Thursday, January 4, 2017
Punta Gorda is the main urban center of the two forgotten districts: Toledo and Stann Creek. Until recently the town was connected to the rest of the country only by sea and as late as the 1990’s, by a dirt gravel road. It was the last town to be connected to the other districts and towns by a paved highway. Of the two neglected districts in the south, Toledo, and by extension Punta Gorda, was the worse. While there are those who argue that this was not intentional and merely a result of proximity and because its population was small hence less resources was allocated to it, most in the south believe that it was by design, since it would be the sacrificial lamb, should negotiations with Guatemala totally fail, and some sort of land cession had to be made. Others argue that because the southern districts were predominantly Garifuna, and Toledo being mostly Garifuna and Indians, that the ugly head of racial discrimination emanating from the ruling Creole class in Belize City had more to do with it.
Whatever the reason, since it may well be a combination of a number of reasons, Punta Gorda remained in a state of virtual isolation. However, like the British did with the nation of Belize, Toledo was more or less exploited by the rest of the nation for the vast untapped natural resources that it had. Most of the raw material that helped build Belize City and the nation’s capital, Belmopan, came from the rainforest of the forgotten district. The isolation of Punta Gorda as a town had one of the most positive effects on the people of that tiny town. It created a resilient, self-sufficient people who were able to weather shortage, natural disasters, sickness and death. The biggest factor that contributed to this was the flooding of the Swasey, Bladden, South Stann Creek and Kendall Rivers during the annual rainy season. It was not unusual for passengers to be stuck on a James Bus for weeks, caught between two rivers and unable to head south to PG or back up to Dangriga. I remember in the 1970’s my niece was returning from Belize City from a Standard Six school trip and was trapped between the rivers for a week and the class had to spend an additional week in Dangriga Town before the water subsided and they could reach home. Shortages during the rainy season were also normal, since everything came by trucks. Sometimes it was so severe that basic necessities like flour, sugar, lard and other basic food items had to be rationed in the grocery stores. Fortunately, back then fuel came by barge; otherwise the diesel-powered light plant would have run out of fuel, plunging the town into darkness, and the only gas station owned by the late Mario Vernon would not have product for the few vehicles in the town to run. Throughout all this, no one got alarmed because to us this was normal and as predictable as the annual rains. While the rest of the nation was growing, Toledo and PG had to endure this way of life for decades.
What the south built was some of the strongest, most innovative, creative and hardworking people in the nation for the simple fact that our lives depended on it. In times of flour shortages, we made flour from bananas, and when there was no sugar, Rapadura from sugarcane substituted. I can only imagine how our local businesses survived, since they too had to have a healthy degree of business savvy to survive in an environment where prices were the highest in the nation because of transportation cost and shortages were the norm. But PG created its own unique titans of industry and that was because up until the early 1990’s there was still no bank there. The Vernon, Westby and Pennell families built large business empires and the Palma, Paquil and Salam families had thriving stores in the main part of town, while the Apolonio and Avilez families were Garifuna-owned stores in the southern Masi Rock area. The Guerrero family were some of the most skilled and professional fishermen of their time. The Gomez family produced rum and sugar long before the north even thought of putting the first sugarcane stock in the ground. It can arguably be said that the late Mr. Johnson, a black Creole man, was one of the most successful businessmen in PG. Part of his vast business empire and properties still stand in PG to this day. The men who managed, owned and grew these businesses were innovative enough to keep them afloat despite the remoteness and isolation of Punta Gorda. They could have taught the Belize City businessmen a thing or two and would have been able to stand beside any modern-day CEO in the country when it came to business acumen. The PG we see today is a far cry in every aspect from the PG of the past and a large part of this has to do with the modern-day and slow gentrification of the south.
The first signs of internal movement of the population was the moving of East Indians, Maya and Kekchi Indians from the rural areas into town. Some came for work, others educational opportunities and some for business. The movement offered no threat to the social balance of the area because for the most part they were Belizeans like us who had the same beliefs, culture, ideas and most importantly respected our people because we all saw ourselves as one in the same struggle. Today, PG has become infested by Whiteman, and I use the word on purpose. It is not intended as hate towards them in any way, but in its purest form it means domination in large numbers. The fact is that whenever most Caucasian people move anywhere on the face of this Earth, they want to change it to suit them. Gone are the cultural, religious and social traditions that other people have been living by for centuries, and they always come to be the boss, in other words, to change things to suit themselves only. I am not saying that there were not Caucasians who did not contribute to the development of Toledo. I can think of Bonita, Mr. Wright and Seller who all came, did business, but integrated into the community. The new breed of people we are seeing in the south have come to do one thing, and that is to exploit. As if the Asian store owners were not bad enough, tourism has become the new tool of the exploiter. Price was right in not wanting the nation to follow the Caribbean model for tourism, because it was said that he did not want Belizeans to become servers, bartenders and waiters. He was so right. As I walk around PG a new elite class has emerged, and how they have acquired such tremendous wealth, property and influence in such few years, when some came here with only the clothes on their backs is a story worthy of a front-page column in the New York/ Economist magazine.
There is nothing in business that the newcomers can show us because we have been doing it in harsh and rough conditions for a very long time. They bring nothing new to the table except a little bit of capital, if any, and a lot of influence. Some came as preachers, others as environmentalists and still others as prospectors and so-called investors. In the end they have the prized real estate, vast tracts of lands, choice contracts and yes, in the end, like we were to the British, we are their servers. How did we come to this? The more things change the more they stay the same.
It’s all about the people!!!!
Neri O. Briceño