The demonstration this week in Belmopan against the rosewood extraction moratorium declared last week by the Government of Belize gives you an idea of why it is difficult to govern Belize in this modern era. Villagers involved in the rosewood extraction business travelled all the way from Toledo to Belmopan to protest the moratorium, and the television cameras carried their displeasure nationwide the same evening.
Media coverage of rosewood extraction in Toledo had previously been dominated, for months and years, by criticism. People’s National Party (PNP) Leader, Wil Maheia, had been at the forefront of the conservation lobby which was arguing that rosewood extraction and export in Toledo was being carried out in a shortsighted and unsustainable way. Maheia’s argument, and it was a strong and sensible one, was that Belize and Belizeans had much more to gain in the long run by working the raw rosewood ourselves, thus, in classic economic terms, adding value to it before exportation. As it has been, Belize rosewood is being exported raw to Asian markets where finished rosewood products are commanding incredible prices compared to what is being paid for rosewood logs and lumber in Toledo.
In the general elections held two weeks ago, however, Toledo returned two People’s United Party (PUP) candidates, Mike Espat in Toledo East and Oscar Requeña in Toledo West, who came to Belize City this week to defend rosewood extraction on national radio and television. Wil Maheia had run in Toledo East, but had been easily beaten by both Mike Espat and the United Democratic Party (UDP) incumbent, Peter Eden Martinez.
Strictly speaking, therefore, the UDP government decision to halt rosewood extraction went against the political grain in Toledo. In appeasing the conservation lobby, Cabinet had, whether consciously or unconsciously, ignored the Toledo general election results. No one in the rest of the country knew that Mike Espat and Oscar Requeña were pro-rosewood extraction until they appeared in Belize City this week.
A few years ago, Maya villagers in the Toledo District began agitating for communal land ownership and customary land rights. Their campaign had international support, and became headline news in the highest courts of this land. Meanwhile, there was a dissident group of Toledo villagers, also Maya but involved in the cacao production and export industry, who argued for private land ownership.
Then there is the question of seismic oil exploration and protected areas/national parks in the Toledo District. The U.S. Capital oil company has created jobs in Toledo for those villagers involved in their exploration for petroleum deposits, but the traditionalist and environmentalist Maya elements say that this oil exploration is not only damaging their homelands, but is illegal because it is being done in protected areas/national parks.
Toledo used to be referred to as Belize’s “forgotten district.” In the colonial days, it was so difficult to reach Toledo that the people of Toledo were interacting more with nearby Guatemalan towns and villages than they were with the rest of Belize. So it was that when Belize began approaching independence in the 1970’s, and the ruling PUP was soliciting regional and international support from some governments which the Guatemalan government considered dangerously left wing, Guatemalan money financed Toledo politicians who were openly pro-Guatemala. The rest of Belize could not understand the pro-Guatemala business in Toledo, but the people of Toledo had been cut off from the rest of Belize from time immemorial.
And, Toledo was Belize’s poorest district where per capita income was concerned. Even as its magnificent natural resources become opened up to the rest of Belize, and indeed the world, the people of Toledo are still poor. When job opportunity presents itself in the form of oil exploration or rosewood extraction, therefore, it is hard for Toledo villagers to refuse the financial stimulus. We environmentalists can scream all we want, but the problem is, as the old saying goes, keeping the cow fed and alive while waiting for the grass to grow. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The rest of Belize can’t judge Toledo: their situation is different from ours.
It is not only Toledo, however, which has to make difficult decisions. Consider this, that the family which owns this newspaper comes from a maritime tradition which includes fishing, the merchant marine, and the sea wing of Belize Customs. When tourism began to intrude here as far back as the late 1950’s, we were hostile to it. Around the same time, seismic oil testing had begun in Belizean offshore areas, but it was clandestine. The colonial government did not inform us natives of it, or we would have protested. Tourism began to invade Belize big time after the UDP came to office in 1984, and exploded in the 1990’s. The thing is that when the oil industry began here for real in 2005, we traditional marine people, in effect, had a decision to make – tourism or oil. And it was clear that fishing was more compatible with tourism than with oil.
But, there are many Belizeans who have no maritime tradition, and they are desperate for an upgrade in their standard of living. The UDP were returned to office while openly supporting oil exploration to an extent which alienated the conservation lobby, and that includes us back here on Partridge. Oil represents quick bucks, but environmental danger.
You see why we say it is difficult to govern Belize in the modern era. Because there are so many options, there are different arguments. The solution is supposed to be democracy, which is to say, the rule of the majority. But what if the majority is ignorant, misinformed, or misled? Fact is, they are still the majority. The road is long, with many a winding turn …
Power to the people.