It’s been brought to my attention that I haven’t given readers much of a sense of Belize, nor of the broader context of oil exploration here. Well, here is a start.
Belize is anomalous in Central America: It’s the only English-speaking country in the region, it’s much less densely populated than any of the others, it’s only 30 years old, and it has a relatively peaceful history. With the stronger presence of people and music of the African Diaspora, Belize can feel more like the Caribbean than Central America. Because it’s cheaper than Caribbean islands, Anglophone, relatively safe, and in possession of the world’s second largest barrier reef, it’s full of American tourists.
Now Toledo, the southernmost of the country’s six districts, is anomalous in Belize. There are lots of Americans here, but they’re more likely volunteers, missionaries or academics than tourists. The district’s population is 70% Maya, compared with 11% for the country overall. Mayans as a whole are much poorer than other groups in Belize, so it’s no surprise that Toledo is by far the poorest district in the country. Almost half of the district’s population lives in poverty, and more than a third lives in severe poverty (households that spend less than the minimum cost of a food basket), according to the 2009 Country Poverty Assessment.
It might seem odd that, while still the worst off, Toledo was the only district that did not see an increase in poverty between 2002 and 2009. That can be explained by the fact that agriculture makes up almost 50 percent of the economy – much more than any other district, and many Toledo residents are subsistence fishermen and farmers, so they are far less vulnerable to economic slowdown elsewhere. By contrast, the ailing global economy dragged down districts heavily dependent on textiles (where 74 percent of jobs were lost), oil extraction (where 48 percent of jobs were lost), tourism, and large-scale fishing and citrus.
Toledo is instead dependent on the environment, which means it’s more vulnerable to hurricanes, global warming, and… you got it: oil spills.
As I mentioned in previous blogs, US Capital Energy, a private US-based oil company, has been conducting seismic tests in the Sarstoon Temash National Park, Belize’s second largest national park, which lies in the deep south and is bordered by five indigenous ‘buffer’ communities – four Mayan and one Garifuna. The poverty of these communities, combined with their close dependence on the park, makes them particularly vulnerable to actions of the oil company there.
First, there’s the education problem: The buffer communities are remote, largely Q’eqchi speaking, and seldom reached by news and information about, say, issues relating to environmental protection, indigenous rights, and the demonstrated consequences of drilling.
Second, we all know that poverty reduces choice. When you’re hungry, you open your arms to promises, however shady, of jobs and development. While many residents oppose drilling in the Park, others either welcome it or would rather keep quiet.
Finally, any environmental impact of drilling will be that much more deeply felt by subsistence communities with a close and traditional relationship with the land, water, flora and fauna.
The buffer communities should be the ones to protect these resources because they know their value. And they do. SATIIM is the only entity to provide rangers (one from each community) to conduct regular patrols by land and water of the 42,000-acre park. Unfortunately, the organization is too often short on funds to pay the rangers or keep them supplied with the necessary fuel and equipment. But they’ve pulled together the funds for a three-day expedition next week. And I get to tag along!
I’m to head out by boat this morning (Monday) from Punta Gorda with four SATIIM park rangers, as well as personnel from the Belize Defence Forces, to patrol the Park, looking out for illegal activity (logging or thieving orchids, iguanas, etc.) and survey the seismic lines US Capital Energy cut across the Sarstoon and Temash rivers. I look forward to telling you about it on my return, Dear Readers, as well as my ongoing adventures in Mayan quilting…
Posted By Amy Bracken
Posted Jul 25th, 2011