Day 1 in Punta Gorda
I chose to fly to Punta Gorda from Belize City on Wednesday to avoid the car sickness I assumed I’d get on the eight-hour bus ride. But the turbulence and multiple stop-overs and high heat must have had me glowing purple through the sweat that poured down my face. The man seated next to me assured me that where I was going there would be plenty of water to jump into for relief.
That was Wil Maheia, an organic farmer who grows cacao for the super high-end chocolate bar maker Vosges. Maheia is also the founder of TIDE (Toledo Institute for Development and Environment), one of the main environmental groups in the area, and he runs PGTV, the only local TV station, whose focus is environmental issues. He pointed out the window to recent clear-cuts and abandoned shrimp farms.
Maheia seems to be involved in everything – I later saw an ‘elect Wil Maheia’ T-shirt (he heads a political party, but I don’t know what he ran for) – but he also seems to be fairly typical. His outgoing voicemail message says, “I’m either farming or fishing.” Most of the people I’ve met farm (organically, they’ll have you know) and/or fish – in addition to something else, like running a restaurant, renting out cabins, or working for an environmental organization.
Tommy, aka ‘King,’ (he didn’t want to share his last name) is the other person I met shortly after arriving. He lives next door to Nature’s Way Guest House, where I’m staying, and across the street from SATIIM. He makes jewelry and other objects from what he finds in the forest, and he’s building a wooden bus stop outside his house. He also has an organic farm and is hoping to rent out some rustic cabins.
See video of arrival and chat with King:
King touched on something that SATIIM director Gregory Ch’oc has emphasized: that people need to be better educated about the national park and what oil drilling there would mean. This is particularly an issue for people living in local indigenous villages, Ch’oc says, for two major reasons:
First, for many in these villages, establishment of a park meant a major infringement by the government on their autonomy and their relationship with the land. Suddenly, people weren’t allowed to hunt, fish, and forage for medicinal plants as they had for generations. To them, a national park meant a land grab rather than land protection – an understandable interpretation, particularly given the government’s interest now in oil drilling there. But to Ch’oc and SATIIM, villagers should see the potential of the park status as a way of protecting themselves and their land from an oil company that could poison their environment while providing little compensation.
Second, growing poverty and strains on agricultural production – in part attributed to climate change – mean a greater willingness to accept anything if it comes with promises of jobs or economic development. Ch’oc is concerned about protecting people from false promises and a lack of information on the likely consequences of drilling, while SATIIM works to help communities with sustainable development projects.
Education of remote Q’eqchi-speaking communities that have no access to media will mean sending people out to talk to villagers. It’s a big job that will require a lot of money – for gas for transport and for payment of outreach workers. And it needs to happen soon, with a referendum on drilling in the park going up for a vote soon, and with a government statement lingering in the air that drilling should start in August.
Posted By Amy Bracken
Posted Jun 20th, 2011