Interview by Katiana Murillo, Rainforest Alliance
“The idea is to make the refuge’s marine protected zones visible and raise awareness so that local residents realize where they can carry out their traditional activities and where they can’t, and see when they are in the open sea and when they are inside the reserve.”
Punta de Manbique, a thin peninsula that juts into the turquoise waters of the Caribbean in eastern Guatemala, is home to ecosystems that are unique for the country, such as coral reefs and a swamp dominated by the troolie palm (Manicaria saccifera). The peninsula has been declared a Ramsar site and a wildlife refuge, but like so many of the region’s protected areas, it is threatened by unsustainable fishing, farming, and hunting. To call attention to the ecosystem’s special status, the Mario Dary Rivera Foundation has set up buoys to demarcate which areas are protected. The group is also providing training and environmental education for the people who most often visit and use the protected area. We spoke with Jean-Luc Betoulle of the Mario Dary Rivera Foundation about the protected area, the threats it faces, and the program’s accomplishments.
Question: How important is this area in terms of biodiversity?
Betoulle: The Punta de Manabique Wildlife Reserve is a coastal marine wetland of international importance that covers an area of 797 square miles (1,329 sq. km.) including its terrestrial and marine zones. It is also Guatemala’s most important reef area and forms part of the Mesoamerican Reef ecoregion. It also has bays, estuaries, swamps, and mangrove forests.
The area is also a biological corridor for marine fauna such as whales, sharks, and four species of sea turtles, which are drawn there by the rich sea grass beds. It also protects endangered species such as the manatee (Trichechus manatus), the tapir (Tapirus bairdii), the jaguar (Panthera onca), the howler monkey (Allouata palliata), and the pecarry (Tayassu pecari).
The swamp dominated by troolie palm (Manicaria saccifera) is one of Guatemala’s rarest ecosystems. Because of the reserve’s high habitat diversity, it is also rich in birdlife, with 325 recorded species including endangered species such as the yellow-headed parrot (Amazona oratrix). The refuge is located in the area of Guatemala where the highest numbers of migratory birds have been registered.
Q: What is the area’s protected status and how well is its designation respected?
Betoulle: Punta de Manabique has been a Ramsar site, or a wetland of international importance since 2000 and a wildlife reserve since 2005. This means that the area is not exclusively for conservation, but that human activities are also allowed as long as they are sustainable. To this end we’ve been developing a management plan for the area, with help from the World Conservation Union (IUCN). We’ve been working with fishermen to establish fishing regulations, and we’re also developing projects that focus on low-impact tourism and activities that add value to the fishing catch, such as a small fish-smoking plant. Eight fishing commissions have been formed, and we’ve gotten a strong commitment from the fishermen to follow the management plan, since it was created together with them.
Q: What are the main economic activities in the neighboring communities?
Betoulle: There are a total of 17 communities in the protected area. The majority of the families are 100 percent dedicated to fishing, and there are some who dedicate a small percentage of their time to farming or producing charcoal. Fishermen dominate the northern region, where the population’s livelihood depends directly on coastal resources and the ocean. Nine of the 17 communities live inside the protected area or in the buffer zone and are not close to the sea — they are dedicated to farming and ranching.
Q: What are the principal threats faced by the area?
Betoulle: The principal threat is deforestation caused by the expansion of ranchland, which threatens the wetlands’ borders from the southeast to the northeast. Cultivation of rice and other crops using chemical fertilizers and pesticides contaminates the swamps, and the ocean is polluted by the trash and sewage that are dumped into the Dulce and Motagua rivers — this threatens fish populations and corals.
Other problems include catching juvenile fish, digging up sea turtle eggs from nests along the shore, hunting green iguanas, and capturing live wild animals, principally parrots, for the regional market.
Q: How can marking the boundaries of the reserve with buoys help to protect it?
Betoulle: We have set up 30 to 35 buoys, 15 of which are mooring buoys, thanks to the support of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Coral Reef Conservation Fund and The Nature Conservancy’s Mesoamerican Reef program. The purpose is to mark not only the protected area’s borders, but also the no-fishing areas and those dedicated to conservation. The mooring buoys are used to tie boats to, such as fishing boats. This not only will allow us to protect areas that are key for marine conservation, but also to promote the area as an attractive site for scuba diving, since it is the only place in Guatemala that has coral reefs.
The idea is to make the refuge’s marine protected zones visible and raise awareness so that local residents realize where they carry out their traditional activities and where they can’t, and see when they are in the open sea and when they are inside the reserve.
Q: How do you ensure that the demarcation is accepted and respected?
Betoulle: When we drew up the management plan, we defined the no-fishing areas together with the fishermen because they know the importance of protecting the richest areas in species, which function as reproduction sites and nurseries for important commercial species.
The idea is to have permanent vigilance with the help of the fishermen and the Navy. It really was the fishermen who proposed the protection zones, because they understand the importance of protecting them for their own benefit.
Q: Does your project include any education program, or materials about the importance of using the buoys?
Betoulle: The project also includes training for different audiences, for example, the fishermen are trained how to use the buoys and how to properly manage scuba diving tourism, so that it is done in an environmentally friendly manner without affecting the reef. We will also design a marine trail and publish a guide to the coral reefs.