Belize City, the commercial capital, is said to have been built on empty rum bottles discarded by the British pirates who used to launch their attacks on Spanish ships from behind the shelter of Belize’s 300-kilometre-long coral reef. When Britain outlawed their trade, the pirates imported African slaves from Jamaica and began harvesting logwood, mahogany and cedar, all the while working further inland. The indigenous Mayan population resisted as swathes of their lands were lost to these settlers, but irreversible change had begun. Nominal Spanish rule ended in the 1840s when the territory became the colony of British Honduras.
Poor forest management ended the logging trade prematurely and from the 1950s sugar, citrus and bananas became the dominant crops, with preferential access to UK ( and now to European and US) markets. These industries help bring in the foreign dollars to pay Belize’s ever-increasing import bill, but the main earner now is tourism.
Belize is a renowned eco-tourist destination for ‘reef and rainforest’ holidays. Along with the reef, Belize has abundant wildlife with monkeys, jaguars, toucans and the jabiru stork amongst the highlights. Tourism has come at a cost though, including damage to the reef, adding to that from pollution and global warming. Belize is also in the hurricane belt with regular hurricane scares and the occasional big hit.
Despite the natural beauty there are growing social pressures – among the problems being tackled by a government heavily reliant on external help are poverty, the highest rate of HIV infection in Central America and violent street crime associated with gang culture.
KEVIN SCHAFER / STILL
Culturally Belize is a very diverse nation resulting from successive waves of immigration. The sugar industry in the north is dominated by descendants of _mestizos_ who fled the Caste Wars in Mexico’s Yucatan in the late 1800s. Sugar is the most equitable of Belize’s cash crops with many small farms. The banana and citrus industries in the south are controlled by a handful of large landowners and rely on labour from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, many of whom first arrived fleeing civil war. Adding further cultural colour, a large Mennonite community arrived from Mexico in the 1950s.
Belize has a reputation for stretching the limits of free enterprise. As well as the pirates, enterprising Belizeans have sold fuel to German U-boats, alcohol into prohibition America or shipped drugs from Colombia. Belize is now promoting itself as a base for online gambling.
Before the pirates, Belize was part of the Mayan civilization which covered much of Mexico and Central America. There were once over a million Maya in Belize but overpopulation and subsequent environmental collapse meant that numbers had declined dramatically by the time the first Europeans pitched up.
There is now something of a Maya renaissance with a Maya-language radio station in Toledo. The other descendants of the region’s indigenous peoples, the Garifuna (or ‘Black Caribs’) are concentrated in southern coastal towns. The way of life of both the Maya and Garifuna is under threat, with new roads opening up the south and subsequent increases in rural tourism and industry.
Politics is dominated by the United Democratic Party (UDP) and the People’s United Party (PUP). The PUP took Belize to independence in September 1981. Independence lagged other independence movements as Belizean territory was claimed by Guatemala and continued British involvement was a useful deterrent to Guatemalan invasion. Britain retains an army presence in the country, with a jungle training base.
Political power changed hands at each election from independence until 2003 when Said Musa repeated his 1998 election triumph. Musa’s PUP is probably more socially inclusive and more ready to embrace Belize’s Central American reality than the UDP, which is the party of the English-speaking creole, ever suspicious of the latinization of the country.