A Natural History of Belize – Inside the Maya Forest by Samuel Bridgewater

in Issue 38 by

Reviewed by Chris Harris

Living in Belize, we hear and read much about the living Mesoamerican reef which lies off our shores, and its prolific wildlife. This is rightly a major tourist attraction and occupies most of our attention when thinking of our country’s natural beauty and complexity. This is largely because of its easy accessibility. However another world class natural beauty exists in Belize which does not get the same level of publicity. At 177,000 hectares, one can hardly describe the Chiquibul forest as hidden away, although its lack of accessibility is one of the reasons it has remained relatively undisturbed over the centuries. So it is high time that the Chiquibul take centre stage and be shown for what it is: a world class centre of natural diversity, not matched by many countries around the world.

This then is a book that casts a broad light on a little known area of Belize. The Chiquibul is indeed hard to access, and the scientists who have made it their life’s work deserve great credit for thir perseverance in what is a pretty hostile environment. It is not for nothing that a member of the British Army (BATSUB) told me that this dense forest full of insects, animals and even plants which do not welcome the casual visitor is the toughest jungle training environment in the world.

This is a reference book with two major differences. Firstly it is extremely readable, and secondly it gives detailed explanations of a multitude of aspects of life in Belize. Because the book was written by a scientist working in a scientific environment one might expect a dry monologue of facts and figures of interest only to fellow scientists. Not a bit of it. This book explains, as well as details, animal and plant life, exposing many aspects of the complex interactions between various aspects of life in the deep forest.

But the story does not start there. The first few chapters deal with the history of the geology of Belize as a landmass, long before man arrived. The development of the country and the genesis of the forests which historically covered much of Central America, in fact how Central America itself even came to be here, are dealt with in a very easy-to-understand way. But for the enquiring mind wanting a more detailed explanation, that is in the book too.

Although the book does focus on the Maya Forest, and upon the Chiquibul itself, one should not see this as any kind of specialization. The Maya Forest is one of the very few areas of dense forest still left in Central America, because of the march of agriculture and expanding populations. As such it offers us the opportunity to study at first hand the huge variety of life of all kinds deep in the forest.

Because Belize famously has one of the lowest population densities, and one of the highest proportions of its land mass under control of national parks and forest reserves in the world, much of the forest area is largely untouched and retains a vast wealth of plants, animals and trees. This has attracted scientists from all over the world and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, Scotland have made the Chiquibul their centre for research.

The book is lavishly illustrated with color photographs of plants, animals, insects, trees, rivers and the natural rock formations which over millions of years have formed the familiar landscape of the Belize we know and love today. Many mysteries of the private lives of animals that make their homes deep in the forest are laid bare. Who knew, for instance, that the famous Xate plant is pollinated exclusively by a tiny insect called a thrip which lives its whole life inside the plants it pollinates because it can barely fly? Or that a bat which lives in the Chiquibul feeds only on fish which it catches by skimming the surface of lakes and rivers?

The author is not afraid to point out the ecological damage caused by illegal logging, hunting and border incursions from Guatemala, affecting many animal and bird species as well as the environment itself. The author also explores the negative effects of the building of the Chalillo Dam on breeding sites for endangered species such as tapirs and scarlet macaws, and even of pollution from wind-born pesticides from southern farms. However it is quite clear that the Chiquibul has the strength and resilience to repair the damage made primarily by man, given time. Even the huge destruction wrought by major hurricanes such as Hurricane Hattie in 1961 is, over time, being repaired by nature.

Yes, this is a reference book, one into which the enquiring reader can dip to seek explanations of what is going on around us day by day. And for the many immersed in a largely metropolitan life, this book is a very welcome spotlight on just one aspect of the beautiful and unique country we live in.

Personally, I really enjoyed reading this book, so much so that I have ordered up my own copy.

At US$45 it is quite expensive, but can be found for less on Amazon. For that money however, you are getting a treasure trove of “things you did not know” and explanation of at least some of the puzzles Nature has laid before us.

An important book which belongs on the bookshelf of any self-respecting Belizean family: A Natural History of Belize-Inside the Maya Forest by Samuel Bridgewater, published by the University of Texas Press, PO Box 7819, Austin, Texas 78713, ISBN 978-0-292-739000-0, US $45.00.  View the Book Page »