In a letter written by Henry Young, Sr., titled “Inquiring Minds Re: Stann Creek Pier”, the writer wanted to know what was the reason or reasons, that the new PUP government revoked a contract that was granted to a company RSL by the outgoing Dean Barrow UDP administration, to operate their business at Commerce Bight Pier — “Jettie Pier”, located in the southern part of Dangriga in the Garifuna people’s reserve lands. When the Garifuna Nation heard about this contract that was granted, they wrote a letter to RSL and the new government indicating their concerns to find out if the Garifuna people and their organizations were consulted before the contract was awarded. A major decision like this requires a series of town hall meetings, focus groups and consultation and approval by the residents of Dangriga before this decision can be made. Our people were not aware of any of these requirements being met. Up to this day, neither the RSL company nor the Government of Belize has responded to the letter sent by the Garifuna Nation.
The Commerce Bight Pier was built by the British in 1909 to facilitate the shipment of locally grown bananas overseas. The bananas were brought from the Stann Creek Valley on railroad to the port. When the Panama disease affected the banana industry in Stann Creek Valley, the banana farmers began to plant citrus instead of bananas. Commerce Bight Port is the deepest port in the entire country of Belize. The Commerce Bight Pier and the areas surrounding it, are located in the Garifuna Reserve Crown Lands in the southern part of Dangriga Town. There are also Garifuna Reserve Crown Lands in the northern part of Dangriga Town in the Long Bank area off Melinda Road and about 600 acres that was granted to Thomas Vincent Ramos, the founder and president of the Carib Development Society (CDS), in the 1900s for farming in the Sarawee area on the All Weather Road. Many of these lands were and are being leased and sold by the Government of Belize, without consultation with, or the written consent of, the Garifuna people in Dangriga Town. From the time the Garifuna people landed in Dangriga in 1802, they have been using the Commerce Bight Pier and the entire area to go fishing, hunting, farming and to conduct other customary and traditional functions.
This pier was given to Luke Espat in 2002 when the People’s United Party was in power under the leadership of the then Prime Minister Said Musa. He was granted a contract, without the government consulting with and obtaining the consent of the Garifuna people from Dangriga Town, which is in violation of ILO-169, International Law, the Garifuna Crown Lands Act granted to the Garifuna people by the British and other Treaties and Conventions that relate to Indigenous Peoples’ Land Rights. When Belize Ports Limited took over the pier, they constructed a fence at the entrance of the pier to stop the Garifuna people from using the pier, and it has been that way since 2002. During the general election campaign of 2008, the UDP pledged in their manifesto, that if the people of Dangriga elected them, they would take the pier away from Luke Espat and return it to the Garifuna people so that they can get jobs.
The UDP won that election by a landslide and won two other elections after 2008 and were in power up until November of 2020, when they lost to the PUP. After twelve years in office, the UDP had not returned the pier to the Garifuna people. Instead, they went ahead and issued a contract to RSL without seeking the consent and approval of the Garifuna people in Dangriga Town. When the PUP came to power in November, they reexamined the contract and voided it in the House of Representatives for their own reasons, which they tabled in parliament. Both the PUP and the UDP have been depriving the people of Dangriga, of the use of their pier. This pier has played a vital role in the economic development and survival of the Dangriga people for centuries. My family and friends along with other residents from Dangriga, used to go to this pier to fish when I was a child growing up. Also, when the ships came, many stevedores were employed by the Southern Workers Christian Union to load and unload the cargoes.
The Garifuna people and nation are not against the use of Commerce Bight Pier, because they were using it for centuries until the PUP ceded it to Luke Espat and his company in 2002. What the Garifuna people and nation want is to be consulted on the use of the pier with a plan that will be examined by them so that they can weigh the benefits and risks in its use. Years ago there was a village in that area by the name of Youngtown that was devastated by a hurricane. That led to the villagers moving to “Yugadah,” now known as Hopkins and Dangriga Town. Gra Gra Creek, an estuary, is also in that vicinity, and if there are any oil spills or environmental hazards, it will gravely affect the lives of animals, birds, plants and human beings living in that vicinity.
Members of the Garifuna Nation have examined the RSL proposals, and there are some major concerns about what RSL is planning to do at the Commerce Bight Pier and on our lands in that area. We the Garifuna people must be consulted and we must decide if we will grant consent for the intended purpose and use of our lands. Also, an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) must be conducted and be made available to the Garifuna people before any license can be issued. The pier and the area has great economic potential, but the right procedures must be followed. The Garifuna people are in favor of reopening the pier so that they can gain employment and enjoy the use of it, as they have been doing for centuries.