The hills of the Maya Mountain range, which form a silhouette that resembles the physical features of a man, have taken on the identity of the “Sleeping Giant” and have inspired many a storyteller, artist and, yes, farmer. On a clear day, this national landmark on the Hummingbird Highway is clearly identifiable from as far away as Mile 25 on the George Price Highway when one is travelling from Belize City to Belmopan. But everyone agrees that it is much more picturesque a view from the Sibun River valley on the Hummingbird Highway.
In early June 2021, a phenomenon began on the morning of June 8th when, notwithstanding a torrential downpour of rain the night before, a pale bluish plume of smoke could be seen rising out of the “belly of the giant”. Amateur video taken at the site some 1,000 arduous feet up the slope of this mountain went viral. The stark contrast of smoke against lush green tropical rainforest fueled a social media frenzy as online viewers tried to find a plausible explanation. Theories ranged from the scary: volcanic activity; to the possible: steam rising from underground caverns as water met hot rocks; to the improbable but not impossible: meteoroids or space debris; to the religious: an act of God. And the most common online guess? The giant was smoking weed.
This went on for almost two weeks until an official expedition team from various Government departments conducted a range of tests at the site. Their findings were anti-climactic in comparison with the expectations of all. The smoke was from fire that had been caused by lightning which resulted in a forest fire that is still sweeping across the high-elevation escarpments of this mountain—the first such event in more than 70 years and the cause of a significant loss of broadleaf forest biodiversity.
But the point of my article is not to revisit this “lightning strike” as an occurrence in isolation but rather to narrate a personal conclusion I’ve reached in regard to this image and what could be learnt from these “signs and wonders” taking place on a national landmark for all to see. In my humble opinion, this event is no random act nor coincidental “act of God”. I believe there is a giant issue smoldering within, and if we do not wake up, it will only bring mayhem and chaos to our beloved Belize.
Belize, like so many other nations, is trying to get its economic footing following the devastating onslaught of COVID-19 on its main income-earner, tourism. Our financial crisis today is compounded by decades of gross mismanagement of the public coffers. In this effort, the Government of Belize is experimenting with creating new industries in agriculture, thus highlighting the bright and promising economic opportunities of industrial hemp as a new Belizean agricultural commodity.
The production of industrial hemp is being touted as bearing unparalleled economic windfall benefits for small and large farmers. Hemp and cannabis are both from the Cannabis Sativa family. You could describe marijuana and hemp as siblings—related and with similarities, but each having their own personalities, characteristics, and chemical compounds. What we know as marijuana is the cannabis products made from flowers, leaves, stems and seeds of the cannabis plant.
The Government of Belize has already decriminalized possession of 10 grams of marijuana without any accompanying legislation to determine its source of production. After all, you cannot possess it if someone did not grow it and sell it. Police blotter statistics since then attest to the emergence of increased gang rivalries for turf control of this windfall market of “legal” consumption but “illegal” distribution. In addition to that flawed and missing clause within the 10+gram decriminalization legislation, is a new legislative measure to declare the growing and possession of hemp a legal component of Belize’s Gross Domestic Product.
I believe this is a more than a slippery slope. Just as the first sign of that small plume of pale, bluish smoke emanating out the crevice on the Sleeping Giant seemed innocent and enthralling, this directional step of passing industrial hemp legislation will result in a changed landscape in the way Belize, as a nation, earns its GDP. As a consequence, it may very well further add to our already troubled banking sector in the area of correspondent banking and will, no doubt, heighten the tensions among the gangs of Belize.
As was described in regard to the Sleeping Giant, the “lightning strike” of this move will be hailed by proponents of this industrious Hemp legislation as the quick and sure fix to our economic woes. But the issue of cannabis has been simmering for decades. With all its chemical intricacies and compositions, this multi-layered cannabis legislation will give rise to a “deep smoldering detritus fire” that will slowly but surely burn its way into the moral fabric and economic stability of our nation. In my view, it will invite another serious national security issue in addition to the already ongoing dilemma of preventing drug planes from invading our airspace and landing at will within our country. The financial aspect is just as serious, given that even though cannabis is legal in several parts of the world, many growers cannot even access loans and account services. Most banks will not touch hemp money, even when prohibitions are lifted, because the legality of cannabis is so clouded. And in the hemp-and-cannabis poster card state of Colorado, testimonials from “licensed producers” attest to serious personal security issues and fear for their life and property.
I cannot discern any meaningful benefit nor determine how we will achieve economic stability from such an industry covered by such uncertainty, controversy, and risk. If we think that these drug planes are the only thing we need to worry about, watch and see the crop of players that will “legally” emerge from within this “promising” Hemp industry.
On this issue of promoting the production of industrial hemp, I hope that “giant within us” will arise to speak out and register our objection to this sort of legislation before it gives rise to fiery issues which will be difficult to put out once passed.
Look at the silhouette of the Sleeping Giant today; gone is the “innocent-looking” plume of smoke on its side; in its place is now an uncontrolled and spreading forest fire destroying this broadleaf rainforest. And this will, as a consequence of rains yet to come, most likely produce destructive landslides.
The truth is that we all stood by as passive bystanders as this fire grew. We all looked and saw smoke, but failed to see the fire. As a consequence, we did not react to contain its spread. Now the damage is done.
This Marijuana / Industrial Hemp legislation is something we should all be concerned about. We should see it for what it is. Is the “Sleeping Giant” trying to tell us something? Are we listening, or are we too preoccupied with the sensationalism of the “smoke” and are failing to see the destruction in the making? This is my voice, my belief.
But as Evan “Mose” Hyde put it in June 2008: “The people of Belize da di sleeping giant. Dat da di real giant”.
Wake up, Belize!