Riparian Reforestation

Protecting the Mesoamerican Reef through community-run reforestation of riparian zones on the Columbia River, Toledo District, Belize


TIDE and Xucaneb, a community-based organization based in San Pedro Columbia Village, have partnered since 2004 to restore riparian zones on the Columbia River, planting 4,000 trees and restoring 4 km of riverbanks. 
The riparian zone of the upper Columbia River branch of the Rio Grande within San Pedro Columbia village lands has been degraded due to a number of human activities, including milpa agriculture, cattle farming, washing of laundry in the river and improper solid waste disposal. 
The village has planted a variety of fruit and timber trees including naturally occurring riparian tree species such as the Inga species, fig (Ficus), cotton tree (Ceiba) and provision tree (Pachira aquatica), reducing run off and erosion, sequestering carbon, and preserving their food forests. 
In 2015, the village will plant 1,200 more trees in the riparian zone. With support from TIDE, community members receive stipends for planting trees, maintaining the tree nursery, and are educated about the importance of having trees along the river.
Reforestation of the riparian zone. Trees pictured were planted in 2004.
Mr. Hilberto Co of Xucaneb in the tree nursery. Over the course of the reforestation project, seedlings were established through nurseries in Columbia and San Miguel villages and maintained by hired community members who were guided by a team leader, who in both cases were pivotal in establishing awareness of riparian reforestation within the community.
The key environmental problem to be addressed is pollution of the Mesoamerican Reef from sediment and agricultural run-off. The goal of the project is to prevent further clearing of the legally established 66 ft setback along rivers and restore cleared setbacks in order to improve or maintain water quality and fresh water biodiversity by developing and implementing pilot participatory reforestation project in the Rio Grande Watershed.


Watershed run-off is the greatest source of sediment and nutrient to the western Caribbean, contributing 300 times as much sediment and 5.5 times as much nitrogen and phosphorous as domestic and industrial waste combined. The Maya Mountain Massif, while contributing relatively little sediment or nutrient at present, has been identified as an area extremely vulnerable to soil erosion, where conversion to erosive land use should be avoided.

Forest conversion should especially be avoided in riparian zones since riparian forests preserve water quality through filtration, bank stabilization, and prevention of erosion. Yet, sadly, such conversion is taking place. Although Belizean law prohibits clearing of vegetation within 66 ft of rivers,3 this law is rarely enforced and there has been extensive deforestation along the Rio Grande and its tributaries in the Maya Mountains.
Riparian forests along the upper reaches of the Rio Grande – including its two main tributaries, the Columbia River and the San Miguel Branch – have been degraded or destroyed through a combination of farming and a hurricane. Maya farmers in Toledo typically clear most riverside trees but leave useful species, such as fig, as well as the culturally important ceiba. However, in 2001, Hurricane Iris destroyed large swathes of forests, including trees that had been spared by farmers. Re-growth has been prevented in many areas by famers using the land for milpa agriculture or grazing cattle.
In areas where riparian buffers have been cleared, riverbanks are eroding. In 2012, nitrate levels in the Rio Grande were between 0.2 and 0.5 mgl-1, indicative of a mesotrophic aquatic environment and suggesting that fertilizer run-off is beginning to impact the river.5 Reforesting riverbanks in the upper reaches of the Rio Grande will help to protect the quality of freshwater resources that are used by >4,000 people living downstream and which feed into the Mesoamerican Reef System.
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Over 80 community members have been involved in the project. 54 villagers from Columbia have participated in the project and 30 villagers from San Miguel.
Each group member earns a stipend of BZ $25.00 per day, paid by TIDE and they contribute another Bz $25.00 of their time for a total value of $50.00 per day. It is expected that through community participation in this project there will be an increase in the awareness of the importance of having trees along the River and ultimately a change in attitude and farming practices respecting riparian forests.
Melissa's picture
Date: September 1, 2015 Author: Melissa
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