School of GeoSciences

School of GeoSciences

Study Area

Study area

This project focuses on wetland and savanna areas within land owned by the Programme for Belize: the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area (RBCMA). This is located in an upland area in the north west of Belize, Central America. The left hand map shows the location of the RBCMA lands. This comprises approximately 4% of the total land area of Belize.

The RBCMA is in the NW of Belize The Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area

The second map shows the RBCMA in more detail. This map has been updated to show recent additions to the PfB lands (particularly around Hill Bank).

The research activities were based around two centres: East Gate and the Hill Bank Research Station. These were used as field bases by the research teams surveying the pine savanna and wetland areas around Booth's River and New River Lagoon.

Biogeographically, the RBCMA constitutes an extension of the Petén, forming part of the Yucatán Peninsula. As such it has features representative of the lowland and emergent Atlantic coastline of Central America. It has been recognised as a priority area for biodiversity conservation.


This digital terrain model shows part of the RBCMA as if looking towards the north-west. Three conspicuous escarpments (between 30 and 60 metres high) form the dominant physiographic features. The highest of these three escarpments is the Lalucha Escarpment, seen at the back of the model. The present work concerns itself with the lands to the east of the Booth's River Escarpment - seen in the foreground of the model- mostly flat or gently undulating terrain.

Digital terrain model of the RBCMA

Based on an image taken from W.C. Yee's MSc dissertation, © W.C. Yee/The University of Edinburgh (1991).

Preliminary reconnaisance work in 1994 shows considerable variation in the vegetation found in the RBCMA. The transect diagram taken from this work shows the relationship between topography, drainage and vegetation. A series of faults forms a range of habitats at different altitudes. Variations in the underlying geology and sedimentary deposition result in alternating zones of poor and good drainage. Semi-deciduous forest occupies the highest, well-drained land; pine-savanna can be found on the lenses of pliocene sediments; mangrove forest and wetland grasses grow on the lowest areas, some of which are composed of calcareous clays.

A west-east transect produced in 1994


Originally thought to be largely Maya lowland forest, recent surveys have found the RBCMA to have the most diverse array of any vegetation types of any protected area in Belize. (WWLCT News Issue 2). Of the twelve vegetation types found in Belize, two occur only in the RBCMA and five others are only adequately represented in Belize because they occur in protected regions of the RBCMA.

A particularly important vegetation type is the bajo - a seasonal swamp habitat which supports a very distinctive range of flora and fauna. The RBCMA is therefore an important refuge for biodiversity, not only within Belize, but part of the larger Petén ecosystem. Together with the Maya and Calakmul Biosphere Reserves, they form the largest remaining forest block in Central America. The area supports many endangered species - 15 mammal and 21 bird species and is a vital wintering and passage area for many North American migrants. Its importance is given greater importance by the accelerating deforestation of adjacent lands in the region.

Programme for Belize

The primary aim of the Programme for Belize staff is to protect this valuable area of forest. The lands were bought through an international fund-raising programme, assisted by donations from companies working in Belize. Money raised has also been used to establish a field research station, train and employ local people as forest rangers and develop an Outreach programme. This has worked to strengthen relationships with the local Mennonite agricultural community and people in the nearby villages in Orange Walk District.

The Programme's attention is now turned towards methods for creating revenue from the careful use of the forest's resources to provide the funds for its perpetual care. Preliminary research into appropriate management methods is considering limited harvesting of non-timber forest products (such as chicle, honey and thatch), the potential for developing income from participation in the global carbon sequestration programme, from low density tourist facilities and careful timber production, citrus growing and other agricultural activities on disturbed land.

The need for surveys of the RBCMA lands

It is crucial that these activities are developed in a way that takes full account of the biodiversity within the area, so that particularly sensitive sites and habitats can be distinguished and given special protection.

Programme for Belize also recognises that as a major landowner, (the charity owns approximately 4% of the land area of Belize) it has a responsibility to assist in the country's economic development. If it can identify areas within its care which have little conservation value it hopes to use these to develop model sensitive land-use schemes which would be suitable for adoption by local people on the adjoining lands.

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