Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bye, Bye, Belize

Map of Belize habaneros
Belize: topographical features divide the Belizean landscape into two main physiographic regions. The most visually striking of these regions is distinguished by the Maya Mountains and the associated basins and plateaus that dominate all but the narrow coastal plain in the southern half of the country. The mountains rise to heights of about 1,100 metres.
The second region comprises the northern lowlands, along with the southern coastal plain. Eighteen major rivers and many perennial streams drain these low-lying areas. The coastline is flat and swampy, with many lagoons, especially in the northern and central parts of the country. Westward from the northern coastal areas, the terrain changes from mangrove swamp to tropical pine savannah and hardwood forest.
Copied from someplace on the Internet!

Funny, just as we were leaving, the Lonely Planet guidebook to Belize came our way, and with it the answers to some burning (well, smoldering) questions.

One thing I sometimes think about is whether reading touristic literature about a destination is 'cheating', by creating expectations about some otherwise 'virginal' place. I've tried right brain travel, being a blank slate and letting the place teach me about itself, and left brain travel, arming myself with an outline whose blanks I can fill in on the spot. Philosophically I like the right brain approach, but as a practical matter, a few basic facts sure do light everything up!

So I was happy to connect the Belize dots with a guidebook, and now with a couple informative websites too ( Did you know you can download PDF individual chapters of the Lonely Planet guides? Good idea!

Why, for one, is Belize, formerly British Honduras, so 'underpopulated? How did it escape the plantation syndrome that afflicted other colonies? Well, the British who first came here were 'Baymen', pirates and buccaneers between ships to pillage. It says something about the swashbuckling life that they eventually preferred to work harvesting forest products, first 'logwood' used for dying woolen textiles, and later mahogany.

The Spanish influence came via the Mexican interior and the Mayan empires. There were attacks and counter-attacks, and European treaties, but the upshot was a battle in 1798 in which the British Baymen defeated the Spanish, who never returned.

The loggers apparently owned slaves, but the nature of logging gave the slaves much more independence than the plantation system did, and also there weren't that many women, especially in the logging camps!

There's some of the usual stuff about a richer merchant class, often absentee, and better at profiteering than stewardship- does that ever change? Land was kept out of production, a small-holder agricultural tradition didn't develop as it might have, the Maya were driven further inland. Although the logwood market fell apart, and the slow-growing mahogany wasn't replanted, successor products included chichle (think Chicklets chewing gum) until it was replaced by synthetics, bananas, which succumbed to disease. Eventually, in the 1950s, citrus overtook timber as the number one export product.

The 'saving grace', you might say, compared to other timber areas, is that Belize has a number of rivers, none of them major but all of them important. And although the loggers were not conservationists, their methods were selective, so there was no clear-cutting. Because of the rivers for floating the logs, there were no roads into the forests, and thus, no thin-edge-of-the-wedge to bring in the subsistence farmers who are burning rainforests in other parts of the world.

"Government policy at independence was strongly conservationist, but underfunded. NGOs and private initiatives are essential to success of environmental protection" says LP. Active NGOs include the Belize Audubon Society, Friends of Nature, Programme for Belize, Toledo Institute for Development and Environment, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Jacques Cousteau's early dives in the Blue Hole instigated barrier reef protection.

There are things inland I'd have liked to see; that would be a different trip, but one I still hope to make! Among them, the Community Baboon Sanctuary, and Lamanai, a Mayan ruin reached via the New River; also pretty much any river trip or cave in the mountains.

In my brief career as a Three Centuries Annapolis tour guide, I learned that history passing you by can be a very good thing (the harbor being silted in made Annapolis a backwater, surpassed by Baltimore, and leaving something for posterity to restore).

Relatively speaking, that's what seems to have happened to Belize. Taking the longer view, I'm impressed by how little changes become magnified with time. I think it's called evolution!

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