ON Cathy Traykovski's 50th birthday, her family and friends gave her a very special gift of her own choosing. They bought 26 acres of lush, tropical forest in northwest Belize - home to the towering mahogany tree, the sleek, spotted jaguar, a thousand species of butterflies, and almost as many birds. Many of that Central American nation's songbirds fly north to nest in the United States each summer. Some, like the pirouetting American redstart or the melodious wood thrush, might even turn up in Mrs. Traykovski's corner of the Northeast, perhaps in her own backyard - Manhattan's Central Park. That's just one reason she asked her friends to purchase the land.
At $50 an acre, most Americans can readily invest in tropical wilderness, and she hopes they will. ``It's a great gift idea,'' she says.
Traykovski has already visited those forested acres, walked through them and rejoiced in them, and plans to do so again. But they are hers to enjoy and no more. She doesn't own them in the usual sense of the word. She'll never be able to sell at a profit.
It was precisely to stop profiteering through the indiscriminate exploitation and possible destruction of the forest that she acquired her parcel of land in the first place.
Traykovski's land was purchased through the Programme for Belize project. The acreage is endowed in the name of conservation to the people of Belize forever.
Administered by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Programme for Belize is supported by a consortium of international organizations, including conservation groups within Belize itself. With some help from major corporations and foundations, but mostly through $50-an-acre investments by individuals, the group is in the process of buying 110,000 acres to add to the 42,000 given by Coca-Cola Foods and some additional acreage by a private landowner, to establish a preserve. It is also working with the Belize government to establish a multiple-use management plan for the nation.
The program came into being after Massachusetts Audubon was called upon to assist the all-volunteer Belize Audubon Society a few years back.
``That's when we realized what a unique opportunity existed there to mount a preservation campaign,'' says Massachusetts Audubon vice-president Jim Baird.
In fact, the entire nation is now being viewed as a conservation project, not in terms of preventing development, but in devising ecologically appropriate plans that provide for sustained yields.
As Mr. Baird points out: ``You can't walk into a third-world country and ask people to simply lock up their forests. They're too poor for that. Conservation plans have to include the ability to make money.'' So current plans involve selective logging, the tapping of chicle (the natural base for chewing gum), cacao harvesting, and the careful development of tourism, among other activities.
Belize, known as British Honduras until independence in 1964, is in many ways ideally placed for conservationists and caring developers to work in tandem to develop the as yet largely unspoiled country.
Arnold Brown, a Massachusetts businessman and conservationist, appointed two years ago to head the Programme for Belize, lists the country's many advantages. Belize is:
Small and manageable. With 8,800 or so square miles, it's roughly the size of New Hampshire. The country also has a long tradition of stable democratic government.
Rich in natural beauty. Tropical forest, teeming with wildlife, covers 70 percent of the countryside.
Moderately populated. Of its 170,000 people, 90 percent are literate. ``The real beauty of the situation,'' says Mr. Brown, ``is that conserving the natural resources in this way is always in the best interests of any country, and Belizians recognize this.''
The Programme for Belize is also initiating several educational projects and creative opportunities for investors, who understand the long-term needs and objectives of the country.
All this has won the support of the Belize government, in particular the minister for agriculture, Dean Lindo. Once highly suspicious of conservationists, he sees many advantages, including the development of new skills and increased employment for local Belizians coming from the program.
Meanwhile a British chapter of the Programme for Belize has just been inaugurated, and financial support is also coming in from other countries in Europe.
There are many places in the world that need help, ``so it is important to focus on those with a realistic chance of achieving something of lasting value,'' he contends.
Belize is such a place. And people like Traykovski are making it come about.
For further information write: Programme for Belize, PO Box 385 X, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.