Special Series: Fast Forward
Holding on to Paradise
By Alexa Dvorson
Countless millennia before the ancient Maya rose to the heights of their mysterious civilization, the land that is now Belize teemed with jaguars, howler monkeys, harpy eagles, toucans and tapirs — large hog-like creatures with long, wiggly snouts.
As Central America’s youngest nation marks thirty-five years of independence this month, the good news is that these wild creatures are still around. But they’re endangered. The country formerly known as British Honduras stands on a cusp of development that will either protect crucial wildlife habitat or gradually lose it to wide-scale agriculture.
Today’s descendants of the early Mayans make up part of Belize’s vibrant ethnic mosaic that includes Creoles, Mestizos and Garifuna. Regardless of their background, people have strong ties to the land, referring to their country as “the jewel.”
“To be Belizean is very special because it’s a nationality that evolved out of our colonial heritage,” said Philip Balderamos, a life-long conservationist. He believes the Belizean identity forged during the transition to independence is infused with environmental stewardship, and he’s committed to passing that on to the next generation.
“It’s not enough to do the right thing,” Balderamos said, “and carry the torch of knowledge and appreciation of Belize’s natural resources.” He wants the message of balanced development conveyed to newcomers: “You are welcome, but we also would like you to do things in an ecologically sound and sustainable fashion.”
That’s a message worth spreading fast, many say, because land changes hands frequently here, and these days it’s unaffordable for most Belizeans. Those who still own it are sometimes pressed to sell it for quantities of cash they’ve never seen before.
Nearly a quarter of the population earns a livelihood connected with the tourist industry, so the current growth in ecotourism is a welcome trend. But a combination of domestic and external pressures — poverty, unemployment, foreign debt, and the lure of overseas investors who say they can boost Belize’s economy — diminish the country’s best chances to sustain the country’s dazzling biodiversity.
Offshore, the world’s second longest barrier reef supports over five hundred species of fish. On land, nature lovers can delight in 570 species of birds, and even more species of butterflies, including the blue morpho (Morpho peleides), whose bright wings evoke stained-glass windows framing a sapphire sky.
Nestled on the Caribbean coast, east of Guatemala and south of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Belize has one of the lowest population densities in the hemisphere: fewer than 400,000 citizens across 23,000 square kilometers.
While over a quarter of the country has officially protected status, community-based land management offers a unique approach to conservation that’s catching on in other parts of Belize. One of the oldest examples is the Community Baboon Sanctuary in the geographical center of the country (baboons are the Creole name for howler monkeys). Initiated in 1985, this voluntary grassroots effort helps sustain howler habitat while supporting local economic development.
But the prospect of clearing more land for agriculture in the surrounding region, the Central Belize Corridor, could create a bottleneck for other wildlife populations, such as jaguar, puma and white-lipped peccary, as they move between protected areas in the north and south of the country. And that spells a threat not just to the animals, but also to the Belizean way of life, according to Professor Elma Kay, director of Terrestrial Programs at the University of Belize’s Environmental Research Institute.
“If you start selling that land, you’re not resilient anymore,” she warned, referring to the irreversible impacts of cattle farming, citrus or sugar cane plantations. When water and soil quality suffer as a result, she added, so does everything else.
“The day you stop fishing and then you’re landless, what do you do, what options do you have?” she asked. “You have to go buy from that same person you sold your land to.”
Given the gentle coast, jungle caves, Mayan temples, and forested mountains, it’s no wonder that both locals and visitors refer to Belize as paradise. Bart Harmsen, a Dutch wildlife biologist, wears both hats. He came to Belize twelve years ago to research his doctorate on jaguar ecology, then stayed on to teach at the university. An ardent proponent of habitat protection, he’s wary of false promises that come with commercial agriculture.
“Somebody from the outside can throw Peter Pan dust in people’s eyes,” he said, as a way to convince them that their grandchildren will prosper in lavish concrete houses and drive big trucks. “Then they realize the job they get will only last ten months.”
He and like-minded locals would rather see a different kind of investment in Belize — one that fosters environmental integrity by establishing reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, or ecolodges.
That’s what Matthew Miller did after leaving the U.S. for a Peace Corps posting in Belize nearly three decades ago. When the assignment ended, he established the Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on over a thousand acres of private land. Inspired by the Natural History Field Quarter at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he founded a study-abroad program that also trains locals in field monitoring and land management.
“With all the pressure on Belize to develop its soils, forests, fisheries, and to earn foreign exchange, there’s a lot of learning that needs to go on here,” he said. “By investing in conservation, a recognition of biodiversity as Belize’s capital in the bank is the key to the country’s future on a sustainable path.”
Smitten as Miller was by the flora and fauna, along with the underwater wonders of the barrier reef, it was the people who drew him in the most, and he now feels more at home in the Sibun River watershed, where the sanctuary is situated, than in his native Georgia.
Belizeans are “incredibly friendly, open and authentic,” Miller said. “People accept one another for who they are without looking at the color of your skin or your class. It’s just a straight-up, one-on-one relationship here.”
That’s a far cry from the piracy, slavery and colonial exploitation that marked the centuries before Belizean independence, when much of the land’s mahogany was taken out. Today’s revenue from ecotourism holds great promise, but it challenges those in power to make tough choices.
“I hope I’ll be speaking to you in five to ten years’ time to say, ‘It actually happened, they made the right decision,’” said Harmsen, the wildlife biologist. “We’ll see.”
Fast Forward: Stories of Challenge & Change is produced with the generous support of the Government of Canada, the Social Justice Fund of Unifor and the Community Radio Fund of Canada. Alexa Dvorson is a Berlin-based documentarist. Special thanks to the staff at Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, and Professor Ken Norris (in memorium). Lead image: Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. All photo credits: Alexa Dvorson. “For a Few Dollars More” sung by Leroy Young. Thanks to Roger Dumas for his wonderful human brain ‘sonifications’, one of which appears in Fast Forward intros/extros. For more information about Roger’s Pieces of Mind CD, go here.