June 13, 2013
In comparison to many of its neighbors in Central America and the
Caribbean, Belize has pursued a very effective and comprehensive policy
of conservation in order to capitalize on the growing segment of
eco-tourism. However, given the stresses of economic development, Belize
is facing a difficult balancing act when it comes to determining the
limits of environmental and cultural conservation.
Like most Caribbean countries, Belize is burdened with extremely
high-energy costs—yet it was expected that this would change when Belize
discovered deposits of oil in 2005. This recent discovery of oil has
sparked a debate about the future of Belize’s economic development.
Earlier this year, the Belizean court stopped government plans
to begin contract offshore oil deposits to inexperienced companies in
the Meso American Reef—the world’s second largest barrier reef and a
World Heritage Site. Due to the devastation brought by the BP oil spill
in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the decision to drill within such an
ecologically sensitive and important zone was regarded as highly
controversial within Belize. The court case resulted from the work of
conservation organizations sparking a “people’s referendum” in which 96%
of those who participated voted against offshore drilling.
The desire of Belize’s people to protect their environment in spite
of official government policy could be seen with the seaside village of
Placencia voting against the construction of a cruise ship port which
would see ships carrying 3,000 passengers arrive weekly. The Placencia
Tour Operators Association voted in 2010 to block the development, stating that
it would result in “adverse effects on the area's fragile marine and
inland environments such as coral reefs and fish and bird habitats.”
Furthermore, cruise ship passengers were regarded as undermining
Placencia’s overnight tourism industry and its many small businesses.
Despite the local opposition, Belize’s Prime Minister, Dean Barrow,
recently remarked that
local communities (it is estimated that 60% of the population are
classified as living in poverty) should consider the economic benefits
of constructing a port for mass cruise tourism.
Despite these important victories, not all efforts to protect
important sites have been positive. The latest example of economic
development undermining Belize’s cultural heritage could be seen with
the bulldozing of the 100-foot tall Mayan pyramid located in the Nohmul
complex which is over 2300 years old. The pyramid was bulldozed as
filler for a new road in the northern part of Belize.
Under the law, all Mayan pyramids in Belize are protected, yet it
appears that the incident at Nohmul was not the only instance. Norman
Hammond, a professor of archaeology at Boston University remarked that
“bulldozing Maya mounds for road fill is an endemic problem in Belize
(the whole of the San Estevan center has gone, both of the major
pyramids at Louisville, other structures at Nohmul, many smaller sites),
but this sounds like the biggest yet.” It has been reported that a
criminal investigation is underway and charges may be laid against the
construction company. Meanwhile, the political opposition has argued that
the construction of the road into northern Belize was poorly planned
but carried out on government orders to gain support from the region.
While it appears that the people of Belize have often been the
catalyst for conservation in spite of recent government policy, it
remains to be seen how long this can continue. The people of Belize
realize that the conservation of the environment will provide
opportunities for the long term despite the pressures of foreign
investors, and the government seems intent on undermining the ecological
and cultural treasures of Belize for short-term economic profit. It can
only be hoped that other nations in the region become inspired by the
example set by the people of Belize in rejecting mass tourism in favor
of smaller scale but more sustainable model.