Flora of Belize
The flora of Belize is highly diverse by regional standards, given the country's small geographical extent. Situated on the Caribbean coast of northern Central America the flora and vegetation have been intimately intertwined with Belize's history. The nation itself grew out of British timber extraction activities from the 17th century onwards, at first for logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum) and later for mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), fondly called "red gold" because of its high cost and was much sought after by European aristocracy. Central America generally is thought to have gained much of it characteristic flora during the "Great American interchange" during which time South American elements migrated north after the geological closure of the isthmus of Panama. Few Amazonian elements penetrate as far north as Belize and in species composition the forests of Belize are most similar to the forests of the Petén (Guatemala) and the Yucatán (Mexico).
- lowland broad-leaved forest. This is a diverse forest type in Belize, now greatly reduced in extent by clearance for agricultural land. It includes such tropical tree species as Simarouba glauca, Calophyllum brasiliense, Terminalia amazonia and Pterocarpus officinalis.
- lowland savanna. This is an important vegetation type in northern Belize, in which scattered trees occur in "short grass" (actually mainly sedges). Savanna is maintained as open vegetation by a combination of wet-season flooding, dry-season drought and fire. Typical trees include: Acoelorrhaphe wrightii , Quercus oleoides and madre de cacao Gliricidia sepium.
- lowland pine forest or pine savanna (open forest mainly composed of Pinus caribaea var. hondurensis with shrubs such as the rough-leaved "sandpaper tree" (Curatella americana).
- submontane pine forest (with Pinus ayacahuite, Pinus oocarpa and Pinus rudis together with some broadleaved species)
- submontane broadleaved forest. Characteristic vegetation of the Maya Mountain massif above 500m. Typical species include Podocarpus guatemalensis, Swietenia macrophylla, Terminalia amazonia, Virola brachycarpa, and the palm Astrocaryum mexicanum.
- mangrove and littoral forest. Ecologically important vegetation type of the coastal cayes. Several species of mangrove are involved including: red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle), black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) and white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa). In addition the buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus) although not a true mangrove is often associated with mangroves in littoral forest. Also see the section on mangroves below.
- seagrass beds. Sandy bays often have extensive mats of seagrass. There are several different types in Belize: turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum in the Hydrocharitaceae), manatee seagrass (Syringodium filiforme in the Cymodoceaceae), duckweed seagrasses (Halodule spp in the Cymodoceaceae).
- riparian shrubland. This is a mixed vegetation type, of shrubs and small trees with grasses and sedges, found along watercourses. Typical species include Schizolobium and Ceiba pentandra. Loss of this habitat was one of the particular environmental concerns of building the Chalillo Dam on the Macal river.
Plant conservation and forest reserves
Although deforestation continues to be a threat to Belize's natural environment - and to the natural environment of almost all countries in Latin America - much of the native forest remains, facilitating a burgeoning ecotourism sector. National Parks System Act of 1981 declared numerous protected areas, and the Belizean Government has been working with a prominent non-governmental organization (NGO), the Belize Audubon Society (BAS) to promote nature conservation within the country. Founded in 1969, the BAS assists the Forest Department of the Government of Belize to manage several important forest areas including:
- Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary - established in 1990 as a result of the studies of the biology of the jaguar by Alan Rabinowitz. Although initially established for jaguar conservation it is very important for plant conservation.
- Guanacaste National park - approximately fifty acres of tropical forest reserve in the Cayo District of Belize. The signature tree of the reserve is the Guanacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum) of which several giant specimens may be found.
- Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve - a forest reserve of 6,750 acres (27 km2), in the Maya Mountains with rugged (karst) relief and relatively undisturbed subtropical moist forest.
In addition to the above there are numerous other important forest reserves such as:
- Chiquibul Forest Reserve (CFR)
There are numerous conservation challenges in Belize. One is the extensive recent illegal cutting of the understorey palm's xate (Chamaedorea spp.). This has a severe effect on the health and reproduction of these characteristic understorey components.
Forests and Deforestation
A remote sensing study conducted by the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC) and NASA, in collaboration with the Forest Department and the Land Information Centre (LIC) of the Government of Belize's Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (MNRE), and published in August 2010 revealed that Belize's forest cover in early 2010 was approximately 62.7%, down from 75.9% in late 1980.
A similar study  by Belize Tropical Forest Studies and Conservation International revealed similar trends in terms of Belize's forest cover. Both studies indicate that each year, 0.6% of Belize's forest cover is lost, translating to the clearing of an average of 24,835 acres (9,982 hectares) each year. The USAID-supported SERVIR study by CATHALAC, NASA, and the MNRE also showed that Belize's protected areas have been extremely effective in protecting the country's forests. While some 6.4% of forests inside of legally declared protected areas were cleared between 1980 and 2010, over a quarter of forests outside of protected areas had been lost between 1980 and 2010. As a country with a relatively high forest cover and a low deforestation rate, Belize has significant potential for participation in initiatives such as REDD.
While many consider mangrove to be one of Belize's various forest classes, it is important to point out that in Belize, mangroves assume the form of not only forest (dominated by closed formations of mangroves of over 3m tall) but also scrub (dominated by formations of dwarf mangroves below 3m in height), and savanna (areas with scattered mangroves). Because of their importance for shoreline protection and maintenance of fisheries stocks, Belize's mangroves are legally protected under the Forests Act of the Laws of Belize.
A recent study by the World Resources Institute (WRI) indicates that Belize's mangrove ecosystems contribute US $174–249 million per year to the national economy. The clearing of mangroves for development of coastal infrastructure has been recognized as a threat to Belize's mangroves and led to public perception that destruction of mangrove ecosystems was rampant, such as an investigative study in 2008 which indicated unauthorized clearings within the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, and which eventually led to the Belize Barrier Reef System's designation by UNESCO as an endangered World Heritage Site.
With uncertainty regarding actual rates of clearing of Belize's mangrove ecosystems, a recent study funded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has clarified the situation, making use of Landsat satellite imagery to comprehensively examine Belize's mangrove cover. That study, which spanned the thirty years from 1980–2010 and was based on the earlier work of mangrove researcher Simon Zisman, was conducted by the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC) and found that in 2010, mangroves covered some 184,548 acres (74,684 hectares) or 3.4% of Belize's territory. By contrast, it is estimated that in 1980 mangrove cover stood at 188,417 acres (76,250 hectares) - also 3.4% of Belize's territory. Based on Zisman, it is also estimated that Belize's mangrove cover in 1980 represented 98.7% of the pre-colonial extent of those ecosystems. Belize's mangrove cover in 2010 was thus estimated to represent 96.7% of the pre-colonial cover. Where the 2010 update of the World Mangrove Atlas also indicated that a fifth of the world's mangrove ecosystems have been lost since 1980, the case of Belize's mangroves thus stands in stark contrast to the global picture.
Belize's relative mangrove cover declined by 2% from 1980–2010, and in that period, under 4,000 acres of mangroves had been cleared, although clearing of mangroves near Belize's main coastal settlements (e.g. Belize City and San Pedro) was relatively high. The rate of loss of Belize's mangroves - at 0.07% per year between 1980 and 2010 - was much lower than Belize's overall rate of forest clearing (0.6% per year between 1980 and 2010).
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As well as logwood (Haematoxylon campechianum) and mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) two other important Belizean timber trees of note are the Santa Maria (Calophyllum antillanum) and cedar (Cedrela mexicana). Other economically important trees include cotton tree or kapok (Ceiba pentandra), and cacao (Theobroma cacao). Chicle (Manilkara chicle) is the original chewing gum (made from its gummy sap).
Belizean vegetation is characterized by numerous species of palms including the palmettos of the savanna, silver palmetto (Schippia concolor), palmetto (Acoelorrhaphe wrightii) and the common coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) found in coastal areas. Other important palms include the cohune palms, cohune (Attalea cohune) and warree cohune (Astrocaryum mexicanum), as well as the give and take palm (Chrysophila argentea), xate palms (Chamaedorea elegans and Chamaedorea oblongata), pokenoboy (Bactris major), basket tie-tie (Desmoncus schippii) and royal palm (Roystonea oleracea).
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- Xaté palms (Chamaedorea spp.) in Belize - Natural History Museum
- Murray, M.R., Zisman, S.A., Furley, P.A., Munro, D.M., Gibson, J., Ratter, J., Bridgewater, S., Mity, C.D., and C.J. Place. 2003. "The Mangroves of Belize: Part 1. Distribution, Composition and Classification." Forest Ecology and Management 174: 265–279
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- Cherrington, E.A., Hernandez, B.E., Trejos, N.A., Smith, O.A., Anderson, E.R., Flores, A.I., and B.C. Garcia. 2010. "Identification of Threatened and Resilient Mangroves in the Belize Barrier Reef System." Technical report to the World Wildlife Fund. Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC) / Regional Visualization & Monitoring System (SERVIR). 28 pp. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-07-31. Retrieved 2011-07-25.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- Zisman, S.A. 1998. "Sustainability or Status Quo: Elite Influence and the Political Ecology of Mangrove Exploitation in Belize." Doctoral dissertation, Department of Geography, University of Edinburgh. Edinburgh, Scotland
- The Nature Conservancy (TNC). 2010a. ""World Atlas of Mangroves" Highlights the Importance of and Threats to Mangroves: Mangroves among World's Most Valuable Ecosystems." Press release. Arlington, Virginia. http://www.nature.org/pressroom/press/press4573.html
- Cherrington, E.A., Ek, E., Cho, P., Howell, B.F., Hernandez, B.E., Anderson, E.R., Flores, A.I., Garcia, B.C., Sempris, E., and D.E. Irwin. 2010. "Forest Cover and Deforestation in Belize: 1980-2010." Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean. Panama City, Panama. 42 pp. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-07-29. Retrieved 2011-04-29.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
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- Forest Cover and Deforestation in Belize: 1980-2010 CATHALAC / NASA / Belize Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment / SERVIR. August 2010.
- Identification of Threatened and Resilient Mangroves in the Belize Barrier Reef System CATHALAC / WWF / NASA / SERVIR. October 2010.