by Richard Wilk
Belize is a lot more than a physical place full of real people going about their daily lives. If you read the websites and plans from developers and real estate operators, you will find that Belize is also a fantasy landscape, a place where rich foreigners project their dreams of tropical paradise, easy money, and endless opportunity.
Forty two (42) years ago when I first came to this wild country, rich hunters from the USA still came to Belize to kill jaguars and crocodiles, living their macho dreams about the untouched tropical jungles full of mystery and danger. In the 1980s when rich foreigners saw the low price of land in Belize, they dreamt of huge herds of cattle grazing lush pastures. Several cleared huge areas – as much as 12,000 acres – were stages for a cattle baron and cowboy fantasy. Of course the pastures grew back full of thorny honey locust, the cattle got screwworms, and the price of beef dropped to the floor. Over the years foreigners have tried hundreds of other fantastic schemes; cohune-oil refineries, shrimp hatcheries, iguana, conch and crocodile farms, organic mango orchards and every imaginable kind of resort, hotel, and lodge. Poke through the bush almost anywhere in Belize and you will find the ruins left behind when these dreams collapsed. Abandoned buildings, development and streets, rotting refineries, rusting vehicles, and overgrown fences. Of course many of these developments were simply scams, but those who fall for scams are usually motivated by dreams powerful enough to make them throw caution to the wind.
In the long run, most of these ruined dream projects probably did little permanent damage to Belize, and they spent money that sometimes ended up in Belizean pockets. But in this new century the scale of tropical dreams has gone haywire. We should have seen this coming back in the 1970s when Caye Chapel, a mangrove islet, was turned into a golf course, airstrip, marina and resort by dredging and filling. That kind of island makeover has now become commonplace, even in world heritage sites and national parks. Perhaps one or two island makeovers do no permanent damage to the coastal marine environment, but a few dozen really do. The own-your-own-island fantasy seems to be spreading, and no caye is safe.
Now that Belize has attracted the attention of movie stars and billionaires, the scale of the dreams has ramped up to the level of nightmare horror stories. Ara Macao, for example, was first envisioned as a Mediterranean style whitewashed tile-roofed beach community with 10,000 residents at Riversdale in the Stann Creek district. Where would water come from? Where would the waste go? Or take a look at the scale of the Copal Beach development on the Placencia peninsula; even though construction has been stalled for the last two years, the website still offers luxury condos, “an elegant casino, private Beach Club, gourmet restaurant, upscale gym and a destination spa. The same company envisions a “Panther Village” nearby hosting an 18-hole golf course and “private enclaves of eco-luxe condos and estate lots.”
On the fragile atoll of lighthouse reef we now see “dueling dreams” with two different megalomaniac resort fantasies; Puerto Azul Luxury Resort with its Formula One racetrack and international airport which actually overlaps the slightly-less-absurd Zophora resort community plan. Look at the online plans for Sanctuary Belize near Sittee River, where building the “Eco-Sensitive World Class Marina Community” has completely refashioned the shoreline and Sapodilla Lagoon, once a sheltered habitat for manatees. The addition of solar panels and composting septic systems to a resort development does not make it “sustainable.” This is like the “energy-efficient” 55-inch TV set or hybrid Chevy Suburban, just an attempt to feel less guilty about luxury.
One or two mega-dream resorts on the Belize coast are probably not going to cause an ecological catastrophe (though the green algae bloom in 2012 was probably a warning sign). But just like the problem with filling-in and dredging mangrove cays, mega resort dreams (or shrimp farms for that matter) build on each other, and there seems to be no end to the supply of rich dreamers who think Belize is a blank canvas where one more development will not matter.
I know that we have coastal development planning in Belize, but how can we expect politicians or local organizations to stand up to the influence and power of big money? Who is going to enforce environmental regulations and be responsible for driving rich investors away? This is a perennial problem faced by all relatively small and poor countries. Let us be realistic and recognize that “sustainability” itself is often founded in dreams of untouched rainforest and primeval abundance, the power of the ancient and wild. All of us motivated, in one direction or another, by our deepest desires and dreams, by our vision of a better future. There is nothing inherently wrong with dreams and utopias; we just have to start recognizing whose dreams should be allowed to shape the future of Belize.
Smokey Joe asked the same questions in his column in Amadala in February of 1990:
“I wonder why it is that everyone who comes to this country can see the beauty, but we who live here can’t. They see the same garbage that we lovingly put all over the place. They see the beauty that we refuse to see. They bless us; we curse ourselves. They praise us: we condemn ourselves. Is this a better land for them, and a plague to us?”
Remaining narrative contributed by RW Flint
Rapid and uncontrollable coastal development for residential and commercial purposes is an escalating threat to Belize’s coastal zone. A recent study estimated that 75-80% of all coastal land in Belize has been purchased by foreigners who will develop the land into condos, resorts, or residential properties, usually at the expense of the mangroves and littoral forests. Although Murray et al. reported that 98% percent of Belize’s original mangrove remained throughout the country, the situation is rapidly changing; two years later, in 1992, the mangrove deforestation rate averaged a 0.7% reduction nationally due to increased urban expansion and tourism development. Near population centers, the annual rate of destruction of mangroves is 3.6% per year. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that a majority of the aquaculture industry, primarily shrimp and tilapia farming, are located within the coastal zone and pose a direct threat to coastal ecosystems. Instituting land rent for properties owned by foreigners, in addition to creating an effective land zoning policy and enforcement of environmental regulations, will control this rapid development.
In managing the Belize coastal zone it is suggested that one move further away from a frontier mentality of exploitation and single-sector management to a precautionary system that balances use of living marine resources, energy, and minerals from the coastal waters with maintenance of a productive and healthy marine environment, while improving knowledge and collaboration. Because of the still many pristine regions of Belizean coast we have an opportunity to make smart decisions now about the future of the coastal zone ahead of expanding and emerging uses – decisions that weigh benefits of use against both direct costs of extraction and external costs that include damage to sensitive and unknown ecosystems and their services that would be difficult to repair or replace.
Richard Wilk, Ph.D. – Is Provost’s Professor of Anthropology and Food Studies at Indiana University, where he has been teaching for 26 years. He first came to Belize when it was still British Honduras, as a teenage archaeologist. Since then he has lived and worked in all the six districts, visited almost every single town and village in the country, but is still learning new things every day. He is married to Anne Pyburn, an archaeologist who has excavated several sites, and who has visited scores of Belizean schools to teach about the rich history of the country. He has written three books and many academic papers about Belize.
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