Like many nations around the globe it confronts significant dilemmas posed at the interface of development and conservation. Local, national and international non-governmental organizations actively pursue conservation objectives through the modification of land use, land purchases, and the creation of public and private reserves. Meanwhile, deficits in financial and human resources force the Government of Belize to experiment with innovative partnerships with individuals and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Under these arrangements, various co-management arrangements introduce different levels of management attention to otherwise neglected yet legally declared protected lands. At the same time, indigenous communities struggle to maintain and promote their traditional livelihoods and practices. While protecting their livelihoods and cultural resources, local people vigorously pursue title to their use of the areas in which they dwell. Land use decisions also involve private interests in sectors such as, tourism, timber, mineral extraction, agriculture, fishing, and shrimp farming. These industries contribute significantly to the economy of Belize. All groups contribute to the complexity of the social landscape in Belize and create challenges for a reconciliation of ecological sustainability and human development.
The challenge in Belize, as elsewhere throughout the world, is finding ways to balance the sometimes complementary and sometimes conflicting objectives of diverse social processes and ecological systems. The outcomes of this balancing act are expressed in the day-to-day actions of individuals and the evolving contexts in which they make decisions. The struggles and accomplishments of many individuals and organizations in Belize provide tremendous insights into the answer to the question of how to balance environmental and social goals.
In the past, protected area decision-making in Belize has tended to take a top-down approach that does not incorporate the interests and needs of a diverse array of stakeholders (PFB 1996). Furthermore, the absence of a national management authority or national policy for Belize’s protected areas system results in the lack of effective and cohesive management plans. Even where management plans do exist, interaction among the organizations charged with implementing the plans is characterized by inadequate information sharing, communication, collective problem solving, and decision-making. This situation fragments and isolates mutual conservation concerns and initiatives. Given limited financial and human resources for protected area management and enforcement, meaningful public involvement and multi-stakeholder collaboration may be essential for successful implementation of policy and plans both at a macro and micro level. A substantial body of literature suggests that increasing collaboration among agencies and involvement of community members and additional constituents in protected area planning results in improved on-the-ground management (Childers 1994; Derman 1995; Gibson and Marks 1995; Pinkerton 1989; McNeely and Pitt 1985; Western et al. 1994; White et al. 1994). Collaboration for natural resource management indicates diverse arrangements in which multiple stakeholders voluntarily pool resources, information, and responsibility for collectively achieving shared goals (Gray 1989; Wondolleck and Yaffee 2000). Additionally, collaboration can facilitate landscape-scale strategies rather than approaches that prioritize individual species regardless of their communities and larger-scale ecosystem processes that occur across institutional and political boundaries (Wondolleck and Yaffee 2000).
The current lack of mutual understanding and agreement on protected area goals, the paucity of information exchange, and the significant overlap in responsibilities strains limited human and financial resources available for protected areas management in Belize. The success of a national protected area system – including its relationship to coexisting human populations and the resulting conservation of species and habitat – stands or falls on the adaptive management of the sites of which the protected area system is comprised. While the dangers of over-centralized management regimes are well known (Orlove 2002; Peluso 1992; Scott 1998; Wilshusen et al. 2002), a growing body of evidence substantiates that successful conservation management can be best enacted if the relevant stakeholders coordinate their efforts as part of a collaborative arrangement (Dukes and Firehock 2001; Wondolleck and Yaffee 2000).
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