by Julio Saqui and Mardi Collins
Belize is a small country with a large heart and love of nature. Fortunately, a great deal of Belize is set aside to preserve the county’s extraordinary biodiversity, unlike neighboring countries which have significant deforestation. Some 25 parks, reserves or protected marine areas have been set aside for Belizeans and the tourists who hold Belize as a top destination for rain forest or coral (reef) exploration. Today, approximately 40% of the land mass is protected, maintaining homes for Belize wildlife like the tapir, the toucan, the jaguar and many other animal and plant species.
Belize is especially proud of the conservation efforts to protect the jaguar. After a campaign that began in 1974 by the Belizean government, the arrival of US wildlife researcher Alan Rabinowitz in1982 sealed the fate of the Cockscomb basin as a jaguar reserve. It was established to protect the forests, fauna and watersheds of approximately 400 square kilometres of the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains. The reserve was founded in 1990 as the first wilderness sanctuary for the Jaguar (Panthera onca) and is regarded as a premier site for Jaguar preservation in the world.
However, the jaguar had another neighbour that was not protected, and that is the Maya people, who represent approximately 13% of the population. It is believed that they inhabited the Cockscomb Basin area as early as 10,000BC. For centuries, they lived in harmony in the rainforests of Central American and Mexico. The civilizations built monumental pyramids, invented their own calendar, a unique writing system and were experts in astronomy. But what contributed to the extinction of the ancient Mayan civilization? The traditional Maya way of life and its culture has been largely lost in Mexico, Guatemala, and northern Belize. Archeological drill cores from the Blue Hole in Belize suggest that an extensive drought period might have been the cause for the loss of the majority of the Mayan civilization. The drought theory is not new but in 2012 samples from a 2,000 year old stalagmite also showed that a drought had affected this Belizean region around the 7th to 10th centuries.
There remains a pocket of Maya villages in central and southern Belize that still live in traditional housing and practice much of their historic culture. But this is being threatened by several factors, and equitable access to land is among the most important. Consider Maya Center, an exclusively Mayan community- the gateway to the Jaguar reserve. It was formed as Maya people living in the reserve and the general area were instructed to form a village on the highway leading to the park. It was felt at the time by jaguar researchers that the presence of humans in this reserve would disrupt the jaguar.
Regrettably, no one considered how the move would disrupt the Maya people! They were forbidden to harvest food, medicines and shelter from the reserve, as they had been doing for centuries. Land between the village and reserve was left in natural rain forest, but it was privately held by wealthy Belizeans. They have gradually sold the thousands of acres to commercial interests who have replaced the rain forest with farming or exclusive housing projects for foreigners, alienating the Maya from their very own land, their fundamental source of survival, disrupting their daily lives, placing their foundation of survival in great uncertainty.
The last remaining 900 acres of adjacent rain forest was burned in 2014 and the Maya people are now forbidden to enter these lands for any purpose. The result for the families of Maya Center has been and will continue to be disastrous. What is not realized by the government of Belize, is that as the jaguar need the rain forest for survival, so too do the Maya people. The Maya people are now becoming an endangered SPECIES too, just that they do not have more rights than the jaguar or the few wealthy, making them cheap labourers, a situation crafted for them to fall into and accept if they want to survive!
The Maya people in Belize are masters of the rain forest. In it they hunt and fish, harvest vegetables, medicines, herbs and water. It is the source of their fuel, their home- the thatch roof, the poles and wood that forms the walls. Local rivers provide their drinking water, fish, and are used for bathing and laundry. For Maya, the rain forest is everything they need for subsistence survival, and is their life blood.
Economic surveys have repeatedly shown that the Maya for many reasons are at the bottom of the economic ladder in Belize. In one survey, Toledo district, where the majority of Maya live, had the highest incidence of individual poverty (57.6%) and the largest poverty gap (21.8%) in the country. 2 In the area of Maya Center, men are paid Bz$25-30/day for labor in the agricultural sector, which confines them to economic slavery. (or is less than a living wage)
Despite the lack of employment opportunities and access to fair wages, the economic state of the Maya people did not make them the poorest in the nation, when they had access to the rainforest. This access provided a significant subsidy to their life style. However, if this access to the source of life is denied, the Maya people must now pay for fuel, building materials, medicines, vegetables, meat and fish. Maya men typically will have only part time employment at the paltry US$12-15/day. So clearly the additional expense of building materials, fuel and medicine alone is crushing. With the limited employment and unfair compensation, abject poverty is the only likely result.
It is imperative that the Maya people and the Government of Belize review this challenge and agree on an equitable solution. Lands around existing villages need to be protected by the government for all cultures, in order to continue to provide reasonable housing. It is particularly important for Maya people. Even allowing acreage for small milpas will not provide the masterful subsidy of the rainforest to the Maya people. Allowing them access to protected rainforest for the purpose of sustainable harvest will make a significant contribution to their health and welfare at no cost to the government. This access to plants, building materials and fuel can be done with no harm to the rain forest. After all, the Maya have been guardians of the rain forest for centuries. Because they did such a good job, we forgot to tell them THANKS; instead, we are depriving them of what is rightfully theirs!
The Mayan people have managed the land in an environmentally sound manner for generations. An important and valuable source of knowledge about the natural world and how to manage it in a sustainable manner is lost when Mayan people are excluded from conservation projects. To be sure, these people rely on the natural world for the plants and animals they need to live full, productive lives. Like other peoples, they must develop and manage their territories to produce food, shelter, clothing and the other necessities of life. Mayan people have been practicing sustainable development for hundreds of years before that term became fashionable in the environmental community. It is because these people are tired to the earth in this life-sustaining way that they are responsible managers of natural areas. Mayan management of natural areas, based on reverence and respect for land and natural resources, has contributed to the conservation of thousands of acres of biodiverse environments in Belize and throughout the world. As they work to strengthen natural resource protection for their homeland, the Maya of Belize are carrying forward this proud tradition for their future generations
- Katherine M. Emmons et al., Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Producciones de la Hamaca, Belize and Orang-utan Press, Gays Mills, Wisconsin, USA (1996)
- Report #495 June 2002 Poverty Assessment Report – Belize Submitted to the Caribbean Development Bank. Submitted By Kairi Consultants Ltd. In Association with the National Assessment Team of St. Belize (http://ambergriscaye.com/Bzlibrary/Trust495.Html)
Julio A. Saqui is a Mayan advocate who lives in Maya Center. He directs the Maya Center Mayan Museum and produces Che’il Mayan Chocolate. He also provides tours and educational sessions of the Maya Center region and the Cockscomb Jaguar Park.
Mardi Collins is a resident of Sittee River in Belize and has a great interest in the Mayan culture and history. She is a veterinarian with a degree from Texas A&M University and has lived in Belize for 7 years. She is originally from Canada.
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Belize Mayan Ruins
Belize Mayan Ruins