A country that shrank thru History: Belize

I don’t know how many countries in the world have lost population throughout history, but in Belize once lived more than a million people and today they are shy of 340k. It’s clear they are trying to recover from that with the highest growing population rate of the region (roughly 3%), but it will take them a hundred years just to get close to neighboring countries like Guatemala (14 million) or Honduras (8 million).

Belize was the site of several important and highly populated Mayan city states until their decline (I will talk about this controversial decline in a later article) at the end of the first millennium A.D., many centuries before Columbus arrived on his first trip in 1503, as depicted in the 2006 Mel Gibson’s movie Apocalypto. (Image below)

The British and Spanish disputed the region in the 17th and 18th centuries, but in the middlle of the 19th century, Central America finally emancipated from Spain which allowed the region to become a British colony called British Honduras in 1854. Territorial disputes between the UK and Guatemala delayed the independence from UK, but finally in 1981 the country became a new free nation (remained part of commonwealth, as a realm) with also a new name: Belize.

Dye-wood Tree log camp

Belize has always been a country poor in natural resources (oil may change it since it was discovered in 2006), and that was the main reason why the Spanish left it to the English to explore, but there was always something that the English tried to bring to the metropolis. It started with dye-wood tree to tint the dresses of nobles, then it was the mahogany wood (nowadays protected) for the nobles’ houses, at the same time the sugar cane and corn for all the spiritual drinks the nobles drank. Nobles may be my imagination but I shouldn’t be very far from the truth.

Since it became independent, a lot has changed and as with most countries with few resources and natural beauty the Tourism industry was elected. Until very recently, Tourism is still the biggest export of Belize with almost 60% of the country’s GDP coming from services.

Oil reserves were found in 2006 and since then it has been explored and it is a major concern for the society as discussions have been going on about the drilling of the coast that could affect the second biggest Coral Reef in the world, and the inland drilling on Maya territories that has ownership disputes. Can we imagine if it was given to the Mayas the oil mineral rights? Or the environmental impact of offshore driling on the reef?  Public discussion has been intense but no country rejects the petro dollars and specially a country so in need of capital as Belize is, sooner or later they will explore it to the fullest. Today, the numbers are already overwhelming as it is possible to see from the graphic, even though the proven reserves of crude places Belize almost as the last country in the world. (from the ones with oil of course) 

Before coming to Belize, everytime I asked about tourism to anyone, it was the diving around the coral reef and the infamous blue hole that was described and, after, maybe a couple of Mayan ruins. Even though this was true for the first 20 years of Independence, nowadays tourism has shifted it’s attention to inland.

Jungle lodges, Maya ruins and caves, adventurous cave tubbing and zip-lining, home stays with the Mayas, botanic gardens and photogenic rocky falls can occupy weeks of holidays without using the snorkel even once. Options for all kind of wallet as even us can travel inside our budget for this continent. It’s this double offer of paradise islands and diving and deep cultural and nature experiences that makes Belize nowadays a top holiday destination in the Caribbean region.

The country needs all the income (help) it can get as it has a huge external debt which pays enormous interests (called superbond), just shy of 100% of  GDP. I know my own country (Portugal) has an even higher debt but that’s why we collapsed, Belize is trying to avoid it at all costs. Beside the debt, the high unemployment rate and the poverty level (still 25% of the population). The other main concern is the increase of drug related crimes as the cartels of neighboring countries grow every day, fueled by the deported kingpins from USA. HIV/AIDS is growing dangerously in line with Caribbean countries, which will require tremendous action, like the one Red Cross in the Cayman Islands are doing , to stop it once and for all.

One of the lowest density country in the World is also home of one of the most interesting ethnic mix that thru centuries has lived and prospered. We’ve been in the country for 3 weeks and it still suprises us how so many diferent people can live together. The country has recently presented it’s last census and things haven’t changed that much, the numbers:

50% Mestizos – are the mix of indigenous population (typically Mayans) and Hispanic

21% Kriolo – are descendents of African slaves

10% Maya – are direct descendants of the once enormous Civilization that ruled Central America

6% Garifuna – are from African people living in the St.Vicent island that were kicked out by the English and stablished in the coast of Honduras and Belize (drumming on the image below)

4% Manonites – get info and track them from Canada and amexico

2% Asian – mostly Taiwanese and Chinese that escaped the Chinese invasion of the island

1% Hindu – look for sources

– Other minorities – other Asians and Europeans/North American expats

Belize is a country of kind people, of a long and amazing history, of crossed roots and merged cultures. A country trying to use all it has to evolve faster without ever looking desperate, but with a tremendous lack of resources (human and natural). Belize is very conscious of Nature and sustainability (only need to use more garbage bins) as the half of the territory in protected reserves show, and they never grow tired speaking poudly of it. Travelling around Belize is if everyone was a travel agent or salesman, but the polite ones, not pushy, just proud of what they have and very happy to have us around.




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