Chamaedorea is the largest palm genus in the Central American Region (Henderson et al. 1995) and according to the IUCN, an estimated 75% of the species are threatened. In Belize, there are 12 reported species of which three are the most favored in the floral industry being Chamaedorea elegans, C. ernesti augustii and C. oblongata; of which the latter two species are known to be of high relative abundance in the Chiquibul Forest.
As a non-timber forest product (NTFP), Xaté (Chamaedorea spp.) has gained economic importance in Central America (Bridgewater et al. 2006). The leaves of these species (C. elegans, C. ernesti-augusti, C. oblongata), are harvested and exported for the international floral industry. The combination of over-harvesting and habitat loss have led to populations in this region becoming progressively vulnerable (Garwood et al. 2006; Porter-Morgan 2005). Unsustainable harvesting may lead to target species local extinction. Wicks (2004) and Morgan (2005) indicate that wild xaté plants produce 1 to 2 new leaves per year. These findings are also in accord with those of Endress et al. (2006, 2004a), suggesting that harvesting frequency and intensity need to be regulated giving time for harvested plants to recuperate. Porter-Morgan (2007), suggests that overharvesting of plants drastically reduce their reproductive capacity, while others may argue that cutting leaves from plants may create stress, inducing plants to increase leaf production (Endress et al. 2004a, b), but if leaf extraction is frequent and intense it may lead to high plant mortality, reduce plant growth and reduce its reproductive capacity (Endress et al. 2006).
The Chiquibul Forest shares 45 kilometers of international border with Petén, Guatemala. Satellite imagery shows that forest cover in Guatemala is highly fragmented while in Belize the Chiquibul Forest appears intact. As a result many Guatemalans have been illegally harvesting xaté leaves form the area which has the greatest potential economic value for xaté in Belize (Bridgewater et al. 2006). Illegal xaté harvesting in the Chiquibul Forest has been reported since the early 1970s. Since then “xatero” (individuals that harvest xaté leaves) activity has increased, leading to an evident dense trail network specifically for the activity. As a result illegal xate extraction is a threat to the Chiquibul biodiversity, thus the objectives of the study were: i) to determine xaté population abundance and density within the Chiquibul forest, ii) to estimate the gross economic value of illegally harvested Xaté and iii) to calculate the productive capacity of xaté populations (by species) within the Chiquibul Forest.