A well-managed and ecologically representative national protected areas (PA) system is essential to the preservation of Belize's natural capital and its biodiversity assets, in order to guarantee the ecosystem services that currently underwrite national development and citizen welfare. Well-conserved ecosystems in soundly-managed PAs provide services that are key for sectoral growth in the economy and also for human wellbeing. Ecosystem goods and services provided by PAs are critical for health, nutrition, employment, food security, agricultural exports and even protection from natural disasters.
The provision of these crucial benefits however is not free. There are costs are associated with PA management, both in terms of direct expenditures and opportunity costs. It is very important for policy makers have a clear understanding of the type and degree of these naturally-based ecosystem services and the benefits they provide to the economy. It is similarly important for decision makers to consider the cost of decisions they make as it relates to growth strategies and the environment.
From the late 80s and into the 90s, protected areas managers, in Belize, who are mostly NGOs relied heavily on financing from external donors, international NGOs, and philanthropic institutions. Today, the funding available from these sources are drying up. In many cases, the resources made available now are directed toward actual management activities with the expectation that the recipient organizations will cover administrative and recurrent costs. Within this given reality, protected areas mangers are now turning to local income generating mechanisms to diversify their revenue sources. As protected area systems rely increasingly on revenues from services ranging from tourism and recreation to watershed protection, the very nature of protected area management has skewed toward the potential for generating recurrent resources.
According to a protected areas financing study (Drumm Consulting, 2010) Belize’s protected areas are undoubtedly a major asset to the national economy, contributing hundreds of millions of dollars in ecosystem goods and services each year. Tourism, an economic sector largely dependent on protected areas, generates nearly a quarter of Belize’s GDP. Similary, the timber industry is sustained by the PA system and the US$100 million fisheries sector benefits from having healthy marine protected areas (MPA).
A quick look at available data shows that in 2010, the Belize protected area system received funding equivalent to about 2.6% of the Government of Belize’s annual budget. An estimated US$8.9 million was spent in total on the protected area system in 2010. This translates to about US$8 per hectare which is three times lower than what Costa Rica spends on its protected areas which is about US$24. In return for the Government of Belize's minimal investment, the PA system generated around 20% of the country’s GDP through tourism alone, plus provided much of the country’s fresh water supply, sustained the timber industry and protected the resources on which the fishing industry depends. The analysis carried out by Drumm, 2010, showed that level of funding then was insufficient to sustain the PA services provided to the national economy. The analysis found that the Belize PA system has a funding gap US$10.2 million (basic scenario) and US$ 19.4 million (optimal scenario) between current investment and funding needed to operate at a level that sustains the health of the system.
A consensus has emerged that current spending on protected areas both locally and internationally is grossly inadequate, not only to support the costs of existing sites, but more importantly to ensure the creation and effective management of currents PAs. Most of the work of fundraising to pay for PA managements costs are done by NGOs who have co-management agreements with the government. NGOs are currently struggling to adequately cover their management and operations costs. Some NGOs in Belize are now moving towards or have established enterprises to create new sources of revenue. This initiative though laudable is challenged by the lack of experience and expertise in business planning and administration among conversation NGOs. A critical determinant of successful fundraising is the recruitment of experienced business managers within PA agencies. While exploring site level options are an important part of sustainable PA financing, what is needed in Belize is a national sustainable financing strategy that considers the PA system as a whole so that relevant legal and institutional frameworks can be put in place to support site based initiatives. Such a framework is missing at the moment.
The funding needs of Belize PAs are likely to increase in the future to achieve increased conservation measures for all major ecosystems and to respond to climate change. Since 2010 there have been many cut backs in donor funding and it is possible that there is now an even larger funding gap. The Drumm 2010 report concludes that ensuring the adequate capacity and financial sustainability to protect and manage the nation’s natural and cultural heritage, the environmental services, export income and employment they generate is of strategic importance for Belize. The financial sustainability of Belize's PAs should undoubtedly be a matter of national priority as protected areas are central to Belize’s economic development model. Policymakers such as the ministers of finance, budget planning, sustainable development and economic development who are central in allocating funds to agencies that manage protected areas need to pay more serious attention to the potential loss and degradation looming over these natural but most valuable assets.