by William Schmidt
This is a story about a people who are struggling, striving for the opportunity to help themselves; a story about people who are suffering, who have found a solution to their suffering, but are not being given the chance to act on that solution; a story where the reader has the power to affect the outcome, which is not yet written. Today the indigenous people and culture-groups of the Toledo District in Belize, Central America, live in economic poverty, and are needlessly suffering as a result. Infant mortality, child malnourishment, unemployment, crime and illiteracy rates in the south of the country are high, while the rest of the nation races to the forefront of the glamorous highly profitable global tourism industry.
Sadly the impoverished communities of the Toledo District are treated as an inconvenient embarrassment by the developing Belizean government, and are viewed as un-marketable by national tourism organizations and related private-sector business associations. The Kek’chi and Mopan Maya, Mesitso, Garifuna, East Indian and other ethnic groups of Toledo find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of colonialism, dependent upon the meager contributions of local government and foreign aid to survive. Lacking the trappings of modernity to attract to their district the kinds of trade and commerce which preoccupy their nation’s leaders, these communities have no leverage with which to inspire their government to assist them in the areas of environmental, social and economic development. Instead the indigenous populations of southern Belize quietly endure an unspoken discrimination in the form of disregard for their legal democratic voice and abandonment of their solutions to the alleviation of poverty, thus earning this beautiful, wild territory its unfortunate moniker, “the Forgotten District.”
But it wasn’t always this way. For a brief window of time in 1990, the villagers of Toledo District received the support of their government through the then Prime Minister of Belize, the Right Hon. George C. Price. With his encouragement they came together to communicate, coordinate and develop an all-inclusive, economically profitable, socially responsible and environmentally sustainable plan of action to improve their quality of life. Representatives from 4 villages formed the Toledo Eco-tourism Association. Through the TEA citizens outlined a development plan entitled the Village Guesthouse Eco-trail Program. The goal of the program was to unite the diverse villages of the District under a standardized, responsible, tourism-based structure founded on their unique indigenous system of communal land ownership and benefit sharing.
Over time the vision expanded into what is today a more holistic plan: the Toledo Peoples Eco-Park Plan. The vast scope of this plan serves both to support the communities of Toledo and enable them to successfully integrate their traditional ways of life with the emerging democratic system and modern development trends of their nation. What’s more, this simple plan has the potential to act as a replicable model and solution to similar socio-economic challenges facing other poverty stricken regions through-out Belize and around the world.
This comprehensive development plan spans a range of considerations from agriculture, forestry and manufacturing, to tourism and transportation, to vocational training and improved community healthcare. It begins with the construction of a Guesthouse Eco-trail Program in each village. With sensitivity to cultural differences, centrally located accommodations in each village allow visitors to observe and participate non-intrusively in the traditional lifestyles of local residents, while allowing volunteers to offer un-biased assistance to whole communities. With the presence of the Guesthouse facilities comes the opportunity for local ethnic groups to display their many colors through live music performances and cultural presentations. To complement these facilities the plan provides for the development of other tourism based businesses such as community conservation areas, trail networks, ecology centers, guided-tour facilities, adventure camps, nature reserves and museums.
The plan also includes room for relevant education and vocational training within the villages to enable locals to develop cottage industries such as the production of hand-crafted furniture and the sale and teaching of traditional arts and crafts. Taking advantage of the indigenous system of communal labor and resource sharing this collective strategy also enables them to produce a marketable volume of organic agricultural produce such as cacao, black and habanero pepper, papayas and more. A thriving agriculture industry is the linkage to manufacturing, initially through the production of jams, jellies, preserves, sauces, etc. The plan also incorporates the development of a sustainable forestry industry through reforestation and sustainable harvest of natural forest products such as medicinal herbs, teas, spices, nuts, hardwoods, flowers, and insects. Production of these products connects the manufacturing potential to a recycling program for the re-purposing of each village’s consumed commercial products into packaging for resale items.
The infrastructure necessitated to organize and maintain these programs and industries creates further employment potential in the form of clerical, management and monitoring positions. The plan is designed to re-invest revenue and income from these projects and services into the villages for the maintenance of Alcalde and Village Council associations, improvement of local transportation and health care services and stimulation of cultural and environmental conservation initiatives.
Originally designed to improve the lives of people in 60 impoverished rural communities, representing 75% of the Toledo population, the cumulative profits generated from every sector of industry accounted for in this plan will saturate 100% of the Toledo populous including urban Punta Gorda, the district’s largest city. Truly, it is a broad reaching plan of grand vision, a significant achievement for a people desperately trying to adapt to a rapidly changing socio-political environment.
Through the collective vision of the TEA, the ambitious plan was drafted and its pilot project put into action in less than a year. By the end of 1990, the poor but proud residents of Laguna Village had constructed and opened the first Guesthouse and Eco-trail Program. The successful launch of this project inspired and motivated the other TEA village groups to raise funds and replicate the Guesthouse Program in 9 more villages by the end of 1995. The reviews from guests and villagers alike were enthusiastic. Testimonies from tourists, volunteers, school groups, professors and anthropologists spoke of the accomplishments of the people’s action-plan. The programs were quickly recognized by international tourism and development communities to be a resounding success. The Guesthouse and Eco-trail Program was widely endorsed by international media publications such as National Geographic, Conde Naste Traveler, the Smithsonian Institute Magazine, the Belize Review Magazine and others. The program was proudly supported by Belizean organizations such as the National Creole Council, the Toledo Maya Cultural Council, the National Garifuna Council, the National East Indian Council, the Punta Gorda Conservation Committee, The Maya Leaders Alliance, and the Florida Association of Volunteer Agencies for Central America. Individual professionals representing prestigious facilities, such as the US Peace Corps, the University of London, Valdosta State University and The Esperanza Project, praised the TEA’s endeavor as being an innovative solution to the complex challenges facing people of the Toledo District. The plan was soon recognized as a potentially replicable model for the development issues and integration problems facing impoverished people and indigenous groups through-out Belize.
As the years passed by and the villagers worked diligently towards their goal of evolving the 10 Village Guesthouse Programs into the larger Toledo Peoples Eco-Park plan, acknowledgements for their successes slowly but surely accumulated. Then came an extraordinary honor. In 1997 at the world’s largest tourism trade show, hosted by Germany, the TEA and their master-plan were bestowed the To-Do Award, the world’s top prize for socially responsible, community based eco-tourism. This was a monumental achievement not only for the member communities of the TEA, but for the whole of Belize.
It is here that the inspirational journey of the people of Toledo takes an unexpected turn. Following closely on the heels of their success in Germany, a film crew for Redaktion Reiselust, Europe’s most popular televised travel show, was sent to Belize to commemorate the To-Do Award winners and their pioneering program. The opportunity to exhibit the tourism potential of the Toledo District through the Peoples Eco-Park plan had finally arrived. But instead of capturing the innovation of the community based Guesthouse Program and the bewitching bio-diversity of the Toledo District, the film crew was curtailed by the Belize Tourist Board and intentionally redirected to cover private sector tourism businesses in northern Belize. Though the producers of Redaktion were prepared to devote a full episode of their show (at an estimated marketing value of over a million dollars) to publicize the vast potential of this unique and relatively inexpensive plan, Belize turned a blind eye to her countrymen’s success. Incomprehensibly the hard-working members of the TEA were withheld the opportunity for global marketing and promotion of their ground-breaking project. Within the country national press releases and private-sector tourism associations omitted reviews and failed to offer even basic acknowledgement of the Guesthouse Program. Five years passed by.
Then came what appeared to be another great victory; in 2003 the Toledo Development Corporation, under the Ministry of Economic Development, drafted a Memorandum of Understanding, a legal document officially endorsing the Peoples Eco-Park plan. Thirteen hopeful years after its birth, Dr. Ludwick Pallacio, then General Manager of the TDC, at last acknowledged the creation of the PEP plan as a historic move. He stated that it marked the first time that the people of Toledo, in both rural & urban communities, had united to take action and responsibility to design their own plan for district wide development. It represented a definitive step away from dependency on the old style of colonial planning towards self-reliance and independence. Signatories of the MOU were the Toledo District Association of Village Councils, the Toledo Institute of Environment and Development, the Toledo Alcalde Association, the Toledo Village Council Association, the Toledo Eco-tourism Association, the Toledo Civil Society, the Toledo Maya Cultural Council, the Punta Gorda Town Board, and the US Peace Corps. With this fresh support buoying their spirits, the volunteers of the TEA resolved to work on towards their goal of realizing the full Peoples Eco-Park plan. With so many influential people and governing bodies standing behind their plan success once again seemed imminent.
But another 5 years passed by. The villagers began to struggle with the up-keep of their slowly forgotten Guesthouse Programs. Without the establishment of the rest of the Eco-Park plan to back them up and support them, and without the benefit of national advertising, the individual Guesthouse Programs were difficult to maintain amongst the rigors and demands of daily rural life. Then a ray of hope; in 2008 Prime Minister Said Musa personally wrote a letter of recommendation for funding to the Protected Areas Conservation Trust confirming his government’s support for the Punta Gorda Conservation Committee’s Eco-trail Program, which was the urban component of the district wide Peoples Eco-Park plan. Surely long anticipated financial aid was to follow. But not even the democratic authority or the Prime Minister himself could enforce the distribution of aid moneys to his own people. A deviously constructed loop-hole in PACT’s policy dictated that in order to fund any tourism program that program must provide a letter of support from their local branch of the Belize Tourism Industry Association, which is a private sector organization. Chairman of the TEA, and representative to the BTIA, Vincente Sakul formally requested such a letter of support to accompany the Prime Minister’s endorsement, but although the board of the local Toledo branch of the BTIA promised to provide the letter, they never did. Inconceivably the interests of small town private-sector tourism trumped the will of both the national BTIA and the leader of the entire nation.
For three more years the people waited, but nothing further came of the Prime Minister’s endorsement. The number of functioning Guesthouses dwindled from ten to six to four. The fight to maintain their Guesthouse Programs became increasingly desperate. Year after year villagers approached a succession of three consecutive national Ombudsmen, who were the appointed officials designated to investigate abuses of authority within the government. But all three Ombudsmen were unable to help. The villagers then reached out to the Belize Human Rights Commission for assistance, but they too claimed to be unable to help. Over the course of its history the Toledo Eco-tourism Association accumulated volumes of documented support from international media publications, universities, members of the governing bodies of Belize, and even Queen Elizabeth herself. Piles, stacks, boxes and filing cabinets of records detailing their achievements, progress and efforts built up. The people became well armed with substantial proof of their ability to design and implement plans capable of generating productive business, local and national revenue and positive, sustainable change for their communities. The only thing they continued to lack was funding to get the ball rolling. Through 20 years of hopes and disappointments, successes and crushing defeats, the wait for assistance was at times agonizing, excruciating and exhausting. Their files began to collect dust. The reviews and letters of encouragement began to mold. The numbers of volunteer members began to dwindle. Hope was being bled dry by an efficient bureaucratic process of disregard and abandonment.
At last, in 2011, the Toledo District Association of Village Councils, which is the modern democratic voice for 75% of the residents of Toledo, took action to wait no longer. Following proper legal procedure, they drafted and issued to the national government a strong letter endorsing the TEA’s tourism development program for the District. In order to initiate the Toledo People’s Eco-Park plan, this letter, legally representing the wishes and will of 3/4ths of the citizens of the district, formally requested from the government an equitable share of funds recently received from foreign aid (the Inter-American Development Bank) for the development of sustainable tourism in Belize. Their request fell again upon deaf ears. Nearly two years have passed since this request was sent and still no response from the government has been issued, no acknowledgement received, no further financial aid conferred.
Over the past quarter century more than 30 million dollars in foreign aid, donations and contributions have been allotted to NGO’s and government aid organizations within Belize specifically for the development of the Toledo District, yet the Toledo People’s Eco-Park plan has been consistently denied financial assistance of any significance. In stark contrast to the many public displays of support issued by the government, to this date less than 2% of all aid money received for the District has ever made its way to facilitate the PEP plan and the 20,000 plus nationals represented there-in. Though the legal representative bodies speaking for 75% of the citizens of Toledo have long been united under the TEA with a proven plan for successful socio-economic development, 22 years of applications, requests, and pleas for government funding have been quietly swept under the rug, blatantly ignored, and ultimately deviously foiled. Aid monies have instead been repeatedly conferred to other NGOs, social-venture organizations and private -sector businesses throughout district, none of whom can claim to represent or benefit the majority of Toledo.
Despite the millions of dollars invested in undeniably necessary basic needs projects such as water, schools, health centers, there has been no measurable increase in the financial empowerment of the people. And despite following proper democratic process there has been no support for their plans to manage and control their own resources and territory in an economically profitable way. Instead, as the past two decades of censuses have shown, the conditions of the people’s lives have continued to degrade.
Why has this eminently successful project been repeatedly ignored after such a promising start? What agency has selected it for abandonment? Who believes they can benefit by preventing these communities from achieving economic prosperity? What authority views an empowered populous as a threat to the national economy? Though the Constitution of Belize exists to ensure that with independence comes the right and responsibility to determine what happens within a community through the village and town councils, this story of silent discrimination suggests lack of democracy in Belize. Documented support from 2 Prime Ministers and a variety of other political leaders rules out discrimination by the Government of Belize as a whole. A publicly witnessed unanimous verbal decision from the national Belize Tourism Industry Association should rule that body out from the list too. Who then does this leave as an obstacle to progress for the people of Toledo? Presumably a limited number of individuals, perhaps owners of Toledo-based private-sector tourism businesses or executives within the government and NGO’s, who are consumed with the drive for power and or monetary gain. It is a puzzlement for which there is no time to waste in playing detective.
Urgency for the realization of this plan has recently heightened due to the immanent completion of the Link Highway from Guatemala through 7 Toledo District villages. Its arrival will drive the chaos of modern commerce directly through the heart of the last home territory the Kek’chi & Mopan Mayan Indians within Belize. Anthropological and sociological studies conducted through-out this District, as well as similar studies conducted in other culturally-complex regions elsewhere in the Americas, clearly show the dire consequences of such rapid development on under-prepared populations and in such vital, pristine eco-systems. These assessments predict a loss of vital agricultural land, destruction of sensitive ecosystems, and a rapid decay of traditional culture and lifestyles, all leading to destructive urbanization. Authorities in modern socio-economic development have foreseen mass unemployment, degradation of land-values and a general decline in real-estate development due to the slums created in the wake of sudden urbanization. In short, the ethnic-groups of Toledo will experience decimation of their culture and territories. The region will decline into an even more dismal reputation. Currently the diverse cultures and pristine landscape of Toledo hold the keys to success and longevity for the government and economy of Belize. But unchecked commercial development planned solely by and for the interests of a select few stands to turn this goldmine into an economic wasteland, and threatens to send Belize down to the bottom rung of socially & environmentally irresponsible governments.
So how does this story end? How is a positive resolution to poverty and suffering in Toledo achieved? How can these people be helped to thrive? In many ways this story is an age old story, told in proverbs and morality-tales around the world. It is a shadow of a very familiar tale: The Goose Who Laid the Golden Egg. The consumable resources of Toledo appear to be gold, but it is the people and their cultures which are the true wealth of the District. A land can be bled dry of its physical resources to cash in on an immediate but finite gold-rush, or an investment can be made in the people who are the ultimate renewable resource. If a plan to sustain the citizens, the cultures, and the life-blood of Toledo is not implemented, Belize will most certainly loose not only the economic opportunities of the moment, but also the ability to profit in the future. This impoverished territory stands at the brink of unprecedented success, or disastrous peril. A 180% turn is still possible.
The Toledo People’s Eco-Park plan is the way. With this internationally applauded plan for sustainable development waiting to invigorate local democracy and national economy, will the movers and shakers of tourism in the Toledo District truly remain ignorant to the commercial potentials of an empowered populous? With a professionally endorsed strategy to integrate and celebrate the local indigenous populations and culture-groups ready to be applied, will the politicians and leaders of the Belize tourism industry chose to remain impotent to their ability to direct the government towards positive social change in their own nation and the world? With a tried and proven plan to unite and enable the people ready and waiting to be put into action as soon as funds are granted, will the government of Belize sit idly by while their own citizens suffer needlessly? This much is true; without a financial boost to implement a district-wide action plan for the alleviation of poverty in Toledo, the citizen’s own resolutions to their sustainable development challenges will not be achieved. If the Toledo Peoples Eco-Park plan is supported, the people will have the tools and the power to eliminate poverty and suffering within their territory. The potential standards that can be established for conservation policy, social development and responsible eco-tourism in this humble, forgotten district of the world have the power to set an example and become part of the global canon of policies sustaining our planet and all its residents. This is a story about a people who are struggling, striving for the opportunity to help themselves.
William Schmidt has lived and worked in Toledo District of Belize for 45 years as a fisherman, farmer, businessman, building contractor, and survival adventure instructor for the British army. He also spent two years teaching integrated science and agriculture at Toledo Community College.
Mayan Solstice Celebration
Mayan Solstice Celebration