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Xate Palms (Photo source: Helle Jeppesen)
Xaté palms are big - and dangerous - businessImage: DW/H. Jeppesen

Lush leaves, bloody history

Katja Döhne/sp
March 31, 2015

Almost everyone knows the Xaté palm. The plant's green heart-shaped leaves are used for flower arrangements, especially during Easter. But few florists know the bloody conflict behind the magnificently lush leaves.


The jungle high up in the mountains of Belize in Central America draws tourists from all over the world. They come to here to see the ruins of the long lost Maya culture in Caracol which stand witness to a glorious period of early human civilization. Though the buildings and temples lie in a state of decay, overgrown with plants, their at times violent history still enthralls visitors like travel bloggers, #link:http://nonurbia.com/2014/09/belize/ :Sarah and Erdem#.

They visited the place in late summer in 2014. They were passing through on their way to North and South America. Actually, they write in their blog, they didn't expect any dangers in the jungle expect from snakes perhaps.

"But as usual, it's not the animals but rather the people who pose a danger," they noted on September 25. "We had just taken a break, up on the Caana Pyramide when something terrible happened." The two became witness to a murder. They captured the #link:https://vimeo.com/107535965 :situation in a video#.

You hear shots ringing out in the video. A 20-year-old policeman is killed in the shooting. Two bullets hit his body, the third is aimed directly at his head. So what was going on?

The tour guide explained to the two bloggers that the alleged perpetrators had come illegally over the nearby border to Guatemala. It cuts through the middle of the forest. The policeman had found their horses in the jungle during the day and seized them. They were organized criminals, according to the tour guide. But the conflict here isn't about drugs or human trafficking, it's about the leaves of the Xaté palm.

An export hit

Altogether there are three different species of the mountain palm or chamaedorea. But the conflict that claimed the victim in the Maya ruins, mainly revolves around one particular species - the Chamaedorea ernesti-augusti. It has heart-shaped or fish-tailed lush leaves, which stay green and fresh for a long time. They can stay in a vase for up to 40 days without losing their luster.

So, they have the perfect qualities needed to sell them as part of flower bouquets or arrangements to Europe and Asia. In fact, that's already been happening for decades. The leaves are transported in huge numbers in airplanes to destinations like Amsterdam and Miami. In addition to Belize, the biggest exporters are Guatemala and Mexico. The business is #link:http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0033012 :worth millions#.

Risking lives

But, harvesting is becoming increasingly complicated. In the jungles of Guatemala, the Xaté palm is often over-harvested with the result that it's been wiped out in many areas.

The "xateros," as the Xaté hunters are called, often slip over to the neighboring country of Belize to look for the precious palm. Crossing the border, which runs in a straight line right through a huge forest area, is easy. There are no border fences or controls.The xateros, who have lived here for decades, know the jungle like the back of their hand.

Xate Palms (Photo source: Helle Jeppesen)
The Xaté palm is being over-harvested in GuatemalaImage: DW/H. Jeppesen

"They have become increasingly professional in recent years," Rafael Manzanero says. The director of the organization #link:http://fcdbelize.org/ :Friends for Conservation and Development# works to preserve the Chiquibul national park in Belize. It's located in the same forest region through which the border to Guatemala runs.

"It's quite impressive, how fearlessly the xateros operate in the jungle," Manzanero adds. They come armed in groups and have horses with them to transport the leaves, he explains. Increasingly, children are also part of the smuggling groups because they are small and agile and can easily make their way through the thick forest.

"It's a bizarre situation," Manzanero says. "On photos that we took with hidden cameras, you can see xateros working even in the middle of the night. It's dangerous being in the jungle in the dark. But the xateros are just not scared." There's now a wide network of paths through the entire primeval forest area.

Far-reaching damage

The unchecked illegal harvesting of the plants has far-reaching ramifications. "The human footprint that the xateros leave behind includes a lot of other things," Manzanero says.

That's because it's not just Xaté that the poachers take with them. When they stay in the forest for weeks at a time, they only a spend a part of their time looking for Xaté leaves. They also uproot protected wood or dig for artifacts in the Maya ruins or hunt for endangered animals such as the Central American tapir.

But Rafael Manzanero is not giving up the fight to protect the forest. Together with other groups from Guatemala, he's setting up new projects. His staff regularly heads out to the jungle to track the xateros and monitor the palm population. But, they increasingly find abandoned camps, heaps of rubbish and ever fewer Xaté.

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