On December 5th 1998 we were given a mission. Five Maya people and the former Area Representative Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Daniel Silva, came together and started to talk about a National Park for our communities. I was one of them.
We knew that our lands were in danger of being sold and thus being destroyed and disappearing. Destructive activities were taking place in the reserve area at that time - logging of endangered hardwoods, extraction of orchids and other ornamental plants, watershed contamination, widespread hunting and poaching and the looting of our sacred temples and caves.
The government administration at the time distributed land in the reserve area to more than a hundred people, causing heavy impact on the reserve. Our land was vanishing fast, and so quick action had to be taken.
That month, Daniel Silva came down to our village to meet with the community and the park was one of the topics of discussion. That day a committee was formed to negotiate with the government. I was surprised that the men of our village elected me to be the committee's chairperson. Twice, I asked them if this is what they really felt to be best and both times they said yes.
I knew this would be an enormous challenge, but also felt it my duty to accomplish the task set before me. Our Maya culture had been separated from the environment and nature. Culture without the environment is not true culture. Environment without culture is not a true environment.
It was the first time I had to work with so many men. I wondered if I would be permitted to voice my true opinions. I come from a traditional background where men are often in leadership positions and women prefer working with other women. Some of the men said: "Why did you all elect a woman to do this job? What does she know about the jungle? That's men's work." Despite my trepidation, I replied: "Like you, I grew up in the jungle. It is my home too."
It has now been over thirteen years working alongside both men and women and learning how to work in diverse, new ways. I have been deeply supported in my decision-making by the community, and I am grateful for having gained their confidence by getting important things done.
There were seven people on our original committee. We saw that there was a need for deeper organization so we formed a board of governors which birthed in January 2000 the Itzamna Society which stands for the protection and conservation of the environment, cultural patrimony and community development. Itzamna, for us, is the God who created all things on Earth.
The society included representation from three villages - El Progreso Seven Miles, Cristo Rey and San Antonio. Among our fourteen members were former police officers, doctors, teachers, tour guides and farmers. Our community based organization was registered as an NGO on February 9th 2000.
Naming the Park
At that time, it also became clear to us that there was no better name for the sacred lands around us we were working to protect other than that of our beloved elder - the late bush doctor, Elijio Panti.
Elijio was a spiritual healer who passed away in 1996 at the age of 103. He treated people from around the world with his magic hands. By our people, he was considered a high priest who could treat all manner of conditions, from physical disease to interpersonal disharmony. His tools included crystal divination, prayers, herbal remedies and ceremonies. The primicia was of his most beloved Maya ceremonies, practiced by us to this day.
The jungle that is now Noj Kaax Meen Elijio Panti National Park was the same place in which Elijio would pick sacred herbs, meditate, commune with nature, offer ceremonies and give thanks to the Spirits and ask them for help with healing, especially in cases where there was great illness.
Now, we must honor the legacy he left for us. Weaving his name and this land together protects not only his memory, but also the sacred medicinal plants for future generations. In this way, both never disappear, but continue to live with us forever.
On February 23rd 2001, our reserve area officially became a National Park. At a ceremony in the village of San Antonio, the documents were signed. On June 2nd that year, a delegation of 175 Maya spiritualists from Belize and Guatemala came down to offer a ceremony dedicated Noj Kax Meen Elijio Panti National Park to the Gods. The ceremony began at 7 pm and went on all night. As the sun rose, we went to an ancient site within our community and we concluded at midday. At 2 pm the official inauguration with government officials was held, with Miss With from the US Embassy in attendance.
Noj Kaax Meen translates to Canopied Rainforest of Healers, honouring our beloved Elijio Panti and the many other healers whose footsteps have been felt on these lands.
Losing the Park for Thirteen Years
In 2008, the Itzamna Society was set to renew the co-management agreement of the Park with the Forestry Department and Government of Belize as happens every five years. This coincided with a change of government, and that year our agreement was not renewed.
A new group in our village formed to whom the co-management agreement of EPNP was awarded. With heavy hearts, we did three days of ceremony before we left this sacred space in the care of others.
Although the group awarded care of the Park included brilliant minds including an anthropologist and a former CEO, the mind is not enough. Work of this nature requires reaching to the deepest recesses of the Heart and being in spiritual communion with nature.
Very quickly, our protected area was abandoned. Looting, hunting and logging were widespread. Our farmers began to lose their lands in the enclave as the land was parcelled off to be sold to rich national and international buyers. Thirteen years went by and the abuse to our sacred place was unimaginable.
Continuing Our Sacred Work
In 2017, we began to renegotiate with the previous government to again be allowed to co-manage the Park. On September 26th 2019 we won back the co-management agreement. We had to start all over again.
We gathered in the forest to offer a sacred Maya ceremony in reverence to asking permission of the Spirits of this sacred place to once again be of service.
In the beginning, it was overwhelming to witness the damage to and the grief of the land itself in the Park. We just wanted to sit down and cry. The creeks were stagnant. Everything was dry. There were no animals, no birds. The Visitors Center had been left to rot. Doors, windows, water tanks - all stolen. Near this derelict building there was the corpse of a dead jaguar, with its teeth and skin missing.
By the end of September 2020, we had organised two community workshops for the younger generations - one on our sacred Maya ceremonies and another to identify and appropriately use medicinal indigenous plants. We had over ninety participants at each workshop, the young hungry to learn and embody their culture and traditions.
At this time we have four rangers, two of them certified as Forest Constable Rangers. We have rebuilt the visitor center and bathroom, reopened the medicine trails, maintained the grounds around the visitors center and the waterfall around the visitors area, as well as some road maintenance. The biggest blessing is approximately 80% of the wildlife is back. Unfortunately, with them come illegal hunters and poachers.
This creates a constant and dangerous challenge for our rangers, as hunters bring with them firearms. In this rugged, wild landscape we are in urgent need of more rangers, and better equipment and training for the ones we have.
We must extend huge gratitude to the Forestry Department for their enormous support via the provision of ATVs, hand radios, GPS, smartphones with which to document and monitor activities, thirty-two signposts as well as the development of a five year plan to help manage the Elijio Panti National Park.
We must also say a massive thank you to GEF for their project Enhancing Community Stewardship of Noj Kaax Meen Elijio Panti National Park. This has allowed our rangers to receive a monthly stipend through to June 2022. This has enabled them to be on site much more, reducing illegal activities in the park by approximately 70%.
Ninety percent of San Antonio's population are farmers. When they first heard the reserve area was going to be converted into a National Park, they questioned the need to protect it. Our people didn't have a reference point for comprehending ecological preservation. We couldn't blame them. The only thing they knew is that they needed to survive.
Twenty five farmers explored the reserve area in search of flat land suitable for farming, only to find some at the heart of the reserve. They demanded this area from the government, suggesting only the hilly areas be set aside for the National Park. The government declined this proposal, stating that the farmers' plan would result in nothing left for future generations.
The park committee was caught in the middle, understanding the immediate plight of the farmers' on one hand and the environmental focus of the government. We felt it was important for our people to be united so we sought a unifying solution.
The government began to search for arable land for the farmers. Within the Pine Ridge Mountain Range, there is a 1500 acre area that was de-reserved almost four decades ago. At that time, the Peanut and Grain Growers Co-Operative existed, made up of about sixty farmers from my village. After each governmental election, they would lose their land. This caused deep disappointment and most to abandon this area. About fifteen years ago, further harassment by the forestry officers resulted in a greater exodus. At that stage about seven farmers remained, none with legal protection. Another governmental change meant they too would lose their land.
The government distributed that land to the San Antonio farmers, who had now increased in number to eighty-five. We were instrumental in ensuring they were given legal title for this group, and eventually for the seven remaining farmers of the Peanut and Grain Growers.
In June 1999, we held our first community meeting with the farmers to share plans for the National Park. Representatives of other villages shared experiences they had had with their own Parks and protected areas. These groups and individuals included: Help for Progress (NGO), Maya Center with the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Five Blue Lakes National Park with the community of Saint Margaret, El Pilar and the village of Bullet Tree, the Minister of Agriculture Mr. Daniel Silva, the Forestry Department and PACT (Protective Areas Conservation Trust) and the co-operative from our village, San Antonio.
Although the Farmers Co-Operative was against the National Park at the beginning of our meeting, by the end they were in support and even gave five hundred acres of the hilly enclave to the Park, so that a balance of one thousand acres remained for farming. The Forestry Department pushed for a further five hundred acres to be dedicated to the Park. This agreement was protected.
We continued negotiating with both the government and the Co-Operative. More farmers became involved. On May 17 2001, after a meeting with the Park Committee, Daniel Silva, our village Chairman, the eighty-five farmers and BAPO, an NGO that works with them; the co-operative informed us of their willingness to work with the new farmers. A new committee was formed that day to represent all groups involved.
On the 10th of July we visited this farming enclave, and found a beautiful, humid high jungle full of rich, fertile soil. The land was precious and fragile. Educating our farmers has been imperative. Keeping trees in the ground prevents the thin layer of topsoil being washed away into the two nearby creeks. Avoiding chemical pesticides and fertilisers prevents contamination of the sacred Macal River and an area of the Caribbean Sea that is currently still not heavily polluted. So, it became clear one of the main roles of the Itzamna Society was to support organic agriculture and support the creation of a market for the farmer's products.
We began the difficult task of changing our farmers' mindset. Chemical cultivation and slash and burn methods had to be replaced with sustainable models. We took a two day field trip to Punta Gorda in the Toledo District of Belize. There we met with Maya farmers producing organic cacao.
Due to the limitations of the rainy season, farmers can only harvest during dry periods. This led to the Co-Operative taking the land along the creek sides in hopes of irrigating their crops. Thus we had to have a condition in place that 100 feet along any creeks and rivers be left as a riparian buffer zone due to the fragility of the ecosystem.
We have also negotiated with the government to assure the Co-Operative have their lease papers in hand. At this time we are supporting the farmers to have equitable land distribution, with Co-Operative farmers receiving somewhere between fifteen to twenty acres each, and newer farmers getting five to ten. We have also worked with surveyors, the government and the farmer’s banks to reduce costs to the farm, getting loans assigned to their individual names thus creating a situation of independence, security and accountability. So, after years of long negotiations the farmers finally got their land and the Park was by extension more protected.
Back in 1999, our committee engaged in outreach to many different institutions to educate them on what was happening in our small village and the ecosystem around it, hoping to be supported.
Some were very encouraging. Some thought we were crazy.
In the woads of the late Mrs. Jean Shaw of the Hotel Mopan: “You will find people to support you. Some will not. But always remember this: whenever you encounter a problem, pray.” And that is what we have done ever since. Praying to our Gods.
We needed clarity on the boundary line of the park and approached the Forestry Department about this, which was met with claims that the government did not have the power to turn the reserve area into a National Park. We were aware our time was being wasted, and approached Minister Daniel Silva asking to be told the truth. He was deeply supportive, and agreed that the boundary needed clarification. Two weeks of intensive work by the committee and the Forestry Department, and the grace of the honourable Mr. Silva, resulted in a clearly identified boundary.
In October 1999, a diverse group which included an archeologist, museologist, environmentalist, agronomist, Guatemalan volunteers and ourselves was led by Emilia Toralla to begin the first cultural exploration of the park. On this excursion we discovered the majestic and sacred actun offering cave, Kaam ben Actun, dating back to 250 AD. At the end of the cave tunnel, sacred vessels used by our ancient Maya ancestors during ceremony were found. We also came across three Maya sites towering through the canopy a mile away from the cave.
When we began exploring the jungle, there were no roads or trails, only breaks in the thick undergrowth created by animals, replete with poisonous plants. Reaching this area is eighteen miles from Pine Ridge, and in wet weather can be treacherous due to mud slides.
At this time we were negotiating the protection of eighty thousand acres. We have ended up being able to protect 13,600 of those pristine rainforest acres. It is our prayer and belief that more of this sacred place will be protected.
In this pristine jungle, wild flora and fauna are abundant. Residents include jaguars, howler monkeys, tapirs, mountain lions, a wide range of native birds, toucans, curassows and more. In the canopied rainforest, endangered hardwoods that are almost eighty years old are common as well as endangered medicinal plants, large clean waterfalls and many caves of immense cultural value.
When we identified just how precious and rich this place was, a priority became identifying a location for a campsite, create non-invasive trail and road systems to allow rangers and wardens easy and rapid access to protect all parts of the Park. We had to take these needs back to the government for support.
Once again, Daniel Silva was deeply supportive. On January 10th 2000, the first two wardens from San Antonio were posted at the reserve and construction of a campsite began. A hut was built and a clear track to the sacred cave created. As patrolling of the area increased, hunting was vastly diminishing and logging ceased. We began a process whereby our village shared warden responsibility with neighbouring villages of who also depend on the water table of this area.
Hurricanes presented an immense challenge, making roads inaccessible. Culverts and bridges were required to be put in. This led to us taking over responsibility for the reserve area in January 2000. This is when we officially became the guardians of our lands.
On September 6th 2000, some of our village youth took a course on preserving our sacred caves. Our sacred caves are fragile and need people of spiritual sensitivity to tend them. Four of our community were trained by Dr. Jaime Awe from the Department of Archeology in Belmopan.
Because all our villages impact the environment of the National Park in some way, we also felt it was necessary to create management plans for each village. Generic management plans will not work for these diverse and unique areas.
Other communities support the park in various ways. For example, the village of Seven Miles, who also had their land de-reserved by the government, has supported our park with patrolling and providing us with transportation as needed.
Over the years we have been supported in significant ways by a wide variety of people.
Ana Maria Ramirez Yanez was instrumental in developing a management plan for the villages that intersect the part. The Peace Corps volunteer Susanne Giattina spent two years living in my village and supporting other communities in the area during that time. The Janus Foundation on the 18th and 19th of August 2001 engaged many of our young people in an educational workshop where endangered plants were studied to support their preservation.
When the Southern Pine Beetle devastated 90% of the pines in the Pine Ridge Mountain area, a fire hazard was created in the dry seasons, which sent many animals towards the park. We requested and received support from the Belize Defence Force to patrol the area.
We are so grateful to all volunteers, schools, stakeholders, police officers, farmers, governmental institutions, NGOs, national and international funding agencies who grant us funding as well as who volunteer and give their time to this immense and wonderful project.
Challenging Events for the Park
Over the years we have experienced some extraordinary challenges at the Park. An example includes the time a very tall tree fell over onto one of the thatched buildings at the campsite. This happened in July 2001 and facilitated a rebuild.
However, one event was a blessing in disguise.
On October 7th 2000, the proposed National Park was intended to be inaugurated by Maya Spiritualist Leaders from Guatamala and Belize. The plan was that they would dedicate this place to the Gods. However, Hurricane Keith hit.
The Gods can predict things.
That same day we found out that one quarter of the park was intended to be handed over in exchange for the Thousand Foot Falls which occupies one thousands acres of land. These areas include indigenous communities who live and work on their ancestral lands.
None of our communities had been notified of this plan. Our villages got together and approached the government to find out what was happening. A private exchange involving an unnamed gentleman was disclosed. We rallied hard, and were ready for anything. We engaged national and international media and let our farmers know so they may be ready to take over the reserve area if needed, since the government was violating its own laws.
In December, we were notified that the government had cancelled the deal with the unnamed gentleman. We were beyond relieved.
We have come to understand that land hunger is constant. In August 2001, a group of individuals were trying to secretly lease two large properties that lie within the park’s boundaries. This is one of so many examples of how our lands are threatened every second of the day.