Santander Canal flowing into Freshwater Creek, against the backdrop of developed land.
Belize's Maya Forest Santander Canal flowing into Freshwater Creek, against the backdrop of developed land. © 2016 Tony Rath Photography

Newsletter

The Maya Forest of Belize

Saving an Ancient Place to Help Solve a Modern Problem

To stand in the Maya Forest of Belize is to be surrounded by innumerable shades of green. To hear the lively chatter among harpy eagles, scarlet macaws and hundreds of other bird species. To be in a place where time witnessed an ancient civilization rise, thrive and fade.

Today, it is the forest itself, and all the mystery it holds, that is at risk of disappearing. The region’s tropical forests are being cleared at an alarming rate by logging and to make way for slash and burn agriculture, cattle ranching, and development. Between 1986 and 2018, the nation’s forest stocks declined by more than 28%. When forests are removed, the carbon they store escapes into the atmosphere. Loss of tropical forests such as those in Belize is responsible for about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions—a significant factor in the face of climate change.

That’s why The Nature Conservancy facilitated a coalition of more than a dozen  entities that recently conserved 236,000 acres of Belize’s Maya Forest. In addition to hundreds of species of resident and migratory birds, at least 70 species of mammals, such as jaguars, pumas, and howler and spider monkeys, rely on the tropical rainforest.

This area has great historical and cultural significance, and it is impossible to overstate its ecological importance.

Program Director, Belize

“This area has great historical and cultural significance, and it is impossible to overstate its ecological importance,” says Julie Robinson, TNC’s program director in Belize. “And just by ensuring it will endure, we are helping solve the most urgent problem of our time—climate change.” The Conservancy’s climate scientists estimate that using natural solutions to avoid greenhouse gas emissions, including conserving at-risk priority landscapes like the Maya Forest, can deliver about one third of the global emissions reduction needed by 2030.


Fish swim in a hidden Cara Blanca pool.
Underwater pool Fish swim in a hidden Cara Blanca pool. © 2017 Tony Rath Photography

Saving History

Ancient Mayans carried out sacred ceremonies around the forest’s deep, clear freshwater pools of Cara Blanca, which shelter significant archaeological sites. Their pyramid-building civilization flourished across Central America until around 800 A.D., when it began to collapse—which is thought to have been due at least in part to  drought. The Conservancy hopes to help reconnect local Indigenous communities to the area.

A jaguar gets a drink at a still turquoise pool.
Jaguar A jaguar gets a drink at a still turquoise pool. © 2010 Tony Rath/tonyrath.com

Saving Wildlife

Jaguars are among the most threatened large cats in the Americas, largely because of habitat loss. Because they are the top predators in the Maya Forest, the health of the jaguar population is an indicator of overall ecosystem health. These protected acres  will continue to provide jaguars with room to roam.

The keel-billed toucan is the national bird of Belize. The species is found in tropical jungles from southern Mexico to Colombia.
Keel-Billed Toucan The keel-billed toucan is the national bird of Belize. The species is found in tropical jungles from southern Mexico to Colombia. © Tony Rath

Saving Connectivity

The Conservancy has identified this area as among the top 10% of places where habitat protection could significantly reduce species extinction risk. Globally, bird populations are in trouble; this addition to a protected corridor will help more than 100 species of migratory birds, such as the black-and-white warbler and ruby-throated hummingbird, find safe haven during winter migration. It will also provide habitat for Belize’s national bird, the keel-billed toucan.