If we judged the financial health of Belize by the streets in the cities and towns that tourists are encouraged to walk on, and the places that they are encouraged to visit, we would say that our country belongs in the category occupied by the well-off and rich.
Albert Street and Seashore Drive in Belize City, and Burns Avenue in San Ignacio Town, are scenic and in spots prosperous. San Pedro, Placencia, and the Island Resorts, are places only the wealthy, or people who were born there, can afford. A lot of regular folk live in Caye Caulker and Hopkins, but these are places where the property values are beyond the pockets of most Belizeans.
If we judged our country’s financial health by the projects in the budget just presented in the House of Representatives, we would say that we are living in a country that has no need for investments in agriculture, manufacturing, health, housing and technology. We would say that our agriculture and manufacturing and other important sectors are running at near top capacity, and so we have to search for projects in which to invest.
You really have to have money to burn, to invest nearly two hundred million dollars in a road into the wilderness. In the old days, when we depended on our forests for our construction needs and for export earnings, we opened dirt roads to pull out logs. This Caracol Road is not intended to serve such a purpose. If any trees are cut down and the logs hauled out, the loggers will be hauled off to court to be punished to the full extent of the law, for injuring the breathtaking scenery.
The Caracol Road is not intended to serve the agriculture sector. The Caracol Road, for the most part, passes through pine ridge forest, and these are the worst lands for agricultural purposes. There are a few villages at the north end of the road, but they don’t need a first world highway to Caracol to get out their produce. They would prefer less investment in the Caracol Road, and that some of the funds earmarked for that project be diverted to improve the roads that lead to their farms.
The Prime Minister winded up the budget debate last week with the revelation that the country’s main opposition, the PUP, had commissioned studies for designs for the Caracol Road and the Coastal Road. The PUP’s interest in the Caracol Road does not justify the UDP government spending 180 million dollars to make what the PUP dreamed become reality. A bad decision is a bad decision and a good decision is a good decision, whether the PUP or the UDP hatched it.
The decision to rehabilitate the Caracol Road is not bad. What is bad is the cost, the extraordinarily high cost. The British colonizers are accused of being nearsighted because they built one-lane roads and one-lane bridges. They are accused of not planning for the future. The British could have done better, but they are not without some saving grace. The roads and bridges they built were well-constructed, and if they were not futuristic, well, two-lane roads and two-lane bridges will one day be considered¯insufficient.
You don’t need training in engineering to know that after years of weathering and traffic, the foundation of the Caracol Road is sound, well compacted. You don’t need to be trained in meteorology to know that climate change is exponentially less a concern in hill country. As climate change goes, the Caracol Road is very low risk, the Coastal Road is a risk only in spots, and the Corozal to Sarteneja Road, which is also up for rehabilitation, is high risk throughout.
It can’t be too late to rewind the Caracol Road project. The House of Representatives should debate scrapping the climate change component of this road, and they should consider the merits of constructing a one-lane road at this time. The Caracol Road doesn’t need two paved lanes. The greater part of the traffic goes IN, in the morning, and goes OUT, in the afternoon, so half of the road is wasted half of the day. A paved single lane will serve adequately if the right of way goes to the in-going folk in the morning, and the right of way goes to the OUT-going folk in the afternoon.
The expenditure on the Caracol Road should be 50 million dollars, not 180 million. Fifty years from now, when we are a prosperous country, a single-lane Caracol Road might still be sufficient. There will be no villages springing up alongside most of this road because the land it passes through is not good for agriculture. There’ll be no cutting of logs, for that would ruin the beauty of the forest. Fifty years from now there will still be minimal traffic going out with products for the market, in the morning.
For reasons that are difficult to comprehend, our present government appears to not know how Belizeans are making it at this time. The small farmers, many big farmers, the bus operators who are not in the tourism business, the small tour operators, are among the many in Belize who can’t be happy with this superhighway to Caracol.
What is clear in Belize is that there are a lot of people who are scrambling to survive. The crime in the country says a lot. The week’s news cycle is dominated by robberies in every corner.
Our government, it seems, thinks that we have so little need in our country that we can make a huge investment in this road. It is ill-conceived at the price, and so it should be scaled down. The people of Belize — the farmers, small tour operators, the students, those in ill-health — would benefit more if $100 million of this Caracol Road project was invested elsewhere. The people will have to pay back the loan, so they must derive the most benefit from it.
It is not impossible that loans for road construction are the only kinds we can access at this time. (Lenders have their reasons why they will entertain only certain types of loans). It is the case that we are strapped for cash, so the government has some justification for borrowing for the Caracol Road project. Most of the investment will go to import materials, but there will be jobs for Belizeans and profits for a few.
Accepting that we are not in the best economic state at this time, we don’t rail at our government when it grabs for all it can borrow out there. However, we have to tap them on the shoulder when they are not being prudent. This Caracol Road project needs to be scaled down, to something more within our budget, something more practical.