Editorial — 24 August 2019
ALL Belize’s best farm lands (and fishing spots) are taken

We Belizeans have seen so many murders in our country these past two and a half decades, that we should be untouched by the pain they cause, unless we are directly affected as family or close friends of a victim. But, when we think it can’t get any worse, it does.

All murders are cruel, but some of them have been particularly gruesome. We’ve seen people murdered as if they were vermin. It is standard practice in many cultures that a hunter or a butcher says a prayer before putting to death, in the most humane way possible, an animal intended for food. Game animals and livestock are treated more compassionately than some murder victims in Belize.

The explanations for the murders of young males are varied, with many being attributed to activities related to the drug trade. We don’t know if the murder of a young fisherman at Cross Cay last week falls into that category. We are drawn to this particular murder because of a story we got when the crime was first reported. It was not the most vicious murder we have read about recently, but it was shocking.

There are reports that the young fisherman did not have an immaculate past, but we will not pursue that, because it is not relevant to what we are about here. Our specific interest is the suggestion/story that the young fisherman and his colleagues were advised to leave the area where they were fishing, because it had an owner.

The Government of Belize has never registered parcels of territory in the sea, as it does on terra firma. The Government has sold islands, and leased plots on islands, and generally the seas near to these islands are respected as though the owners/lessees of the land have rights there. A fisherman might sneak up and see if they can make a catch of conch or lobsters or fish, when he believes the proprietors are away, but they would have to be hardened criminal types or fisher folk looking for a war, to remain in the area when the proprietors return.

There are areas of the sea that are desolate. The only fish in these areas are passing through, on their way to their feeding grounds. The rich areas of the sea have grass beds and corals. The spawning grounds are the mangroves. The unseeing destroy the mangroves because there is no commercial catch there. Everyone can see where the best fishing grounds are, and fisher folk, when they get used to fishing at a prized spot, lay claim to it as though the government had given them rights.

Those fisher folk who control the prized spots are envied by others in their profession. Members of the farming family envy those farmers who have prized plots too.

There are areas, on terra firma, that are infertile. These areas include swamps, pine ridge, and lands that are too hilly or mountainous to work. The farmers who are stuck on these unyielding lands dream of farming on a fertile plot.

The article, “Climate-Smart Agriculture in Belize”, authored primarily by Mr. Alfred F. Serano, and published on worldbank.org, says that of Belize’s 5,676,011 acres, approximately 38% (1,977,000 acres) is considered suitable for agriculture; only 16% of the land is suitable for mechanized agriculture, however. The report says 20% of Belize’s land is classified as Grade 3, meaning it needs “substantial investment to generate acceptable returns”, 20% is Grade 4 — “marginal land that can be used for the production of forest and plantation crops”, and 44% of our land is “extremely marginal.”

Good agricultural lands, like oil and minerals under the ground, are the prized natural resources of a country. These are the physical resources that give a country the capacity to feed, clothe, house, educate, and take care of the other needs of its citizens.

Good agricultural land, which is land that is fertile, easy to work, and accessible, was gone, taken, locked into ownership forty, fifty years ago. In the 1960s and 1970s the Government of Belize acquired land from big, foreign landowners and these lands, some of which were very good for farming, were distributed almost immediately in small and medium-sized parcels to Belizean farmers. Farmers who have come on the scene after that period could not access good farming land unless they inherited it or had very deep pockets.

No acquisition and redistribution of land has taken place after independence. There is no good agricultural land that isn’t privately owned, or in forest reserves which, for very sound reasons, must remain under forest cover. Most leased lands fall in the marginal category.

The Asians have very deep pockets, and so they have been able to purchase tracts that contain good land for farming. The Mennonites pooled their resources, and so they have been able to purchase some tracts of good farm land too. Both these groups have also gotten close to strategic Ministers in government, and it is believed that some have accessed good land on the periphery of the reserved areas.

Members of BGYEA (Belize Grassroots Youth Empowerment Association) were able to grab ahold of some land where ownership had lapsed, but the story we have is that the visionaries of that project were blocked from acquiring the better farm land in the area, land that was closer to the Sibun River.

Some farmers of More Tomorrow were also able to grab parts of a parcel that had apparently been sold to Asians who don’t live in Belize. We haven’t yet found out if the taxes were fully paid on the parcel, but what we know is that the land was not used by the people who bought it, and the farmers of More Tomorrow started to work the land. All reports are that the farmers have been there for over twenty years. Land experts say the Belizean farmers now have rights to the land.

Good farm land is not an easy commodity to come by in Belize. Farmers need GOOD land, and some of that might be locked up by the group of larger farmers who are getting tax relief from the government.

Good fishing grounds are not an easy commodity to come by in Belize either. Fisher folk might need to go farther out to sea to access those.

Retired World Bank economist says unused lands should be vested in government

Retired World Bank economic management specialist, Mr. Cornelius (Pat) Cacho, a Belizean, in an essay published in the Amandala in January 2019, explained that land as an economic asset is more important in a country like Belize than in a country like Singapore. “Singapore is relatively well-supplied with entrepreneurs and a highly skilled labor force and can depend more on the quality of its entrepreneurs and the skills of its workers to add economic value. In Belize where entrepreneurship and skills are in much shorter supply, we need to depend more on the land to create value,” Mr. Cacho said.

“…It follows,” he said, “that two of the main strands in an economic framework for land policy are (i) to maximize its productivity consistent with  (ii) maintaining its inherent properties, including safeguarding the environment.”

 “…Unused lands serve the public purpose best by being vested in the government rather than in private ownership,” Mr. Cacho said. “…Idle land does not confer any economic benefits. Land is most beneficial in the use which maximizes its production.”

The present tax amnesty proposed by the government, specifically where it concerns large land owners, is on a completely opposite track to that suggested by the World Bank expert. Responding to the suggestion that the government should move to acquire these large tracts of land, the Prime Minister said it was a difficult process to complete if the land owners chose to resist.

The quantity of good farm land these large tracts contain must be of interest to Belize. There is a dearth of good land available, and as a consequence farmers are forced to work on lands that are not very productive for agriculture. A country whose backbone is agriculture must ensure that its best farm lands are properly utilized.

Owners of large tracts who are utilizing their land for farming also need to be scrutinized. Belize has never farmed large, solid blocks of land. In between our parcels of sugarcane, citrus, bananas, grain, and livestock, we have always had milpas and forested areas, and these helped to maintain the biodiversity. We are beginning to see the type of farming we previously referred to, which is to say, thousands of acres under a single crop in a solid block, in our country. This system leads to ecological disasters.

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Deshawn Swasey

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