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Bi-national Collaboration to Eradicate Wildlife Trafficking in Belize and Guatemala


Pair of scarlet macaws.

Pair of scarlet macaws. ("CostaRica_20161113_118" by QuiRag is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

This project was developed to eradicate the flow of scarlet macaws from Belize to Guatemala, through a partnership between governmental and civil society institutions in both countries. The project engaged a multi-faceted, integrated approach including law enforcement, field protection, community engagement, and education/outreach to reduce the threats to macaws, capture and prosecute traffickers, and develop a foundation for continued engagement in the future.



The initiative is located within the Belize-Guatemala Adjacency Zone and covers an area of 1,236 km2.

Protected areas include Chiquibul National Park (CNP) in Belize and Montañas Mayas-Chiquibul Biosphere Reserve (MBR), in northern Guatemala.

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected Scarlet Macaw Ara macao

Products in trade

The initiative primarily focuses on IWT of the Scarlet macaw (Ara macao) that are in high demand to supply the national, and increasingly international, pet market.

Other birds trafficked to supply these markets include Northern Mealy Amazon (Amazona guatemalae), Red-lored Amazon (Amazona autumnalis), White-crowned Parrot (Pionus senilis), White-fronted Amazon (Amazona albifrons), the Olive-throated Parakeet (Eupsittula nana).

The jaguar (Panthera onca), for its body parts, are considered to be at high risk, though less information is available about the extent of trafficking of this species in the area.

High-value timber species, such as mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla; S. humilis) and Rosewood or Cocobolo (Dalbergia spp.) are also illegally harvested to supply primarily Asian timber markets.

Overview of the problem

The area is a hotspot for poaching.

North Central American scarlet macaw subspecies A. m. cyanoptera population has been reduced to <1000 individuals (and is threatened with extinction), distributed across southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

Of these, around 300 individuals occur within the Maya Biosphere Reserve of Guatemala, and as few as 200 are found in Belize.

The population has been reduced largely due to the demand of this species for the illegal pet trade. Smuggled macaws originate from both Guatemala & Belize. They are worth an average Q.2,500-Q.5,000 quetzales (i.e. US $300-$600) at local community level.

Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) is the most trafficked tropical timber species in international trade, whereas Rosewood or Cocobolo is among the most valued tropical timber species being trafficked in the area, with the vast majority of the volume being illegally exported to Asia. Overharvesting and illegal logging have contributed to the rapid commercial extinction in many areas of the natural distributions of both Swietenia and Dalbergia.

Who is poaching?

Community members are involved in the poaching of scarlet macaws but are typically engaged by second-tier contacts who commercialise the species for profit. For example, poachers caught in Belize were from communities located in the Guatemala-Belize Adjacency Zone (so-called due to the lack of a formal border between the countries).

Operatives with Chinese criminal cartels have been conducting illegal logging in Southern Peten, and recently CONAP and partners have detected poaching of other targeted timber species - Hormigo (Platymiscium spp.) and Ziricote (Cordia dodecandra) by Mexican criminal networks along the northern MBR frontier with Mexico; these species are rumoured to be targeted by Chinese networks.

Although poaching of jaguar hasn't been detected to date, it may become a threat if poaching linked to Asian markets continues. (There is evidence of large scale, targeted jaguar poaching by Chinese in Bolivia, for example).

Most local people get involved in poaching due to a lack of alternative income and the extremely low risk of enforcement in remote frontier areas. Given the cultural legacy of raising wild pets in households, most pet poaching continues to be destined for national elite pet markets, but project personnel also suspect some exportation for larger international markets.

With regard to timber, organised gangs (including Chinese timber cartels) provide seed capital, and support local people to extract timber from protected areas and private property, while also paying bribes to police, relevant national authorities, and customs officials to move large shipments of timber across the country for eventual exportation from major ports.

The anti-IWT initiative

IWT is the key focus.

Overall, we are working with partners to protect macaw nesting and foraging habitat and to eliminate poaching with the ultimate goal of recovering macaw populations.

This initiative was funded by the UK DFID/DEFRA IWT Challenge Fund: a 3-year project (February 2015 - December 2017) that aimed to improve government capacity and collaboration in Belize and Guatemala to eradicate cross-frontier wildlife trafficking in the Chiquibul-Maya Mountains ecoregion, by:

(1) Improving enforcement to detect and arrest poachers in Belize.

(2) Improving intelligence and prosecution of wildlife traffickers detected in Guatemala.

(3) Improving cross-border and cross-sector coordination on wildlife trafficking.

(4) Improving livelihoods alternatives for men and women in rural communities along wildlife trafficking routes in the Guatemalan Adjacency Zone.

(5) Increasing awareness in rural Guatemalan communities adjacent to Belize and among authorities in Guatemala City about the impacts of wildlife trafficking on endangered species such as the scarlet macaw.

Local communities, including women, were involved in the design and development of the alternative livelihoods initiative, through consultations seeking to identify preferred types of economic investments.

However, they were not consulted during project design, nor or on how to best halt trafficking of macaws across the border. This was because there was no working relationship with most of the target communities at the beginning of the project, and in fact, many were vehemently opposed to the presence of NGOs when the project began. Also, the State retains all formal decision-making in this area, which limits community decision-making. Now that access to the area is viable and relationships have been established, it is entirely possible that a more inclusive approach may yield equal or perhaps even more impactful results than those obtained in the original project.  


Inclusion of gender, age and ethnic groups

Communities along wildlife trade routes were the focus of the initiative + (among others) includes a program specifically designed for women.

In Guatemala, to avoid “elite capture” of the economic benefits of the project - and to maximise participation and transparency, project partners worked through local Community Development Councils, the formal community-level institution recognised by Municipal governments; these CDC’s included the mayor and 12 different members (and always including women).

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Raising community awareness about wildlife crime penalties and sanctions
Further detail

‘Awareness-raising’ within communities regarding the illegality and impact of IWT on endangered species has led to improved awareness among 18% of surveyed community members.

Increasing livelihoods that are not related to wildlife

(Non-wildlife-based) enterprise development/support
Provision of community-level benefits
Further detail

• Empowering women.

42% of alternative livelihood beneficiaries are women: 20 women (who are heads of their households) are managing agroforestry plots; 122 women are members of women’s groups managing community bakery and hen farm microenterprises. Women were included in consultations to identify alternative livelihoods.

• Because produce from seed funds are sold locally, the benefits extend beyond the direct participants to the wider communities (829 households in total), contributing to improving levels of nutrition.

• Provision of improved stoves (16 of which were provided to households in target communities) has had positive health benefits.

• Investing in and supporting basic education (e.g. building schools and providing scholarships) is providing new opportunities for young people, which will reduce their dependence on natural resources in the future.

Build/and or support sense of community ownership or stewardship

Further detail

Due to the protected area, community inhabitants residing in the Guatemalan focal area of the Maya Mountains-Chiquibul Biosphere Reserve are not capable of obtaining 'land title'. The project, therefore, worked with local communities to increase their engagement with Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), thereby helping to alleviate long-simmering tensions and reduce the potential for eviction of the communities. This approach has not solved the question of land tenure in the area, but it has helped to increase standing for the residents of the Biosphere Reserve.

Improving education and awareness

Has the initiative made a difference?

In 2002 WCS started monitoring scarlet macaw nests in Guatemala and in 2010 FCD followed suite in Belize, so there is baseline information available upon which to assess the success of the initiatives.

• Scarlet macaws are making a comeback and the level of poaching is decreasing: there has been a significant reduction in poaching of the scarlet macaw population in Belize (3rd consecutive year at 0 poaching in 2017 for monitored nests; in 2018, 2 poachers were caught and we were able to locate the nests of the chicks and return them to the wild. BUT there have been reports of macaws for sale in Guatemalan markets, indicating that poachers might be targeting nests that are not currently monitored, and in 2017 poachers were caught with 5 macaws coming from 3 different nests.

• Community satisfaction/buy-in for alternative livelihood program 79% of surveyed community members were supportive of the Seed Fund investments.

• Socio-economic indicators Considerable positive impact on rural development in the highly impoverished communities of Belize-Guatemala adjacency zone: 80% of surveyed beneficiary households improved their income, based on reported increases in access to goods and services considered as basic necessities.

• Awareness raised regarding the illegality and impact of IWT on endangered community within communities increase in awareness among 18% of surveyed community members.

"There's a greater social awareness now of the importance of preserving environmental stability," Rolman Hernandez, director of CONAP, the Guatemalan park service.

• Following the culmination of the program, in 2017, FCD rangers succeeded in capturing two Guatemalan poachers who were subsequently arrested and charged by the Belizean authorities + 4 wildlife trafficking cases brought to court during project leading to successful prosecution of 5 individuals in Guatemala.

Factors for success

Supportive, multi-stakeholder partnerships with a shared vision

Devolved decision-making power so local communities have a voice in creating or co-creating solutions (as part of the initiative)

Further detail

1. One of the major advances in this initiative was the establishment of Civil Society & Govt. partnerships with actors in complementary niches collaborating towards a common goal. This alliance continues today, yet we lack the funding required to maintain full impact.

2. Local communities were consulted on the types of economic investments preferred. However, they were not consulted during the project design phase, or on how to best halt trafficking of macaws across the border. This was because there was no solid working relationship with most of the target communities at the beginning of the project, as noted above.

3. Consistent Civil Society collaboration helped bridge the gap left by the lack of formal governmental collaboration, providing enough redundancy so as to be able to exchange information leading to improved knowledge about trafficking routes, key actors, and improved protection strategies. This is recommended as a key strategy for any projects attempting to counter trans-frontier wildlife trafficking, especially between countries with a challenged history of collaboration.

Factors that limited or hindered success

Lack of long-term donor support that is flexible, adaptive and/or based on realistic time goals

Further detail

With three years of support from UK-DEFRA IWT, we were able to BEGIN to demonstrate impact. However, for true transformation to occur we believe that support will be required over a decade or more. We currently lack funding to continue the initiative although some low cost and/or basic activities continue being implemented by project partners and WCS to sustain some key aspects of the IWT014 approach.

Other: Limited formal, high-level governmental collaboration reduced the degree to which this initiative was able to build bridges for more effective interventions spanning national frontiers. This was anticipated during the lifetime of the project, and tensions were understandably inflamed after a pair of Guatemalan extractors were shot in Belize...leading to a pullback in the formal collaboration.

Organisers, donors and partners

Asociacion Balam, The Environmental Justice Forum of Peten, the Public Ministry/Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, and the National Council of Protected areas in Guatemala; and in Belize, Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), and Belize’s Forest Department, within the Ministry of Fisheries, Forests, and Natural Resources.

For further information contact Roan McNab (