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new internationalist
issue 242 - April 1993

Country profile: Belize

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Belize, formerly British Honduras, is the only English-speaking country in Central America. It was originally inhabited by Maya indians in settlements away from the swampy coast, which is unfit for agriculture. British pirates established a coastal toehold in what was then called 'New Spain'.

The pirates were commissioned by Britain to harass Spanish shipping. But after the 1670 Treaty of Madrid, they settled on the coast and imported African slave labour to harvest logwood. Before long slaves made up the majority of the population. After the abolition of slavery, Europeans encouraged them to continue cutting logs and think of farming as suitable only for Indians. As a result Belize still has to import much of its food, despite the existence of some active Mennonite farming communities.

After the collapse of the logwood markets, the country turned to sugar production. But in the 1980s prices fell. Cane farmers sought alternative cash crops and found marijuana - one commodity whose value hadn't diminished. Marijuana brought a little prosperity to northern Belize, but it also attracted government action to curtail the trade.

The main town, Belize City, is not a pleasant place, with a high crime rate and open sewers running along streets. Poverty is extreme and even luxury areas look shoddy. Most tourists quickly make for either the Maya sites inland or the congenial coral reefs off the Cayes islands.

Because of the lack of employment many young adults emigrate. The community has been affected by the drugs trade which smuggles cocaine through Belize.

As Belizians leave, Spanish-speaking refugees and immigrants come in. Locals complain that the newcomers don't try to integrate, and tempers flare. But many Central American refugees are campesinos whose farming skills are needed in the country. Asians bring development capital, some of which is funding the current construction boom in Belize City.

One of Belize's greatest resources is its tropical rainforest. Despite land purchases by companies including Coca Cola, much of the forest is intact. Belize needs its own cheap energy but oil prospecting and hydro-electric power schemes threaten to destroy wildlife and forest areas.

Eco-tourism poses another threat to the environment. As certain Maya sites become more popular, they are made more accessible. Along the river route to Laminae for instance, wildlife and cactus-vines wrapped about trees like snakes are a spectacular draw for tourists. But if resorts and large riverboats are built, the increase in people will damage the very attractions the visitors seek.

Belize has been independent for 11 years and clearly needs continued foreign support. The most visible British contribution is some troops and jets - the legacy of years of territorial wrangling with Guatemala which may now be over.

Rick McDaniel


LEADER: Prime Minister George Price

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $1,970 (US $21,790)
Monetary unit Belize dollar
Main exports: Sugar, citrus pulp, clothing, bananas and fish products.
Main imports: Machinery, food, manufactured goods, fuel, chemicals. In agriculture, emphasis switched to bananas and citrus fruits as sugar production fell. Other export crops are winter vegetables, papayas, mangoes and cocoa. Local foods grown include rice, maize/corn, roots, beans and vegetables. Some dairying and fishing (lobsters, conch and shrimp). Tourism is expanding.

PEOPLE: 194,000

HEALTH: Infant mortality 23 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000).

CULTURE: Maya civilization flourished until around 1,000 AD. British colony from 1884. In 1981 became an independent state within the Commonwealth. Majority Afro-Belizian population; also Mayan Indians, Hispanics and Asians.
Religion: Christian (including Mennonite) and local religions.
Languages: English, Spanish and local languages.

Sources: The State of the World's Children 1993 and The Americas Review 1991/92.

Last profiled in February 1985


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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Disparity between employed and jobless

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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Official figure is 93% but estimates nearer 65%.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Export crops vulnerable; need to import food and fuel.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Universal adult suffrage; press freedom.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Can vote. Most jobs go to men.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
68 years (US 76 years).

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Politics now

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Centre right; President has executive power.

NI star rating

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