Letters — 21 September 2016
Mario Lara talks about Sarstoon Island Eco Challenge experience

Dear Editor,

Below is an article I posted via my Facebook profile to document the successful collaboration between Belizeans at home and abroad in hosting the first ever Sarstoon Island Eco Challenge held on Saturday, September 17th, 2016. I would be grateful if you would consider printing this article in your news publication. My hope is that this message reaches as many Belizeans as possible and that we are encouraged to unite as a people.

A video documentary is available at https://vimeo.com/183249918?ref=em-share. Together we can accomplish more than we ever can, than when we are divided. Our young nation is only 35 years old. The future is bright if we work hard and if we work together.

My trip to Sarstoon Island

On Saturday, September 17, 2016, I was happy to be back home in the land of my birth and proud to be able to stand up in peaceful solidarity with the Belize Territorial Volunteers. Several months ago, fed up with the lack of robust support the Belize Territorial Volunteers was getting, the divisive politics in Belize and the lackadaisical attitude of Belize’s Ministry of Foreign affairs as it relates to the national issue of defending Belize’s territorial integrity, I decided to become more involved, as a non-partisan Belizean living in the Diaspora.

Accountability

After writing to my congressman and protesting with other Belizeans living abroad in front of the Guatemalan consulate in Los Angeles, I decided that it wasn’t enough to protest from afar and so I took it a step further and created a go-fund-me account to raise funds to stage a peace rally in Belize and encourage as many Belizeans as possible to peacfully assert Belize’s territorial integrity by visiting Sarstoon Island.

With the help of 37 individual donations from Belizeans mostly living in the United States of America but also in other parts of the world, including the United Kingdom and even Guatemala, and with the help of friends and family who assisted me in hosting a backyard fundraiser, we managed to raise $2,000 US ($4,000 BZE). Although I fell very short of my fundraising goal, with the help of others, we paid for 100 T-shirts, a charter bus from Cayo to Barranco Village, breakfast for 60 people consisting of johnny cakes, coffee, juice; $1,000 – 1st place cash prize for the dorey race and $500 – 2nd place cash prize for the dorey race.

This helped the Belize Territorial Volunteers host a successful first ever Sarstoon Island Eco Challenge.

Mission Accomplished…but the Struggle Continues

For a first-time effort and as someone who was operating completely outside my comfort level and area of expertise, I am extremely happy with the result. A bus and private vehicle in which there was a total of approximately 60 men, women and children made the long journey from Cayo to Barranco and joined approximately 300 other supporters who descended on Barranco village from all across Belize and the Diaspora to cheer on the kayaks and canoes as they raced from Barranco village to Sarstoon Island and back.

The event was most definitely a success.

Although the event was a success, it wasn’t all that it could have been. The Belize Tourism Industry Association declined an invitation that I personally sent them to support this event. I hope that they will reconsider this position if a second Sarstoon Island Eco Challenge is staged next year. Barranco village and the surrounding communities could definitely benefit more if this event grows.

Through personal contacts I tried to get Muffles College, St. John’s College, and Sacred Heart College to get their 6th Form students interested in competing or supporting this event. Sadly, my efforts didn’t yield positive results. I was gratified that there was a student from UB who competed. We need more!

There were no major sponsors, at least none willing to go public. Local politics and fear are the only explanations that I can come up with. Some who donated resources even asked to remain anonymous. BPP is the only political party that supported the event. Indeed, some thought that it was their event. That is still a bit confusing. It seems that the divisive local politics made it impossible for folks to work together on this event.

Wil Maheia, who is the lead organizer of this event, wears many hats. He is the leader of Belize Territorial Volunteers as well as a leader in the Belize Progressive Party. Wil made a tremendous effort to separate the two roles and he approached the Sarstoon Island Eco Challenge as a true Belizean patriot and did his very best to put nation first.

He definitely has my support. Others find it more difficult to set aside partisan politics and this will continue to be a challenge for Wil Maheia, the Belize Territorial Volunteers and this event. I will continue to ask my UDP and PUP friends to support this event and to put nation first. I hope others would do the same.

Many people who declined to participate expressed either a complete lack of interest or understanding regarding the importance of asserting Belize’s territorial integrity, or, worse, many expressed fear. There is much work to be done.

Tense Moments

The fear that some people expressed is not irrational. There were some tense moments as Guatemalan military vessels, clearly overstepping their boundaries, tried to intimidate participants and dissuade us from completing our mission. The Guatemalan military clearly disrespected Belize’s borders and showed absolutely no regard for the Confidence Building Measures that they supposedly should be abiding by.

Sadly, this is nothing new and we expected that there might be some issues. Armed Guatemalan military personnel in military vessels were stationed in front of the Belize’s forward operating base in Belizean waters; a small Guatemalan military vessel with armed military personnel shadowed our first kayaker while he circumnavigated the Sarstoon Island.

A drone (presumably operated by Guatemalan military) hovered above our kayakers and canoers.

But, in the end, a total of 8 kayaks and 4 canoes successfully circumnavigated the Sarstoon Island. We simply cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated. I hope that if this event happens again, we have hundreds more Belizeans willing to stand together and be strong. Also, I hope we have a strong media presence whenever there is an event involving the Sarstoon Island. The lack of presence by our media was extremely disappointing.

More Questions than Answers

I intend to write to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to see if I can get some information that will help me to understand why armed Guatemalan military personnel and military vessels are allowed to enter Belizean territory and intimidate Belizeans who are peacefully asserting Belize’s territorial integrity and their citizenship rights.

I understand there is an old territorial dispute, but why isn’t Guatemala being held accountable by Belize with the OAS to abide by the so-called confidence building measures? I understand that Belize would prefer to avoid conflict, but why aren’t we lodging complaints with the UN and the United States of America which supplies Guatemala with military weapons?

Is holding a referendum on the ICJ the best use of limited resources?

Before Belizeans vote in a referendum, on whether or not to go to the ICJ, I hope they educate themselves on the issue. This is why I went and why I took as many Belizeans with me as I could to Sarstoon Island to see for ourselves. I invited those in favor and those against the ICJ to go. I encourage anyone and everyone to go.

My personal take away after visiting Sarstoon Island for myself and seeing first hand how Guatemalan military disrespect our territorial integrity is this: If the Guatemala military refuses to abide by previously agreed upon Confidence Building Measures and rejects an independent investigation by the OAS on the recent border shooting, what confidence can Belizeans have that Guatemala will accept an ICJ ruling that is favorable to Belize and unfavorable to Guatemala?

How much should Belizeans be willing to pay for a referendum and court ruling that will not directly and significantly improve the quality of life of one single Belizean even under the best possible scenario and outcome?

The bus trip from Cayo to Barranco Village took 5 hours. The last 17 miles of the trip was on uneven, unpaved, dirt roads that consumed almost 1.5 hours of the journey. It is no wonder that many of the buses in Belize are outdated recycled school buses.

We were fortunate to know the owner of the bus company from which we chartered a bus, so we had one with air conditioning. The bus took a beating on the sub-standard roads and it became clear that investing in public infrastructure and modernizing our public transportation system would be a far better investment of limited resources than wasting precious limited resources on referendums and more litigation.

How can remote places like Barranco village, as beautiful as they are, reap the benefits of eco-tourism and achieve economic development if we don’t invest in adequate public infrastructure and amenities and their proper maintenance?

Barranco village, as beautiful as it is and as warm as the people are, did not have the adequate facilities to host a major event. Portable rest-rooms had to be rented for even a small and modest crowd, the bush was overgrown, there was no seawall or boardwalk, and the trash was strewn all over the place, diminishing and detacting from the beauty and warmth of the village. The GOB needs to invest in the people and the place.

Please, please, please, I beg you… don’t waste another penny on litigation – invest in our people.

We need much better governance — we have many problems to solve and no time to waste

This trip to Sarstoon Island highlighted so many problems that we have to solve. The territorial dispute and disrespect we’re enduring from Guatemala is one thing; but there are so many other connected issues. The illegal fishing that is taking place due to lack of clear rules and enforcement is damaging the environment.

The coast line is littered with plastics, styrofoam, and all sorts of disgusting debris floating across from Guatemala and Honduras. There is such a tremendous need for investment in southern Belize. The roads are still in much need of widening, paving, striping, and proper maintenance.

All of the problems plaguing Belize have something in common. They all stem from a lack of good governance. Our political system in Belize lacks the proper checks and balances, power sharing, and accountability that lead to good decision making. We are a young nation. We are not unique in facing these challenges.

All nations face similar challenges at one time or the other. Successful nations are those where the people remain engaged, educated, and hold their leaders accountable so that good decisions that put the public interests and welfare first and foremost can be made. We cannot leave it all up to the politicians. We all have a role to play in ensuring our fledgling democracy survives.

Thank you!

Thank you, Belize Territorial Volunteers and Wil Maheia, for your patriotism. Keep on fighting for this national cause. Thank you to all donors and sponsors. Please continue to support and encourage others to support.

Thank you to my family and friends for your support.

Special thanks to Jaguar Scouts of Cayo. I hope you had fun, but most of all I hope you learned something on our trip to Barranco for the first ever Sarstoon Island Eco Challenge.

Sincerely,

Mario Lara

SARSTOON ECO CHALLENGE 2016 from PGTV News Network on Vimeo.

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