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Forestry Minister Makes Bold Move; Burns Illegal Rosewood Cargo
posted (January 11, 2013)
Last night, 7News told you about that big rosewood bust in the Village of Golden Stream in the Toledo District. Currently, it is illegal to extract rosewood, and nobody should have any license to do it because of the indefinite moratorium which hangs over the trade.

That didn't stop licensee Hilmar Alamilla from trying to smuggle hundreds of flitches out, but fortunately, he was caught in the act of trying to move them by villagers who called in the authorities.

Today, we travelled down to Golden Stream to meet with the Minister of Forestry who was scheduled to make a statement on the trade. And what a powerful statement it was! So powerful that it was already attracting major feedback about an hour after it was made in a remote area of the country without any cellular phone service.

What's the statement? Well, you'd have to see it to believe it:..

Daniel Ortiz reporting
Experts from the Forestry Department conservatively estimate that this cargo of rosewood represents a value of $400,000. While cognizant of that, the Minister of Forestry made the decision to burn every last flitch of wood. She says that her Ministry must do it to send a clear message to illegal loggers.

Hon. Lisel Alamilla - Minister Of Forestry
"What we are doing today is burning the rosewood that we confiscated on Wednesday night`. My ministry has had enough; enough is enough. We have been battling this rosewood business for the last 9 months since I assume office and we have not been able to put a dent into the rosewood illegal logging and so we want a clear message sent to everyone who is involved in this rosewood business that their moratorium stands."

Fueled by that righteous moral standing, she poured some lighter fluid in the heart of the pile, and set it ablaze. It may seem a waste, and she thought so too; she explained that it was a hard decision.

Hon. Lisel Alamilla - Minister Of Forestry
"It's important for people to know that this is not an easy decision to make but I also want people to know that we have to sustainably manage our forest and the clandestine illegal logging of our natural resources is unacceptable."

And for any lingering doubt, she cleared up that there are currently no permits to extract rosewood. It is totally illegal.

Hon. Lisel Alamilla - Minister Of Forestry
"Absolutely no one has been given any permit to extract; to salvage; to export rosewood. "

And the man who held a license before the moratorium went into effect, Hilmar Alamilla, is facing major repercussions for once again being caught in the act.

Wilbur Sabido - Chief Forestry Officer
"What we are planning is to with immediate effect is to lay charges against the licensee, in this case Mr. Alamillla. I do realize that on Wednesday night that there were other individuals which can easily be identifiable through the footage that the media gathered and we are also proceeding to lay charges against those individuals. Our plan is to make sure that we do not have a re-occurrence of this particular incident and we want to impress on the court and I hope it does come across fairly well that there are a lot of assets that could actually be seized and that is our intention. Not only the rosewood but also all the other assets that are actually from within this particular this compound and which also belongs to the licensee."

But in a thriving illegal trade, might this simply be a drop in the bucket? We asked the minister if burning this cargo, as valuable as it is, has any real meaning in the larger scheme.

Daniel Ortiz
"While it is a strong signal Minister at the end of the day it really amounts to nothing because we are unable to truly police the rosewood illegal extractions. What is the next step?"

Hon. Lisel Alamilla - Minister Of Forestry
"It amounts to nothing? Do you have any idea what this rosewood is worth? How much you think its worth? - $400,000.00 at least. If there is not a bigger statement than that - somebody's pocket will be hurting and the villagers will be hurting who are also involved in this. Everyone in this ring of rosewood will be affected because this needs to stop, so I disagree with you."

And there is also no doubt in the Minister's mind that corruption within her ministry has helped to keep illegal logging alive, despite best efforts.

"Minister, do you believe there is corruption within the Forestry Department that allows for some of this rosewood to be here?"

Hon. Lisel Alamilla - Minister Of Forestry
"I am certain that there is corruption within my ministry. The difficulty is proving it. This is why the message is also meant for my staff to understand that when I give instructions they must adhere to it."

And while her decision to destroy the cargo will likely attract negative feedback from the public, the Minister has the full support of the local community leaders in the Toledo District.

Alonso Cal - President, Toledo Alcalde Association
"I feel happy about it because you know these people we can show them that they are wrong doing should be stop of doing this kinds of things because we have start from a long time telling them you dint have license - you should do this. You have license for secondary but not with rosewood but you see they have been selling a lot of rosewood in the night and this is what I told them; is the law change that you can go and cut rosewood in the night? I want to find out who is doing this and I have call the minister because the law is still there. When I call for help from the police and the forestry man - they were vexed with me because they know that maybe I am hurting them. With them - they know what's happening but they can't say it in front of you, so when now when I called the Minister and the Minister responded yes we will look into it and now I am very happy she is here to look what is happening. We are not lying."

Daniel Ortiz
"I am sure that many of these big buyers have tried to approach some of your people. How will you discourage them from partaking and facilitating them."

Alonso Cal - President, Toledo Alcalde Association
"As an Alcalde when it do happen because some of our communities do it but they don't tell us but we tell them as an Alcalde that they should come to us. And if anybody comes like this saying to them to cut we should know and find out first if they have a licensee - we want to see the license. They only tell you that yes they have license but they don't show it and that we said that is untrue because if they can't prove the license - that means they were wrong. The Alcalde from Medina came from Wednesday night at my office at 11am in the mooring telling me that the "Chiney" reach at Medina Bank and tells the community to cut because they have a license now. But I tell the Alcalde no, that's untrue because I just call the Minister again and the Minister says there is no license and I know as an Alcalde the rule is on moratorium."

Forestry staff stayed up at the rosewood site in Golden Stream until all the flitches was completely burnt. As for the undersized pieces of rosewood, she says that her ministry will donate them to the communities of the district to be used for domestic purposes. Also, the burls of the rosewood, which are also very valuable, those will be donated to carvers inside the Kolbe Foundation Belize Central Prison, so that they can produce value-added products like sculptures and furniture.

Chief Forestry Officer Wilbur Sabido said that there will be measures put in place to try to combat the corruption within the forestry department, which will include putting senior officers in posts in the Toledo District. And to try to curb the rampant extraction of rosewood, the Forestry Department will increase its personnel in the Toledo District for the entire year.

And if you're wondering if the Hilmar Alamilla has any relation to Minister Alamilla, she categorically stated that they are not related.

And back to public response, several major parties weighed in on it. One of those was the Peninsula Citizens for Sustainable Development who wrote to the office of the Prime Minister congratulating Forestry Minister Alamilla for making the bold move. The letter states quote, "Peninsula Citizens for Sustainable Development strongly supports Minister Alamilla's actions today in burning illegally extracted rosewood to graphically illustrate how illegal extraction and exportation of rosewood is burning our country's economy." End quote.

The letter goes on to say that the illegal extraction must stop because it hurts the country economically and socially because there is a perception of the Government of Belize unable or unwilling to stop it. And Alamilla's actions are being criticized by area representatives from Toledo, particularly, PUP's Mike Espat from Toledo East, Oscar Requena from Toledo West. We contacted both, who tell us that the people who they represent are upset that thousands of dollars were wasted.

Requena says that he visted the Forestry Department and he believes that they should have sold the rosewood and upgraded the department, which is in dire need of equipment.

Espat told us that he's trying to get members from the Government to consider giving area residents licenses to salvage the wood for commercial purposes because they are either starting to rot, or they will be destroyed by the fire. He said that he hasn't gotten any headway with that proposal, but he will continue to press for it.

For context we should note that in other countries - such as Gabon - Ivory is burned. In this picture, More than ten thousand pounds of elephant ivory went up in flames - with the fire lit by no less than the president of Gabon.

That cargo was worth 1million European Dollars, or approximately, 1.4 million US Dollars.

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