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Before we lose it: beach access woes in Jamaica

EditorialBefore we lose it: beach access woes in Jamaica

Sun. Oct. 22, 2023

Although, for reasons that may take some explaining another time, Belize is near the bottom of the CONCACAF football ranking in both male and female categories, while Jamaica is high up in the same CONCACAF rankings, we both, Belize and Jamaica, have a lot in common. And before both our independence, we were “mano-mano” in football. Where did we go wrong? As they are in a sense our elder sibling, there must be things we can learn from Jamaica’s successes, and also cautions that we can take from their struggles.

Our history is perhaps more intertwined with Jamaica than with that of any other Caribbean nation. That is because, during the era of enslavement of our African forebears, Jamaica was a main landing point for ships bringing enslaved Africans to the British-owned colonies in the “New World”; and it was from Jamaica that some of these same Africans were selected to be trans-shipped to the British settlement on the main called Belize Town. Moreover, it was to headquarters in Jamaica that the “Baymen” sent for help when the Spanish invaders from Yucatan were bearing down on the settlement in 1798. Many Belizeans can trace part of their ancestry to Jamaica, and many who can’t may still have unknown blood relatives in “Jamdown”.

However, because of the problem with Guatemala and its “unfounded claim” to this territory, Jamaican independence came long before Belize’s. Jamaica got its independence from the U.K. in 1962, while Belize languished in colonialism almost another twenty years, finally gaining independence in 1981. Nevertheless, there is a lot of blood connection and cultural and language similarities between the peoples of Belize and Jamaica. Our Kriol accent is different from theirs, but we understand each other very well.

In the area of sports, with the exception of basketball, and music in particular, Jamaica is miles ahead of Belize, where Jamaican reggae exploded on the international popular music stage through the pioneering efforts of Jimmy Cliff and later Bob Marley & The Wailers and others. Marketing their music and their artists has created a huge industry in Jamaica, where their artists have developed their music and entertainment skills to a very high level. Belize is far behind with our music, none of which has yet captured the level of popular international acclaim and appeal on the worldwide scene like Reggae has done. But we are working on it, and we’ll get there by and by, if we pay keen attention and learn from the successes of our Jamaican kinfolks.

Tourism is big business in all of the Caribbean, where many North Americans run for the sea and sun and beaches, especially in their winter time, when the weather is still relatively warm in our region. And again, with their independence head-start, Jamaica and most of the Caribbean are ahead of Belize in their tourist industry development. But we are getting there fast also, with more and more hotels and resorts, and tour guiding attractions, and cruise port developments to facilitate the disembarking of tourists from the cruise ships. But, as fast as development is occurring in Belize, with more and more, and bigger and bigger hotels and resorts being constructed on every available piece of coastal land or caye, it is perhaps a good time to check with our Jamaican “faamly” to see where they are, and determine if there are mistakes they might have made, that we can still avoid.

Belizeans have always been complaining about the unavailability of land for housing and farming; and the current lands ministry has been conducting clinics countrywide to try and assist citizens in this area. But it is admitted that there is only so much coastal lands or cayes, and conservation of the environment is a very serious issue, both in regard to the country’s Blue Bonds commitment, as well as to safeguard the mangrove forests that nurture our fishing industry, besides providing valuable protection against coastal erosion and impact from the effects of hurricanes.

The recent cries from common folks in Jamaica should draw our attention. Belize is certainly not there yet, and in this area we might say we are ahead of our Jamaican relatives. But now is certainly the time to seriously examine where we are going in the mad rush of tourism development, and try to ensure that certain aspects of our natural environment and access to culturally and commercially vital areas are maintained for the benefit of all Belizeans.

According to a recent YouTube documentary, “Why can’t Jamaicans access their own beaches?”, tourist hotels have taken up so much of their coastal beaches that ordinary fisherfolks have become displaced from their traditional access to fishing grounds. Not only that, their small boat fishing and jet skis rental industry have been severely curtailed because many of the beaches where individual Jamaican entrepreneurs used to operate are now closed off by big fences built by the new hotel developers. Development is great, but big investor development has to be weighed against the value of small entrepreneurial endeavors, where all the profits are bound to remain in the country. As the documentary notes, “The Caribbean is the most tourism-dependent region in the world. But according to the U.N. approximately 80% of all tourism dollars spent in the Caribbean end up leaving the region.”

Apparently, the problem in Jamaica stems from an old colonial law, the Beach Control Act of 1956, which states that “the British crown maintains all rights to the foreshore, and that the public has no inherent rights to access it.” Because the law is still in effect, “legally, Jamaicans are still not guaranteed the right to access the beach.” According to a local advocacy group, “less than 1% of Jamaica’s coastline is accessible to the public.” Meanwhile, “in other Caribbean countries like Barbados and Aruba, all beaches are considered public property.” We can include Belize in those; however, there have been instances where private owners have tried to block off their beaches from the public, and some have gotten away with it. The more big development occurs, like Ramada Princess, the more Belizeans will have to be on guard.

Activist Devon Taylor, president of Jabbem (Jamaican Beach Birthright Environmental Movement), in reference to a big hotel project, said, “My community that lives across from the road, less than 0.3 miles, cannot go to the beach. Tourists is monopolized. Comes off a plane, get into a bus, get onto a resort, never leave the resort. So, money that would have spend in the communities, no longer. It stays into multinational corporation that then leaves Jamaica.” The effect is also felt severely by tourism vendors who try to sell their souvenirs and food on the beach. Sounds familiar, Belizean tour guides and vendors?

It is painful to hear the cries of our grassroots Jamaican brothers and sisters in their battle against this crushing situation for their economic survival. One 70-year-old traditional fisherman, Norris Arscott, who looked just like one of our own fishermen from Conch Shell Bay, lamented with bridled anger and emotion, “… They are pushing us back. This colonial system is coming right back at us. I’m sick and I’m tired. I’ve been in this kind of life with these people called politicians. The majority of them is no good in Jamaica …”

While our kinfolks in Jamaica are battling to get the old colonial law repealed to secure their rights to access their beaches to earn a living and enjoy the sea, we in Belize need to remain vigilant, especially in revising our Constitution, against any encroachment upon our rights, including our rights to beach access which have occasionally been challenged by developers. Heads up, Belizeans! “The time to save your country …”

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