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Short description of the area and the land to be purchased
Turneffe Atoll is the largest of three offshore atolls located 50 kilometres east of Belize City. Turneffe is one of the best-developed atolls of the Mesoamerican Reef region. It is made up of more than 150 islands of savannah, littoral forest and intact mangrove forests and considered a global ecological hotspot for marine biodiversity. Roughly a quarter of the total land ownership is private and only six locations (80 hectares) have been developed for tourism. The land to be purchased is a 5-acre parcel covered with mangrove and littoral forest along the eastern side of Turneffe Atoll.
Reasons to prioritize
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) designated Turneffe Atoll as a priority ecoregion for conservation planning efforts. Similarly the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has recommended that it be included in Belize’s UNESCO-designated World Heritage site.
Five fish-spawning aggregation sites and seven biodiverse ecosystems of scientific value support numerous Critically Endangered, Endangered and Vulnerable species, including:
- hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate)—Critically Endangered
- leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)—Vulnerable
- goliath grouper (Epinephelus itajara)—Critically Endangered
- staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis)—Critically Endangered
- elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata)—Critically Endangered
The health of the marine environment is also critical to social and economic well-being. Ecosystem services provided by coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass absorb carbon dioxide, provide protection for coastal communities from tropical storms, support traditional fishing and are the foundation for the tourism industry.
Turneffe Atoll faces numerous threats because of its close proximity to Belize City. The highest threats identified are:
- pressure from fishing, especially unsustainable practices
- development and dredging, leading to the destruction of habitats
- extraction of non-timber products
The privately owned land, especially littoral forest, is threatened by speculative investment in residential and ecotourism development. Fragmented decision-making within and among government agencies results in a lack of enforcement, regulation and oversight, as well as substandard environmental assessments and review prior to issuing permits.
Without conservation, illegal and improper development, clearing of mangroves and dredging may occur. These activities decrease water quality, increase erosion causing sedimentation and release carbon dioxide and pollutants, thus threatening seagrass and coral viability as well as the habitat supporting many aquatic and terrestrial species.
TAT’s Conservation Plan
Each property acquired by Turneffe Atoll Trust will follow the guidelines and recommendations of the Turneffe Atoll Management Plan. In addition specific management plans will be developed for each parcel of land purchased, depending on its unique characteristics, needs and opportunities.
Our active management will address:
1) improper development (clearing and dredging): Once purchased, TAT staff and Turneffe enforcement rangers will be able to monitor the properties and make sure they remain protected from illegal clearing, dredging and development. The enforcement rangers live permanently at Turneffe and are funded through the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association (TASA). Close collaboration with TASA and the rangers will be required as new land is purchased.
2) Over-, illegal- and out-of-season harvesting of fish, conch and lobster: Education and employment of local fisherman, catch-and-release legislation, and daily patrols and enforcement of the marine-reserve regulations are helping to protect land and water resources. These programmes will continue, and TAT will look for new ways to ensure long-term protection through legislative and legal processes. TAT is also embarking on a new program—Land and Water Watch—in which we will work with legal consultants to review environmental assessments of proposed developments and with the Belize Fisheries Department to make sure permits are issued correctly and enforced. This programme will also apply to future land purchases.
TAT will also pursue a UNESCO biosphere-reserve designation for Turneffe. With this designation comes a higher level of national and global protection and more opportunities for funding, enforcement and oversight to help ensure the protection of the atoll and the land that TAT purchases for conservation.