The dense and protected jungles of Belize are many shades of green. To the untrained eye the verdant tones run together in a blur of lushness, one plant virtually indistinguishable from its neighbor. But the growing number of Guatemalans slipping trough the under-patrolled border with Belize see things differently.

The Guatemalans crossing into Belize are interested in just two specific shades of green—the deep jade of the fronds produced by the fishtail xaté palm and the green, green color of cash—and they’re leaving cleared land, poached animals, frightened scientists, threatened tourists, pot farms, and really, really pissed off environmentalists in their wake.

Fishtail xate growing wild in Belize.

What is xaté?

There are three species of Xatémora/Chamaedorea plants found in Central America. The one at the center of this story is the fishtail xaté (pronounced “sha-tay”) palm, which produces a pretty frond that is prized in flower arrangements because it makes great cheap filler (like a green version of baby’s breath) which last up to 45 days after being cut.

Who buys xaté?

The main buyers of xaté are big floral companies (mainly in the US and Holland) and the Catholic Church which buys up the stuff for Palm Sunday services.

Where is xaté found and who supplies it?

There used to be plenty of wild xaté in the jungles of Guatemala (especially in the Peten region) but it’s been cut to near extinction in that country so now the xaté-rich protected forests just over the border in Belize, where palms grow dense and wild, are effectively the sole hunting grounds.

Virtually no one farms xaté.  However, as it gets harder and harder to find in the wild some Belizeans and Guatemalans are talking about establishing xaté “plantations” (something environmentalists have been pushing for) but no substantial progress on this front has been made.

Where is this happening?

Xaté is being heavily harvested from within the Chiquibul National Park, the largest park in Belize at more than 400 square miles (nearly 5% of the landmass of the entire country). Located in western Belize, the park (and the adjacent Chiquibul Forest Reserve) and its extensive and remote border with Guatemala is currently patrolled by just seven (some say six) rangers. Needless to say, you don’t have to be Jason Bourne to sneak across. You hardly have to sneak at all.

Xatéros apprehended with illegally harvested xaté near the Bladen Nature Reserve in Belize in March 2010 (photo courtesy of Ya’axche Conservation Trust).

Is this a new problem?

No, but it appears to be getting worse. Illegal xaté collection by Guatemalans is believed to have been taking place since the 1970s. In the past decade, Belizean environmentalists say, the scale and scope of what was once a small problem has gotten steadily and dramatically worse. In the 1980s it was believed that xatéros (xaté harvesters) were impacting around 250 acres. Today it is estimated that hundreds of Guatemalan xatéros are in Belize impacting thousands of acres. Get the full story about the arrest of the xatéros pictured above from teh Ya’axche Conservation Trust.

According to Flora and Fauna International, more than 400 million stems of xaté were harvested and sent to the US and Europe in 2007.

What’s in it for the Guatemalans?

A xatéro makes an average of US$5 a day (a lot by Guatemalan standards) and they are mostly—but not exclusively—male. The people who pack the cut xaté, however, are almost exclusively female. Some say up to 100,000 women (mostly Guatemalan) earn their living as xaté packers or (more rarely) harvesters.

The emerging issue is that these xatéros are not just crossing over the border illegally and stealing a few plants before returning home. Belizean environmental groups, including Friends for Conservation and Development which manages the Chiquibul area, and Programme for Belize warn that xatéros have now cleared hundreds of acres of protected Belizean land and some have put up dwellings and started small farms in those clearings.

Inhabitants of these perma-camps are also believed to be poaching wildlife for food and for sale, logging, trapping endangered scarlet macaws for the pet trade (best estimates say there are only 100 mating pairs of these Technicolor birds left in Belize) and possibly growing marijuana in the park.

Though Chiquibul is ground zero (Friends for Conservation and Development representatives believe that 8,000 acres have been lost in the Chiquibul National Park alone), other protected areas being affected by Guatemalan border crossing xatéros include the Vaca Forest Reserve, Caracol Archaeological Reserve (where looting is also believed to be taking place), and the Columbia River Forest Reserve.

What does  this mean for conservation efforts in Belize?

Apart from the wear and tear on the land caused by Guatemalan squatters, encounters and clashes with the xatéros have begun to scare scientists, researchers and conservationists out of many areas of Belize. In 2004, for example, a group of researchers abandoned their work with the showy and enormous Harpy Eagle in Chiquibul National Park after tensions rose with the xatéros and after one researcher had more than US$10,000 in camera equipment stolen.

Because the areas in questions are so grossly under-patrolled, some environmental groups (like Programme for Belize)—already strapped for funds and resources—are stretching themselves even thinner to try and take up some of the policing slack.

What does this mean for travelers to Belize?

The Chiquibul Park incorporates portions of the Chiquibul Cave System which is the longest known cave system in Central America which, in turn, includes the largest known underground passages and cave chamber in the Western Hemisphere.  Belize would obviously like to encourage more sustainable tourism to the cave areas (tourism is Belize’s number one income generator, trailed distantly by sugar and bananas), but the volatile situation with xatéros in the region is making that difficult and even impossible.

Already-touristed areas are also suffering the effects of the xatéros. After a group of tourists was allegedly robbed at gunpoint by Guatemalan xatéros in the Caracol Archaeological Reserve a few years ago (there are also allegations that a tourist was sexually assaulted) the government now sends soldiers along as escorts with all visitors to the area. We can attest that this is still going on since we had to travel as part of a convoy when we visited Caracol.

What can you do?

By all means get some flowers to make your someone special feel extra-special on Valentine’s Day (or any day), but we urge you to build a better bouquet by asking your flower arrangement provider to leave out the palm frond filler.

 

Here’s more about travel in Belize