Our country is going through a particularly bad period with COVID-19, with cases of the disease climbing at a pace that, if not abruptly arrested, will certainly overwhelm our health system. Some say that we shouldn’t be frightened by the disease because the mortality rate is not that high; however, in small countries like ours, every person counts. We lost a popular Belizean to the disease last week, and we are so few in number, it touched everyone.
Some scientists, call them doomsayers if you will, say that there are worse diseases than COVID-19 lurking out there, diseases that will impact human beings in the decades just ahead of us. If such predictions come true, our environmentalists and serious agriculturists will be among those who are the least surprised.
Human beings are relentless in their efforts to increase material wealth, and due to those efforts the forests are under constant, merciless attack by bulldozers. The increased disruption of the delicate balance in the environment, as observed in monoculture farming, leads to major outbreaks of diseases and insect pests.
Right now the focus is on COVID-19, and there is light at the end of the tunnel, with vaccines on pace for early next year, and rapid tests for the disease that are becoming more and more efficient. The first vaccines might not prove to be as effective as the world is hoping they will be, but they should give us a better chance of surviving the disease. The rapid tests obviously won’t cure anyone, but properly utilized, they will allow for reduced restrictions so that people can go about the business of earning their daily bread.
These advances in prevention and detection of the disease are coming fast, but not fast enough. Our economy, similar to the economies of most countries in our region, is staggering because of the pandemic, and some experts are predicting that it might take many years for economies like ours to recover if the downward spiral continues for much longer. A lot hangs on how we manage the present spike in cases, and that means that all of us are called to do our best for our people and country. The collapse of our health system would significantly increase our immediate suffering and the amount of time needed for economic recovery.
The pandemic is heavy on the minds of Belizeans at this time, but what is also heavy on our minds is what kind of Belize we will live in, post-pandemic. It is for sure that things will be tough for a while, but prior to the pandemic things were tough for far too many Belizeans. These Belizeans, naturally, want change that will see us moving toward a Belize that provides greater economic opportunities, a Belize that is far more equitable, a Belize that doesn’t strip the dignity from so many of us. Unfortunately, it looks like that change is not on the horizon.
The government revealed an Economic Recovery Strategy which covered all the major parts of our economy, but the plan’s focus was still dominated by tourism, which the plan’s writers say “plays an unparalleled role in Belize’s economic health (and) without its recovery, the national economy will be severely undermined.”
Our leaders are hooked on tourism. We have seen no move to curtail the massive investment of over $150 million on a road through Mountain Pine Ridge to the Mayan temple, Caracol. There is a new cruise port under construction in the Belize District, and there are proposals being considered for two more. There is a mega hotel under construction on the island of San Pedro. Indeed, it looks like the intent of our leaders is for all of our children to become servants for the foreign wealthy.
Looking at tourism from the single perspective of capacity to win foreign exchange, Belize, with its magnificent barrier reef and Mayan temples, its forest reserves and numerous rivers and all they contain, and its unique people and history, does have a competitive edge in that industry, but we have to be aware that there can be too much of a good thing. We could kill the goose that laid the golden egg if we become too common, or we allow tourist pressure to hurt our environment.
Societe Generale, a leading financial services group in Europe, in a paper titled “Country Risk of Belize: International Trade”, noted that the value of our imports more than doubled the value of our exports in 2018, but our “country did export more than double the services it imported, with USD 584 million in services exported, and USD 219 million imported.”
It’s very easy to see why our government is increasingly driven toward tourism expansion, but we can’t ignore that the industry, which accounted for about half of our economy before the pandemic, wasn’t delivering the goods for forty percent of our people. Increasing investment in tourism can’t be the answer. If we stay on our present course after the pandemic, we will be very much the same old Belize, with increasing poverty and hopelessness for so many. We must turn our focus to other areas where we also have capacity, and we must start processing our excess farm produce, to preserve them and to replace imports that dominate the shelves in grocery stores.
Looking at our main agro-industries, our citrus will always be in demand if we keep the focus on quality, and our marine products will always have a market at the highest prices. More of the sugar from our sugarcane must be utilized in an expanded confectionery industry, and we must start using our bananas to produce flour and paper.
There are numerous under-exploited fruits in Belize — sapodilla, mamey apple, tamarind, soursop, craboo, mango, and various plums are just waiting for the correct investment and promotion. It takes a rich farmer to make an industry all by him or herself; many small farmers working together can do it if they have enthusiastic government support.
Belize actually imports mango juice, when instead, we should be exporting fresh mangoes and mango juice. We spend millions of dollars to import various dairy products, raisins, peanut butter, vinegar, soaps, animal feeds, and many other goods that we can make ourselves.
The future can be better for the many Belizeans that were not getting a good portion of our national pie, if only our leaders would invest more in agriculture and agro-processing, and invested less in tourism.