management. A breakdown of these areas per country has Belize with 86, Panama with 45, Costa Rica with 24, Honduras with 23, Nicaragua with 8, Guatemala with 7 and El Salvador with 4. Espinosa’s updated map of Central American MPAs now shows 40 sites in Costa Rica – a doubling since 2018.

Whilst a handful of strategies have been successful, historically most protected areas in the region have not achieved a high level of success, and governments have failed to meet targets. Carlos Espinosa finds that “Poor rural people in Central America do not assign value to protected areas, since they fail to clearly perceive their services in the face of the rush to prosper in a degraded socioeconomic environment where too often the alternative is to fight to survive amid misery, corruption and crime” (Dos Mares). It is this lack of community prioritisation that currently inhibits MPA success in Central America. Dos Mares, resourced by Carlos Espinosa himself, is a voluntary initiative that works with poor communities within the reserves, to help them to perceive their value and identify the opportunities that protected marine areas bring.


  1. El Economista, (2020) ‘Costa Rica amplía su área de protección marina para saldar deuda histórica’, 24 September 2020.
  2. The Costa Rican News (TCRN), (2020) ‘Costa Rica expands its Marine Protection Area in defence of Biodiversity’, 11 October 2020.
  3. Juan José Alvarado, Jorge Cortés, María Fernanda Esquivel and Eva Salas, (2012) ‘Costa Rica’s Marine Protected Areas: status and perspectives’, Revista de Biología Tropical, March 2012.
  4. Priyanka Shrestha, (2019) ‘Costa Rica receives UN’s highest environmental honour’, Energy Live News:, 23 September 2019.
  5. Jonny Bairstow, (2017) ‘Costa Rica hits 300 days of clean power so far in 2017’ in Energy Live News, Costa Rica hits 300 days of clean power so far in 2017 – Energy Live News
  6. Carlos A. Espinosa, (2018) ‘The MPAs of Central America: An introductory view of their successes, lessons learned, and ongoing challenges’ (Article 1 of 3), 17 May 2018, MPA News.

Also of value in the preparation of this report were the following websites:


Wildlife underpasses aid animal migrations

(Photo: From Breaking Belize News)

In August this year [2021], Rubén Morales Iglesias reported for Breaking Belize News on the construction of wildlife underpasses to enable animals to cross the Coastal Road of Belize.

Panthera-Belize is the Belizean branch of the international organisation known as Panthera, whose Jaguar Corridor Initiative tries to protect jaguars throughout their whole six million square kilometres range. Pantherea-Belize has been advising the Belizean government on the construction of wildlife underpasses beneath the Coastal Road.

Panthera focuses on reducing the impacts of human development on panther populations and on mitigating human – jaguar conflicts by, for instance, training agriculturalists in building jaguar-proof livestock enclosures. In Central America, Panthera works with the governments of Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama.

In Belize, conservationists are working to create the Maya Forest Corridor connecting the Belize Maya Forest in the north-west of the country with the Maya Mountains Massif network of protected areas in southern Belize.

Panthera-Belize have monitored the area using camera traps and have so far documented up to 25 jaguars using land on either side of the Coastal Road. But not only jaguars inhabit the area. Pumas, tapirs and other wildlife species live on either side of the highway. The underpasses should help all of these populations to carry out their short-range and long-range movements and migrations.


Panthera website:

Rubén Morales Iglesias, 21 August 2021, ‘Wildlife underpasses being built for animal crossings on Coastal Road’, Breaking Belize News.

James Krupa, 26 July 2021, ‘Huge wildlife corridor in Belize sees progress, boosting hope for jaguars and more (commentary)’, Mongabay.

Boats endangering manatees in Belize

The following item is reproduced in The Violence of Development website from ENCA 83 (Newsletter of the Environmental Network for Central America).

Manatees are often referred to as sea cows and are gentle, curious and unthreatening mammals with a face like that of a walrus. In South-East Asia they are called dugongs. There are several species of manatees. The sub-species that lives in coastal inlets around Belize is the Antillean manatee, and according to the United Nations and the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the Antillean manatees are in severe danger of extinction and are therefore a protected species.

Belize has the largest population of Antillean manatees in the world due to its coastline providing large amounts of plant life, especially seagrass, on which they live. The coastline is indented with inlets and tributaries providing the manatees with very warm water, ample food and many mangrove forests.

Belize has established several wildlife sanctuaries in order to protect manatees and other marine life, including Port Honduras Marine Reserve, Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary, Southern Lagoon Wildlife Sanctuary, Bacalar Chico National Park and South Water Caye Marine Reserve.

Although not a protected area, Placencia Lagoon is one of the best places to see manatees. Unfortunately, during September this year there were three reported deaths of manatees in the Placencia Lagoon area. It appeared that the three deaths were caused by boat strikes.

August to October is the most active period for manatee movement around the lagoon, but it is also a period of activity of tourist boats. The Crocodile Research Coalition (CRC) has issued a call for boat drivers to look out specifically for manatees. But the CRC added that the manatees are also threatened by pollution and loss of habitat as well as collision with boats. They also become entangled with fishing nets.

The CRC was established in 2016 and aims to preserve crocodiles and other animals and their environments in Central America in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of biodiversity in the region.


  • Rubén Morales Iglesias, 30.09.21, ‘Crocodile Research Coalition calls for boat drivers in Placencia Lagoon to look out for manatees’, Breaking Belize News.
  • Laru Beya Resort website, ‘Belize Manatees’,
  • Crocodile Research Coalition website,


The Belizean Crocodile Research Coalition Countering snap judgements on crocodiles

Jill Powis of ENCA (Environmental Network for Central America) has provided The Violence of Development website with a report of a presentation made by two members of the Crocodile Research Coalition (CRC) in February 2022: Dr. Marisa Tellez, Executive Director and Founder and Darcy Uclez, CRC Education Coordinator.  Established in January 2016, the CRC seeks to preserve crocodiles and their environments throughout Central America and the Caribbean to ensure the long-term sustainability of biodiversity in the region. Its base is on the Placencia Peninsula in Belize bordering the wildlife-rich Placencia Lagoon, which features in our website’s December 2021 article about the threats to manatees. 

We are grateful to Jill Powis for her summary report and to Marisa Tellez and Darcy Uclez of the CRC for their presentation.

Crocodile populations in Belize have undergone a resurgence after being virtually wiped out in the 1940s and 50s when they were killed for their skins. While the Indigenous people of Belize are accustomed historically and culturally to coexisting with them (with certain Mayan groups revering them in the past, including Belizean groups), for other sectors of the population this recovery in crocodile numbers has caused alarm.

In 2017, the CRC received many calls from around the Placencia Lagoon to relocate the crocodiles.  Instead, it established a community science programme to provide the community with the knowledge on how to coexist with them and be part of its research and conservation mission. It has supplied many residents with educational literature on how to live with crocodiles and avoid human-crocodile conflict, and for those that are interested, with a behavioural observation sheet to record further crocodile sightings. Over the years, this scheme has expanded to include manatee and other wildlife sightings around the lagoon. As well as contributing to knowledge about wildlife populations, the data can also be used by the authorities to identify hotspots and reduce negative crocodile-human interactions.

The CRC considers community engagement to be key to successful conservation efforts.  As well as the Placencia Lagoon community science programme, other initiatives such as frequent talks to schools, with repeat visits, and the Visitors’ Centre at the Lagoon, have borne dividends in increasing awareness. The CRC says that members of the local community are now genuinely distressed and concerned when they hear of crocodiles being injured or killed, and the police now take reports of crocodile-killing seriously and investigate. (COVID has brought particular challenges as crocodiles have been killed because people have been desperate for food.)

As well as being killed by humans, whether out of fear or for food, the crocodile population of Belize is also threatened by pollution and habitat loss, with the American crocodile in particular, as a saltwater species, affected by the boom in coastline development (see, for example, Issue 85 of the ENCA newsletter, July 2022, about Vulcan Materials Company and Gales Point). As the last crocodile surveys took place in the 1990s, the CRC, in collaboration with the state authorities, has been undertaking new ones to establish the extent of these impacts, which will help in the development of a conservation strategy. In all survey locations, the CRC takes time to engage with the local communities, performing outreach but also actively involving them with the surveys.

In its work, the CRC takes a holistic approach, aware of the need to protect entire ecosystems rather than just a single species, which means that other species are also beneficiaries of their work – see ENCA 83, p.7, November 2021.  A current focus of its research is the New River in the north, the longest river that is entirely confined to Belize.  It is a habitat for numerous types of fish, birds, as well as crocodiles, but is being seriously polluted by factory effluent, human waste, and waste from agricultural developments – see ENCA 77, pp.7-8, November 2019.  The CRC found crocodiles in a very bad condition, some to the extent that their organs were decomposing while they were still alive.[1] The CRC calls them ‘The White Walkers’, after the undead in A Game of Thrones. It is conducting research which will hopefully establish the precise sources of the pollution.

The CRC is raising funds to build a state-of-the-art research centre on the Placencia Peninsula.  However, in the meantime, it has the space and lodging to accommodate interested researchers and small academic groups nationally and internationally who wish to conduct wildlife and conservation research.

For more information:

[1]  Some crocodiles there have been found to be unable to mate and reproduce and are thought to be suffering from reptile dysfunction. (Well we tried to avoid the more obvious jokes about crocodiles.)