Features — 05 May 2018
A deeper look at the Barranco protest

The people of Barranco finally decided that they had enough of the decades-old, clandestine shenanigans of the Forest Department and its habitual practice of granting logging concessions to foreign and oligarchic interests while denying local loggers similar concessions to log within and around their own village.

On Tuesday, April 25th, a delegation of stalwart village leaders traveled the roughly 165 miles each way from their village to Belmopan to publicly air their grievances. One of their main concerns was that over several decades, distant bureaucratic decisions regarding forestry and other resources adjacent to their village have most often been made without consultations and have repeatedly excluded them from opportunities to substantially improve their quality of life.

Recently, the applications for logging licenses by five Barranco residents were flatly rejected by the Forest Department. Reportedly, there was no explanation given for this rejection even while “outsiders” were granted concessions to log in the area without community consultation and agreement.

Their public protest in front of the National Assembly building and Prime Minister’s office was about twenty strong. In the optics of those myopic, this group of Baragunas might seem insignificant. However, for this southernmost coastal Belizean village of 160 persons, mostly elderly and children, these men and women were a strong, solid voice of the community. The long rope of the people’s patience had finally been broken into the tangible expression of their slogan, “Sarawama Baranguna” (Rise up, Barranco people). This time Barangunas at home and in lasurnia (the diaspora) had more than enough, and were resolved this time to demand respect and a fair resolution.

Village Council Chair, Mr. Fabian Cayetano, stated the village demands that GOB: give an explanation as to why the five applications were rejected; approve the rejected concessions with the licenses for two logging seasons from October 15th 2018 to June 15th 2020, and be granted rights as Indigenous people to manage the entire Barranco forest area from the Moho River to the northern banks of the Sarstoon River to conduct re-forestation, sustainable logging and eco-tourism to generate economic activity and jobs. Vice Chair, Ms. Beatrice Mariano, affirmed that the village was tired of injustices and lack of consultation that have spanned at least 25 years.

This first of its kind national protest by Barranco residents was born out of a history of habitual condescending neglect of villagers by the Forest Department in matters affecting their community. In the 1990s, and with no consultations, for example, villagers helplessly saw the granting of a license to Atlantic Industries (a Malaysian timber corporation) to log near 500,000 acres of rainforests in Toledo. Significant pressure brought to bear by the Indigenous communities with support by international entities eventually ended that secret deal.

Most villagers only learned that ancestral lands were turned into Sarstoon-Temash National Park when it was formally established in 1997, three years after the process started. A few years later they witnessed, allegedly without prior consultations, the sound of dynamite blasting seismic paths in search for oil within that same “protected area” from which they had been excluded.  Not to mention the oil testing trucks that battered Barranco village roads to explore oil in the Sarstoon-Temash National Park.

Then there was the illegal plunder and export of container loads of rosewood, which spiked around 2013. Utilizing cheap labor of the Mayas for harvest, and transported during the dead of night, these unprocessed logs were sold to Chinese buyers through politically well-connected intermediaries, and exported unmarked and untaxed.

Even the Minister of State in the Ministry responsible for Forestry, at that time, expressed her frustration with the boldfaced illegal trade, by personally burning illegally-cut rosewood flitches. While the intention of that action was to send a clear message that Belize would not tolerate illegal logging, and that no one should profit from its trade, her determined action did not immediately stop the trade. On the contrary, confiscated and secured rosewood within the Forest Department were later released and sold during a foreign trip of that Minister of State.

Through all this, the greater benefits of these resources had never accrued to the people of Toledo. Over the years, for example, there have hardly been deliberate policy strategies to develop local logging enterprises to gain maximum value-added benefits for Toledo residents from the resources. Neither has the education system even ventured to effectively prepare and encourage Toledo residents (as in other districts) with the entrepreneurial skills to effectively utilize such opportunities.

Under Belize’s rather authoritarian democratic system, the state has failed to design and implement effective strategies to drastically reform the economic profile of Toledo out of this colonial cycle of native alienation and impoverishment. Baragunas observe the habitual practices of granting licenses, access to land, and key positions to well-connected friends, family members and supporters of the nation’s few elites as well as to Asian and North American interests, while consistently marginalizing native Belizeans. It is not surprising that, through whatever secret decisions and lack of consultations, Punta Gorda with its small population of near 6,000 has been increasingly swarmed by Chinese stores, now more than 30 of them, to drown out native enterprises.

Considering this historical pattern of behavior by the Forest Department to derive benefits for foreign and oligarchic interests, Barranco residents are now demanding transparency in order to derive some benefit. Every secret agreement, every lack of transparency and every failure to consult regarding the resources adjacent to their community has stirred grave concerns about further entrenchment of corruption and clientelism. The state’s failed approaches to development of people in the southern districts have widened the chasms of inequality.

Historically named Barranco Colorado, (Spanish for “Red Cliff” for its red clay coastline elevation of 15 feet above sea level) Barranco is Belize’s southernmost coastal village and one of the country’s oldest villages. The village was first founded in the early 1860s as a fishing camp for Garifuna fishermen from PG, and quickly settled thereafter as a thriving fishing and farming community. In its early history, productive family farms of the community extended from the Temash River all the way to the Sarstoon. This unique Garifuna village, which at its peak had reached about 250 persons in the 1890s, has produced many renowned persons who have made outstanding contributions to national development.

Prominent persons from Barranco include Egbert Valencio and Alvin Loredo, two of whom are deeply involved in both local tourism and national park conservation; educators Dr. Joseph Palacio, Roy Cayetano, Sebastian and Fabian Cayetano;  Dr. Harriet Scarborough; Dr. Rita Enriquez; Dr. Francis Arzu and Austin Arzu; former government Minister Joseph Cayetano; Fr. Calistus Cayetano; Harold Arzu and Evan Cayetano, both working at the IDB offices in Washington D.C. and Trinidad respectively; the late renowned artist Benjamin Nicholas; his brother a writer, poet and former Belize Teachers College lecturer, Victor Nicholas;  former BTC Principal, the late Theodore Palacio; and the centenarian Sam Martinez who never returned to live in Belize after his service as a lumberjack in Scotland during World War II and died there in 2016 at age 106. And who would ever forget our late great musician, Andy Palacio?

Even while Barranco has produced many outstanding personalities throughout its history, most were forced to leave the village’s dire socioeconomic conditions to seek employment opportunities elsewhere. Like the rest of Toledo District, the level of poverty in their community stands in sharp contrast with the district’s abundant natural resources. Since colonial times and currently, an exceptional abundance of forest and agricultural products  have been exported out of the district while human development remains low.

Deeply rooted in their traditional culture while achieving success in their professional roles, most Baranguna maintain very fond memories of their days in the village. The potential for involvement in forestry, agriculture and tourism, continues to draw those who remained, are planning to return or have returned.

Logging is nothing new to the people of Barranco or the Garinagu at large. When there was a severe shortage of labor in Belize around the late the 1790s, after numerous enslaved Africans escaped brutality in the Belize settlement to live in the Peten area, the British settlers hired and imported 150 Garifuna laborers in 1802 to cut mahogany. This and subsequent influx of Garinagu provided a major boost for the lucrative mahogany industry.

For well over a century Garifuna woodcutters penetrated deep into the forests from Sibun to the Sarstoon to cut timber. Belizean history (if any at all is taught in our schools or if teachers themselves even know) hardly recognizes the significant role of Garifuna woodcutters in the expansion of Belize’s territory from Sibun to the Sarstoon. As a free people during the time of slavery, Garinagu cheap labor also further enriched the British forestocracy and their colored descendants.

Ironically, after more than a century and a half of toiling and contributions of their ancestors, after so much patience and prayer for better conditions, Barangunas in 2018 still have to confront distrust, the Forest Department’s questionable decision to reject their application for logging concessions around their 160-year-old village.

It is hoped that this time, the Government seriously commits to genuine consultations with all people about matters that affect their livelihood. This centuries-old condescending colonial practice of evading and marginalizing Indigenous and native Afro-descendant peoples, whether in southern in Belize or Southside Belize City, must stop. Barangunas have now awakened to challenge the powers that be for transparency, accountability and respect. Sarahali Baraguna.  (The people of Barranco are awakened.)

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Deshawn Swasey

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