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Saving the New River is saving our Great Barrier Reef

FeaturesSaving the New River is saving our Great Barrier Reef

Our wonderful New River has been the victim of corporate savagery during the past 52 years since 1967 when Tate and Lyle/BSI (Belize Sugar Industries) began sugar milling operations at Bound-to-Shine, now known as Tower Hill.

Victims have been the wildlife and people whose sustenance/livelihood depends on the New River: the communities of Chan Pine Ridge, Tower Hill, Carmelita, Guinea Grass, to name only a few.

To talk of the New River is to talk about our very rich history: (1) It was an ancient Maya trading route of the Maya, then named Dzuilhuinicob (River of Strange People, River of Foreigners). Trade came from the highlands of present-day Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, via the New River, to the lowlands in the Yucatan and as far away as Teotihuacan in the valley of Mexico, about 30 miles outside Mexico City. (I have been there).

(2) Not only the Maya used the New River. The Spanish and the English used it, and modern-day tourists use the New River to enjoy our ancient history. (3) In 1618, two Franciscan friars named Bartolome de Fuensalida and Juan de Orbita used the New River to go to Lamanai to establish Spanish churches in a failed attempt to try and convert the Maya to Catholicism.

(4) In the 1600s, 1700s and parts of the 1900s, the English used the New River when they were extracting exotic tropical woods (mahogany, cedar, zericote, sapodilla, rosewoods, logwoods/dyewoods, etc, that were floated down the river out to the sea to Belize City to be chipped in blocks for export all over Europe.

(5) Since 1967, billions of US dollars and Euros have floated over the river in the form of sugar.

(6) Since 1986, when Lamanai was opened to the public, hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world use the New River when they go to Lamanai to enjoy our ancient history. Millions will do so in the foreseeable future.

Very few people know that the New River is one of the most unique river systems of Central America. Prior to 1967, with the advent of Tate and Lyle/BSI (Belize Sugar Industries), the waters of the New River were the most clean, clear, beautiful and pristine river system of Central America. Prior to 1986, almost nobody in Belize would have imagined the great economic impact the New River would have on the Belizean economy via tourism, with both overnight and cruise ship visitors flocking to Lamanai in record numbers weekly.

A tour to Lamanai is an exhilarating experience. Visitors marvel at the beauty of the river, and the excitement increases the more they travel up the river with each new turn and bend. It’s like being on a roller coaster ride. The New River is perhaps the only river system in Central America that defies gravity, because it flows from south (down) going up (north). Because of the face of the earth, rivers tend to flow from north to south, east to west, west to east and every place in between. The New River defies that gravitational convention.

Unlike other river systems in Belize that are mountain-fed from the highlands, the New River is spring-fed from underneath. This is one of the reasons that when it rains in the highlands, we never see dead trees, broken branches, logs, garbage or debris floating down the river as I have seen on the Belize Old River when I do Altun Ha/ river tours during the rainy season.

An effective tour of the New River/Lamanai is loved by nature lovers, sun worshipers and archaeology buffs because many (academic) disciplines come into effect:  (1) Maya history and culture; (2) Maya archaeology, because of the stones that tell us their tales; (3) epigraphy (the science of glyph reading) because of the wonderful Stella 9 at Lamanai that depicts a Lamanai ruler in full royal regalia, accompanied by a hieroglyphic text that bears a calendar text and a political proclamation; (4) botany, because of the great amount of orchids, bromeliads, palms, medicinal plants and trees that are on the banks of the river; (5) zoology, because of the array of animal life that can be seen, which includes river otters (locally known as water dogs), iguanas, jaguars, tapirs, deer, crocodiles, turtles, bats, and other wildlife seen on the New River; (6) ornithology, because of the abundance of bird life that depend on the river for their livelihood. These include, but are not limited to, jabiru storks, tiger herons, purple gallinules, northern jacanas, to name a few.

As a young boy in the 1960s going to school at La Inmaculada RC School here in Orange Walk Town, I learned to swim and dive, without a mask in the pristine waters of the New River. On Saturdays I used to go and fish at the BEC (Belize Estate Company) wharf. I remember a fish I used to like and admire which is now extinct, known in the books as Needle-nosed Fish, locally known as “Long Guard”.

In a straight line, the BSI/ASR sugar factory and the Ingenio Obregon sugar factory in the state of Quintana Roo in southern Mexico are less than 20 miles apart. Each sugar factory has a river near it — the New River by BSI/ASR and the proud Rio Hondo near to Ingenio Obregon. Every year since 1967 to 2019 (that’s 52 years), the New River gets polluted. That’s been during Tate and Lyle/BSI, and now with BSI/ASR, it has gotten worse. This year BSI/ASR has savaged the New River with its worst

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