Let us pause, and take stock of The Jewel
Monday, October 16, 2023
With local media focused on sensational court cases and the political histrionics at our House Meeting, and news of international upheavals in the Middle East keeping Belizeans on edge with fears of more rising prices, there has been somewhat of a lull recently in public attention to matters relating to the “8867” that were center stage when the decision was made to go to the ICJ to finally address the “unfounded Guatemalan claim” to our territory. But, while we await the outcome of that ICJ case, with Belizeans mostly confident of securing our “territorial integrity” which was affirmed at the United Nations in 1981, there is a steady flow of transactions taking place, with the land that constitutes this Jewel methodically changing hands in business transactions that mostly result in less of the 8867 being owned by Belizeans. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is great for development when it involves creation of new industries and enhancing productivity in the value-added aspect of our traditional agricultural and marine products. But there is one area of foreign investment that should inspire careful assessment and monitoring by those charged with safeguarding the people’s welfare and rights in the Jewel; and that is in the area of real estate, a booming business in Belize right now.
“Land” has always been a very hot topic in Belize, from colonial days when it seemed only “big people” could own large acreages of land while the general citizenry had to spend lots of time going “up and down” to the Lands Department trying to secure a little “2 x 4” plot in the Jewel to build their home. With self-government in 1964, and then Independence in 1981, more and more could be done by the government in terms of making land available to the landless, and there have been numerous drives over the years by both PUP and UDP administrations to provide house lots to the Belizean people in urban as well as rural areas. Inevitably, along the way there have been some shady transactions, where certain lands ministers were suspected of showering their family, friends and business associates with choice pieces of real estate for a pittance, or there have been individuals with political connections who have appeared to be able to get house lots “hand over fist”, only to turn these over into cash by selling to others, and still be able to go back and get another piece of land from the government. It is called the land hustle, and the land usually ends up in foreign hands.
In this context, the cry for communal land ownership by certain Maya villagers has some merit, because this may be the best way to protect the group from individuals’ intent on just selling their birthright to strangers to the detriment of future generations. It is said that in the Mennonite communities, they do have communal land ownership, and those wishing to secure a loan with their tract of land as collateral, would just forfeit their land back to the community if they reneged on their payments; thus, the land remains in the Mennonite community. However, with their traditional lifestyle that protects the land and integrity of the water resources, there is perhaps no better stewardship for the sustainability of national lands than communal ownership by Maya groups, whose farming practices are traditionally far less destructive than those in Mennonite communities who are inclined towards large-scale commercial one-crop operations.
Belize was until recently touted as the “best kept secret” in the world of tourism; but it could probably be accurately claimed that we have somewhat “arrived”, as an esteemed journal recently identified almost half of the top twenty tourist destinations in the Caribbean as being located in Belize. We’re getting there, alright. It did not specify how many of those resorts were owned by Belizeans, however. A “top of the line” hotel by international standards certainly requires a major investment, and it follows that, with land prices in choice locations, especially coastal and caye areas, going into the stratosphere, few resident Belizeans have the financial leverage to compete in that area.
Our environmentalists have been consistent watchdogs against any proposed major development project that would involve the clearing of large swaths of mangrove in coastal or marine areas. Both for their protection of our coastal areas from erosion, especially during hurricanes and other harsh weather episodes, as well as for providing a nursery for a great variety of marine life, so critical to our fishing and tourist industries, mangroves are precious to the future well-being of all Belizeans. Our environmentalists have in the past couple years been vocal with their concerns over certain aspects of three proposed cruise tourism port developments in the vicinity of Belize City, with concerns for the mangroves being one of their principal grievances.
But, until there is a published development plan for a project that might endanger the mangroves or the ecosystem in a major way, those in our environmental community may not be bothered enough to raise any alarm when mangrove-covered real estate is changing hands, with obvious implications. Whatever their rationale, we think it is best to raise our guard before the blow comes to knock us down. And in recent months, our attention has been drawn to two items that have seemingly drawn no response from the experts.
When “private” land transactions are taking place, it appears that it should be “none of our business”. But when what was once believed to be national lands, and huge swaths of it, which are basically swamp lands covered with mangrove, is being advertised for sale in the public market, we should all pay attention. And we have every right to inquire if these lands ended up in private hands by morally legitimate means, if indeed legal. And if a moral crime was committed against the Belizean people, whose patrimony it became, once ownership had shifted from the “Crown” to the nation at Independence, then we the people have a right to know. Only by exposing corruption now can we safeguard the Jewel against such corruption in the future.
It is apparently a booming legitimate business, the real estate industry, all a part of development. For example, one 8.24-acre mangrove island in the Drowned Cayes range is currently being advertised for sale on the internet at just over one million US dollars PER ACRE; that’s like two million BZ dollars per acre. And it’s going, going, … Obviously, all those islands, mangrove or not, dotting the Belize coastline behind the Barrier Reef are potential sales, if real estate agents can get ahold of them. The question is, how can that be done if GoB is committed to preserve our mangrove islands as part of our Blue Bonds commitment?
The devil is in the details, and what is already private land is outside the purview of GoB. So, here comes Water Caye, that huge mangrove spread just northwest of English Caye. An ad on page 15 of last weekend’s Amandala states it bluntly, “private 560+ acre island with an Existing 10-Acre Resort” is going up for “Auction 3-10 October”. Oops! That means it might already be gone. There is some big money out there, and Belize is the “best kept secret”. What’s next, Belize? Sell it all off?
We want development, and our people want the good things in life, so it stands to reason that politicians will be eager to encourage investors to pump their dollars into our economy, providing jobs in construction, and then in servicing when the resorts are completed, and the nation continues to benefit from the taxes. It’s all good; it seems.
However, we would suggest that it is worth our while to take a pause, and look down the road, and consider if we want to continue on the same path all the way to the end – when there is no more land within reach of “baan ya” Belizeans. After all, we can never forget the words of national hero, Philip Goldson, who warned that “the time to save your country, is before you lose it.” Are we losing Belize, land sale by land sale right now?