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Home Editorial Toledo Mayans saw logging contracts as return to 1492

Toledo Mayans saw logging contracts as return to 1492

Shortly after Belize got its Independence, leaders of the Maya in rural Toledo became alarmed about contracts that had been given to foreign companies, most notably to Atlantic Industries from Malaysia, to extract logs in nearly 500,000 acres of the Columbia Forest Reserve and other areas in the district. Juliet Litterer, in a 1997 study for ICE titled “Belize Logging Conflict”, said the Belize government, to gain foreign currency, sold the rights to exploit the forest for US$0.60 per acre.

The contractors came with giant bulldozers and chainsaws and skidders and monster 4-wheel drive trucks, and when villagers went into the forest to hunt and fish, to gather medicinal plants to cure their illnesses, and to cut thatch and timber to build their houses, they saw the prized trees cut down, and the flora the logging companies didn’t desire, trampled. They saw the banks of the Columbia River caved in where the big machines violated the 66-foot reserve (buffer), and streams and rivulets diverted or blocked by debris.

The leaders of the Maya saw the future, and what they saw looked very much like 1492. Because they knew history, they knew that after the loggers had despoiled the forest, the land would be divided into huge tracts and distributed to newcomers, newcomers who would stop their children from accessing the bounty from which their ancestors gained their sustenance.

In 1492 the Spaniards, a technologically advanced people who were intent on increasing their material riches, landed in this continent called the Americas. In this cyclical world, people build on what other people had done before, and in 1492 the Spaniards were on top technologically.

Looking at a map of the so-called Old World, at its center lies the Middle East, the area of the present world that is the most volatile, at least since the British carved out a piece of Palestine and gave it to the displaced Jews after World War II. On the fringes are Russia and nearby territories, and Oceania, and Southern Africa. Surrounded by North Africa, Europe, and Asia, the area was a melting pot for knowledge, in the areas of science and philosophy and economic systems.

Probably the most advanced people in the first millennia were the Moors of North Africa, and in 711 when they invaded Spain, which they occupied for 800 years, they were certainly well ahead of the Europeans in the sciences and many other areas. Around 1440, a man from Germany named Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, giving the Europeans the capacity to mass produce books that contained the knowledge they had gained from lands afar, books which they used to educate and culture their students and elite. From thence they took the lead.

Actually, it wasn’t a European who invented the printing press. Heather Whipps, in the story “How Gutenburg Changed The World”, which can be found on the website, livescience.com, says that the honor of inventing the printing press goes to the Chinese, who from around A.D. 600 had “a printing technique using wooden blocks with multiple words to press or rub texts onto paper.” Whipps said the Chinese developed movable type a few hundred years later, but their invention didn’t catch on because “with over 10,000 common characters in their language, the process was cumbersome…”

When the Spaniards came to the so-called New World, they had the knowledge of Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. Probably the people on this side of the world who had attained the highest level of technological advancement — stunning heights in the areas of astronomy, agriculture, and architecture — were the Maya, but that was prior to the 1492 invasion.

In the north the Plains Indians, mostly nomadic, lived in a land where wild game and fruits and nuts were plentiful, and with no need to tame the earth, they developed an economic system that ensured the least harm to their environment. They did some farming, but most of their investment was in their culture, their religion, and laws to live with each other and with nature.

In the area we know now as Mexico, the Aztecs developed sophisticated farming systems with drainage and irrigation, and they established towns and cities, some with thousands of people. The Aztecs constructed spectacular buildings, and they had a calendar and a religion. In South America the Inca had a vast empire. They built roads and bridges, irrigation canals for their fields and waterways to channel water to their cities; they had a disciplined society and they had a calendar and religion.

The peoples of the Americas were civilized, organized, and technologically sufficient, but they were no match for the newcomers. They were outgunned militarily, in the sciences, and in ambition/greed for material wealth.

The newcomers in 1492 plundered the resources of the Maya, but that is not a surprise, because they were invaders, not invited guests. After we became an independent country in 1981, our leaders opened the doors to investors, but many of them came not to partner with us. They came to exploit our forests, without care, and without replanting what they had extracted. They came with cash to take control of prime properties on the coast, the cayes, and in the countryside, and they came to take over the business of the nation.

If the Maya hadn’t taken a stand, the foundation of their culture and economy would have been destroyed. Their success is an inspiration to other roots Belizeans who greeted Independence with hope and now find themselves on the edge of the cliff financially. In urban areas the majority of roots Belizeans are living hand to mouth, and in the countryside they are no better off.

The small farmers in the north and mid-south — the small sugarcane farmers and the small citrus growers — are peons now, with much of their lands taken over by the wealthy. In rural Belize, the west, and deep-south, the children of the small grain growers are all lining up for jobs with the government, for their forebears’ farms have all been sold or taken over by the forest.

At a time when we are a people desperate for stories with encouraging endings, maybe especially because of the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is this story of triumph. If the leaders of Mayan Belizeans in Toledo hadn’t taken a stand, their children would have lost their rights to almost all of the lands surrounding their villages. They didn’t, and the victory of the Maya in Toledo gives hope to other roots Belizeans, hope that they too can ensure 1981 was not like 1492.

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