Candy and George Gonzalez

Interviewees: Candy and George Gonzalez
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth
Location: San Igancio, Belize
Date: Friday 16th August 2013
Theme: An informal interview about environmental and developmental issues in Belize.
Keywords: TBC



Martin Mowforth (MM): Can you tell us a little bit about your own association with BELPO [Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy] and what issues it has dealt with in the past, before you bring us up date with its current issues?

Candy Gonzalez (CG): BELPO stands for the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy. I got involved with BELPO in 1997, and at that time it was just prior to the fight against the Chalillo dam. I was involved in coastal zone management in terms of general environmental issues and environmental impact assessments, and the initial work I did with BELPO was educational in terms of trying to make the environmental laws understandable to people in Belize. When the fight against the Chalillo started, we got involved here in San Ignacio and through BELPO because we saw the problems the Chalillo would cause to this community (the Santa Elena and San Ignacio communities), in terms of what the dam would do to the river and the importance of river tourism to the community, and then the issues of the health and safety of the people living downstream from the dam, (2:28 – unverifiable) meaning that we weren’t aware of and concerned about what it [the Chalillo dam] would do to the rainforest, but there were people were arrowing in on that, but nobody was arrowing in on what it would actually do to the people downstream. We’ve always been very firm in terms of you can’t have a healthy environment without healthy people, and people need a healthy environment to be healthy themselves, and we believe that clean water and a healthy environment are human rights. So that’s been a lot of the focus that we’ve tried bring into the quote, “environmental movement” in Belize, in terms of our perspective.

MM: Okay, thank you very much. Before we get to any current issues, do you want to have a final word about Chalillo and how it progressed to its current situation?

CG: Well, I don’t think there’s a final word today, because we’re still struggling to deal with Chalillo. Chalillo has unfortunately caused all the problems we foresaw; there’s virtually no river tourism, the water quality is poor and they [Belizean Government/BELPO] warn people to not drink the water. People can’t swim in the water because it itches and a lot of people have come out of the river having stomach problems from swallowing the water. We still don’t have a “dam-break” early warning system even though Chalillo went online in 2005, and so we’re facing all these problems and then in 2009 the Vaca dam opened and then there was a third dam put there, but it was really quiet, there was very little said about it. There was a public hearing, and we went to the public hearing – we opposed Vaca because the owners of the Chalillo dam still had not complied with the environmental compliance plan for Chalillo, and we said until they comply with it they shouldn’t be allowed to build another dam, and then make another bunch of promises in terms of mitigation.

We [BELPO] took the Department of Environment to court for failure to make the company comply with the environmental compliance plan, and we took the case in 2007, and we won the case. We got a decision saying that in all the areas that we were contesting, which meant the health and safety issues, that there was no water quality tests that were being shared with the people, that we weren’t getting the tests on the mercury levels in the fish, that we still didn’t have a dam-break early warning system, and that there was no public participation committee, which was supposed to be a two way conversation with the stakeholders, the company and the department of environment. On all those issues, the court ruled that there had been a failure to comply, and we ended up going back to court two different times seeking enforcement, and unfortunately we still don’t have a compliance, but we’re still working on trying to bring attention to the non-compliance and to get the government to force people to comply with the law. So that’s why I say there’s no final word!

MM: Our students will not know about the Chalillo dam, but I shall mention it to some of them if I get a chance, but it would be fine it you could mention precisely what you have just said to me, when you talk to the students. Just as a side, I’ve been visiting quite a lot of – I just want to pause this.

[Apparent pause in the tape at 7:30 and discourse of topics]

MM: I must take a photo of that before I go.


CG: They heard word that they’re going to build a dam on the Mopan River, because the Mopan starts in Belize, goes into Guatemala, and then comes back into Belize. So they were looking for information and support from people because we would be affected by that dam also.

MM: So this in other words is still an active programme, but can you now update us on one or two other programmes that BELPO is currently dealing with.

CG: I sat on the National Environmental Appraisal Committee [NEAC] which is a committee that vets all of the environmental impact assessments for Belize, and I sat on that for over 7 years. One of the things that we did as BELPO was to try and say, okay, we need quality information to make quality decisions. The problem was that the majority of the people on NEAC were in our government employees and so they just, even though they raised points that this is no good, and that is no good, they would still vote in favour of the project because that was their job.

MM: In fear of losing their job as well, presumably.

CG: Right – and the other NGO’s that sat on NEAC at the time, other than me, they had co-management agreements for protected areas.

MM: So, Belize Audubon Society [BAS]?

CG: Right – so they rely on government for the continuation of their co-management agreement, and so a lot of times they voted in favour of [propositions]. So most of the time it was 11-1 vote, or 10-2 once in a while! But what it did in terms of BELPO was that we demonstrated we were across the range of looking at environmental issues that are countrywide, though in the beginning most of our members were here in the Cayo area, either in San Ignacio or Santa Elena – they didn’t stop us, this is not a big country. We were down in Toledo District doing workshops on oil and petroleum in 2002, way before any of the controversy [surrounding] oil and oil exploitation arose, and we also worked with a number of other lawyers from different countries, trying to bring attention to how climate change would affect or impact the [UNESCO] World Heritage sites around the world. We filed a petition with the World Heritage committee, asking for the barrier reef to be put on the endangered list, trying to get a little bit of leverage to try and force the government to do the right thing.

MM: And did the World Heritage people actually put it on the endangered list?

CG: Well, they put it on the endangered list a few years ago, but not related to climate change. They rejected that argument saying that they would have to put in 70% of all the World Heritage sites.

MM: If it was because of that, yeah – okay.

CG: After we brought attention to the problems that we were trying to raise in terms of the government taking parcels [of land] that were within the world heritage site, in terms of development, cruise ship tourism, and how that would impact, was even prior to the whole fight against offshore oil, and we included that in terms of one the reasons why the barrier reef was endangered. It remains, as of earlier this month, through updates from the World Heritage committee that the barrier reef will remain on the endangered list. Along with that, one of our main focuses has been trying to draw attention to the need to protect our rivers and watersheds, so that involves the issue of oil and the issue of dams, because they all impact our watersheds. I do believe, as has been stated by many experts, and I’m no expert, that the future wars will be fought over water, not oil, and we’re rich in water, and we’re ruining our water, and we need to be made aware of and have people appreciate what we have in terms of water resources because people tend to take something for granted until its gone, and we’d rather not get to the point that it’s gone!

MM: Yet another good point for our students, I’d like them to be aware of these struggles over water as well.

CG: The other thing that BELPO continues to do is to try and make the laws understandable to the people on the ground, and we did a guide to public participation in Belize, focusing on the Freedom of Information Act, the Ombudsman Act, and the Environmental Protection Act, giving people sample letters on how they can write a letter. Just last month, we came out with a second edition of it because all of the first edition was gone, and so that was a really happy thing to be able to do, because most of the time you have things that, you always have leftovers of this and leftovers of that, and this time they were all gone!

MM: I’m aware of having lots of leftovers as somebody who writes things, and then having too much left over. That’s great that you did manage to get rid of them all. Just on the World Heritage site, the coastal problem, I’ve been doing a bit of reading over the coastal problems recently, particularly in Belize, and one thing which appears in all of the other central American countries, is the way in which agricultural pesticides are washed down into mangrove areas or affect the reefs, and so on, but not in the case of Belize, it hasn’t been mentioned, that’s the one thing that has studiously not been mentioned.

George Gonzalez (GG): You didn’t mention chemicals.

MM: They don’t. Well, that doesn’t mean to say that they don’t use them though, does it?

GG: Yeah, they use them but they don’t mention them, they try to make it sound like there’s no problem here.

CG: We have tried to bring attention to that as a problem, and there have been a couple of workshops that have been done on land based sources of pollution, as connected to the reef because there’s so much attention that goes into the reef, but everything that happens to our rivers ends up in the reef, so we try and bring attention to what’s being done to the rivers and the banana and the citrus industry do an awful lot. And the sugar canes.

MM: And all the pesticides and all the plastic bags, but the one thing that’s mentioned –

GG: We using something to deal with pesticides – GMO [Genetically Modified Organisms] – a lot of the stuff we grew, and educated the people, is that when they bring GMO, they have to bring the chemicals, it’s one of the chemicals that they are already use here, to make people aware of what happens with all that stuff. Right now, there’s a not major support of GMO, there’s a lot of people against it, but it changes real quick. You get a couple of ministers to say something is good, and the people go for it because they want jobs, or they want to keep their jobs.

CG: Or they want a scholarship for their kids to go to school.

GG: The government has ultimate control over those things.

MM: I gathered that from my recent reading as well, not just from Bruce Babcock’s book, which was an excellent book and very enlightening. One thing that’s mentioned on the coastal thing is the litter – basically bottles, plastic bags, and so on. It struck me that there was one thing being missed, and that was the pesticides, the chemical pesticides and the residues and so on. So I thought I’d ask whether that is still a problem here, even though it’s not mentioned.

CG: It’s definitely a problem.

MM: Really? Okay, fine. On the oil exploration – this is really a last question – can you enlighten me about what the current state is in Belize? Is the government going hell bent for it?

CG: Absolutely. It’s really sad because we’ve done a lot of campaigning, we had a people’s referendum because we have a referendum act in Belize, but the original referendum act was one that says only the government could call for a referendum. So when we had a change of government, they revised it to say that the people could call for a referendum. They really weren’t happy with the changes they made themselves, because when we decided we would do a referendum against offshore oil drilling and drilling in protected areas, thinking about protecting our water and watersheds, the government really opposed the referendum, and ended up where we got the number of signatures that we were supposed to get and more just in case they threw some out, and then government threw 40% of the signatures out because they said the handwriting didn’t look the same, or little things like that. So we went to court on that, challenged it and then on technicality the case was thrown out. The coalition to save our natural heritage which is been the force behind trying to stop the offshore oil drilling and in protected areas, which BELPO is a member of and OCEANA was also a member of the coalition. We did a people’s referendum saying okay, we’ll hold our own referendum just so that you realise how strong the public opinion is, and we got an awful lot of people out to vote – I can’t offhand remember the numbers.

GG: 8/9 thousand or something? [21.53 – check for the figure, but this is what I perceived it as]

CG: It was something like that, of registered voters who came out.

MM: How many now?

GG: I think it’s around 29 or 28 [thousand].

MM: Yeah, that’s a lot in Belize.

CG: The campaign continues; OCEANA and the coalition filed a court case to void concession contracts that the government gave to different oil companies, seven different oil companies, saying that they were illegally granted and there were different parts that did not follow the petroleum act. We won the case and the judge in the case said that the contracts were null and void. The government just recently, because the written decision still has not come out on this, they went saying they wanted a lifting of the injunction on the oil exploration offshore, with these companies where the judge said the contracts were null and void, and they made this argument that the injunction only applied to the government, did not apply to the oil companies, and therefore, the oil companies were going to proceed and government couldn’t do anything, because on their side it was null and void, while any law that I ever came across –

MM: Way of interpretation –

CG: And the Chief Justice ruled in favour of the government on that argument, and I haven’t seen their written decision that is yet to come out.

MM: Are the concessions just for exploration or for exploitation as well?

CG: There’s no line between the two, but our law says that up until 2007, I believe, oil exploration was on the ‘Schedule 1’ list meaning that you had to had an EIA to do exploration, and in 2007 they revised the law saying that exploration didn’t required an EIA, but exploitation did. We already knew from experience that once they find oil, they just start, and it’ll take time for an EIA, and the government doesn’t make them take time for an EIA, they want to get that oil out of the ground as fast and as much they can, so there’s really a very blurred line between the two in terms of concessions for everything – do everything you want. Even with all the promises we’ve seen in so many other countries, where the oil companies have no regard for the people or the land, and I’m always amazed no matter whether or not people think it will be different here, and no matter where you live they always think it will be different.

MM: They also associate oil exploration with great wealth, and if you look at places like Ecuador for instance where poverty levels before oil exploration were at 40% by the UN definitions, and now they’re at 70%, so there’s a higher proportion of the population living in poverty now than there were before. Not only that of course, in the case of Ecuador, they’ve destroyed huge tracks of the Oriente region, which was part of the Amazon basin and left it contaminated, for goodness how many decades in the future, so it certainly leaves them a lot poorer. Despite that, there’s still a general feeling that oil will bring wealth, of course it does to very few people.

GG: You know what they get here? The oil company keeps 95%, the government gets 5%, and of that 5% they have to give 1.5% to the property owner. But they don’t mention that, they mention about the millions that they are going to get, and it’s been made and everything and they make it sound like they’ve made millions, not that the oil company made it, and they’re already almost out of oil, for what 10 years?

CG: Yeah well, Spanish Lookout is.

MM: How long have Spanish Lookout been exploiting oil?

GG: About 10 years, and its running out. They said they don’t have a long time, we only have a few years so what they’re destroying, they’re destroying for a lifetime, only to get a minimal resource.

MM: It’s very similar to gold mining around Central America as well, where the companies leave tiny, tiny proportions 1% or 2% of their revenues, that kind of thing, it’s just frightening. Thank you very much for your thoughts and bringing me up to date with that.

[Onto second recording]

MM: If you’d like to just explain that again, the situation with BEL Fortis and Sinohydro.

CG: Belize Electricity Limited is BEL, and they are the ones that distribute electricity around the country. That used to be owned by Fortis of Canada, and it was nationalised 2 or 3 years ago, and BECO [Belize Electricity Company Limited] is still owned by Fortis, and they own the 3 dams on the Macal River. They sell power to BEL for distribution and BECO, which is the one that owns the dams, are operating under what is called a third master agreement, and the third master agreement them, or guarantees them a 1.5% raise annually. Payment for electricity, whether or not they produce the electricity and compensation for water that goes over the dam in case of flooding, that they don’t produce electricity they can estimate how much electricity was lost by the water going over the dam, and no liability if the dam breaks and there’s loss of life or property downstream. We believe it’s an illegal contract, so if anything happens in term of the dam breaking, we would definitely not believe there’s no liability. Sinohydro are the ones that constructed the dams, they were hired by Fortis, to construct not only the Chalillo but also the Vaca dam, they hired a lot of non-Belizeans but people from Nepal in the main, to come over and work for extremely low pay, and very bad conditions. One of the problems that we’re facing now is more incursions into the rainforest because of all the paths and all the areas that the hydro construction workers opened up, so we’re facing more incursion in terms of taking the natural resources from the Chiquibul Forest and National park, and pretty much clear cutting a lot of the area along the border on the Belize size, they’ve already clear cut the Guatemalan side.

MM: Okay, thank you. And of course the more incursions into the forest, the more it will attract other settlers and colonisers. Do you want to add anything George?

GG: No, I guess the only thing I would say is that in the agreement they are unregulated and when we were fighting Chalillo, we were always amazed of how Fortis would use the excuse of the money its losing on this here, but never mentioned the other one, and we had to remind them it was the same pair of pants. You know, the money went in this pocket and that pocket, for the same person. A lot of people, even though we told them, they just couldn’t grasp that concept, that it is actually happening. Being unregulated, we’re not getting the value of cheap hydro; we’re getting what they say the value is, and one year they tried to charge us, or did charge us, for poles and electrical equipment that was already paid for. So that was an extra, what, 15 million or something?

CG: I think it was 14 million.

GG: It’s not just here; I don’t want people to think that we’re a banana republic and stuff, this going on in the US – upstate New York – Fortis is planning a utility company, a co-op.

CG: In the central Hudson Valley.

GG: And he’s telling them the same stuff that he told us down here, only he’s using down here as his recommendation about what a wonderful guy he is.

CG: And their wonderful environmental history.

GG: And he gave himself an award in the Caribbean.

MM: It’s amazing – it’s incredible how they get away with it. That’s Stan Marshall isn’t it?

GG: They contacted us, and they put us on the radio and TV through satellite, and we let it run on all the stuff that he did, and I think they’re still fighting it. They got permission to buy it.

CG: They bought it and it’s in the appeal process.

GG: But it’s not just here, they’re doing it to there [New York] and then to the people in Canada, they have the same contract that we have here. Some of the ones that found out that it’s just standard big business contracts – it’s call incentives! No taxes, no regulations.

MM: You find that in many other fields of activity as well. Well thank you again, both of you.


Ernesto and Aurora Saquí (Interview)

Interviewees: Ernesto and Aurora Saquí
Interviewer: Martin Mowforth, Jamie Quinn and Plymouth University Geography students
Location: Maya Centre, Belize.
Date: 3rd May 2016
Key Words: indigenous land rights; subsistence farming; citrus cultivation; conservation; cruise tourism



Ernesto Saquí (ES): Our community is an indigenous community. As a result of Belizeans in the southern part of our country coming this way in search of a way of life, improving our way our life, and seeking opportunities to make their lives better. The reason they left the southern part of this country was that there was a problem in the land situation where we were all on an inland reservation and when things started changing and some of these inland reservations started to be broken and put up for sale, then some of the regions were affected and we were affected and we were not used to those type of ideas. We never believe in buying a piece of land that we felt has a God-given right to exist.

And so because of that we decided to come up this way and so most people started to move independently around the country …. When we move, we brought our culture, the Mayan culture. And besides our culture or practices such as sustainable agriculture, which means subsistence farming, alright? That is, you take a piece of the forest, you open it, you let it fall and you burn it, and you grow your crops. Basically that’s what we do, alright? Then whatever it is that we need, which is principally corn, that we use all the time; and that is what we did when we came here. But we realised that this area was different; we didn’t know this until we got here. We came and we brought everybody including our chickens, our dogs, our horses, they came here. And in 1976, we built about nine thatch houses from the junction all the way up here. And when we got here, everything was so beautiful, there were no houses, there was no electricity, there was nothing except tracks of jaguars and people from this very access road, where that house is standing. And we were so happy because you can mould our way of life one more time; we can continue to live and feel good about ourselves not having to have our way our life disturbed or interrupted, so we felt like the Mayan people, right?

OK, so that started, but then a Mayan village or a community has to have some kind of status, otherwise you become the leader. You can’t continue to live if you’re just going to be a group people in a given area, so we were conscious of that. So immediately what we did was organise ourselves and just said “look, we’re here to live, we’re here to develop our village, we’re here to make things happen and we’re going to go and live”, but we must be always conscious that we are going to be sustainable or subsistence farming, alright, that is the deal. It didn’t take too long for us to realise that it was all nonsense. The next big thing up, well the first thing we did was to construct two buildings, it was very important for us we had to construct a church and a school building, and when you do that, then you grow yourself. No system and no building, but if you don’t do that, then that’s a problem. So that’s OK, for the next few years we had to stabilise ourselves because when we created a church we hoped it was going to manage the community in that type of situation and we realised that it was not going to be easy. So to form a village we realised that we had to take charge and be responsible and that all the members will somehow be benefiting from any of the programmes. So the first thing we did was to find a volunteer teacher in the school, because no government, no system will give you that. We are doing this ourselves, so that’s what we did. So, I was so fortunate that I became that teacher at that time. I volunteered my time to become a teacher. I made sure I worked this programme, simply because we wanted our village to be grounded, we didn’t want to go anywhere else. Those were some of the initiatives that we took in aid to help our fellow supporters and group of people.

Land tenure for indigenous people

Now once that happened, here comes the big problem – somebody from outside came and handed a letter to us and said, “Do you know what? You people are illegal here, this land belongs to somebody else.” Now that’s like jumping from the frying pan into the fire, because when we left there we thought everything was terrible and now we’ve come here and we think everything was OK. To find out now that we are illegal and we can’t set foot on this piece of land. The big question was where do we go from here? What do we do as Mayan people? We can’t go to the government, because the government will tell us “look, it’s a choice that you’ve made and you know it’s illegal – go back where you came from.” And we didn’t want to go back because if we go back, we’ll have that problem, plus other problems, and that is really separating our own way of doing things.

So, as a group of people here at that time we were a group of about maybe 30 to 40 people, and we have mostly children – Mayan families have big, big families. So we are looking at about 30 children between us. Together that qualifies us for the school. So we asked ourselves, are we going to correct this problem, and as a group of people we asked ourselves, are we going to go anywhere? We should be able to do something. It was at that point we decided that we are not going to go anywhere. Let those who have the land know that we are going to take them by force if we have to; we are not going to go anywhere; and that’s exactly what we did. But like all other developments, we started to expand and expand and expand. We were so happy that nobody was really pushing us out. Every time this guy said you all can’t live here, we said “but look we are not going to live here for too long, just enough so that we can grow and move somewhere else.”

But there was a point in time when the government of Belize started shaping their system. One of them is that you have to elect a government through one of those general elections that they came and found us here in the middle of nowhere and said what are you people doing here? We told this guy, “look, we are trying to make a village and we need people to help us.” And this guy was a politician and said “OK we can help – how can I help you?” And I said you have to make sure we can be here. He said I will do that if my party wins. So we took advantage of that and fortunately when the election came, they won and when they won, we won, because he came back and he was honest, and he said “let me see how I can help.” Now, the movement is going to be stronger because when they come here, we said OK, we don’t want to go anywhere, this is where we want to live. And so we were going back and forth until the government finally acknowledged him being powerful or gaining power and said OK, we won’t let you go. We will give you 1000 acres of land on the southern or the eastern side of the Southern Highway for you all to do your agriculture and we’ll give you 50 acres of land for real estate. For us, that is very important because that has never happened to anybody. Anybody who does say they have a village, sometimes ends up going back to where they came from. It’s that easy to make it because when they do that you create another problem for the government so that they have to provide services for us. But we did it, so we were happy, and we took it on from there, and we were very happy. It’s not the development, it’s not the challenges, it’s just making it and trying to escape and realign.

So once that has happened, and now we realise that we were successful in acquiring those pieces of land for our people, the next thing we did was to take care of it ourselves by land distribution. So to each family at the time we said, “OK we don’t have enough land for each person, but we have land for each family, so each family will get 20 acres of land.” We did this so we don’t go back somewhere else, we are stabilised and orderly, so everybody felt happy. Then the next thing we did is sub-divide up the village land and allocated it into house lots. Each one of these families now is able to get a piece of house land to build their houses and a piece of land where they can do their farming. This is what we were looking for and since then we said we were very happy that it happened.

OK, so now we have to move on. You remember I said I was the teacher? OK, that can’t happen anymore, we have upgraded, so they took me and they send me to school to find teachers. The truth is that we wanted new people to come and help us. By this time we are growing, we built a better school, then we decided other infrastructure such as the clinic, such as the help poles, such as the community centre, such as the telephone system. I remember in 1990, 1992, there was a time where just central electrics were required, and that’s only street lights I’m talking about. But we said good because that is development right? But after all this is happening, subsistence farming is not going to make it right, because we were burning our plantations. They assume the Mayan people are the reason why the rainforest is disappearing. Although that’s not really true, it’s the easiest point to make; it’s a point of view if you really wanted to put down any group of people.

Move to citrus farming

So we said that’s not going to happen, so somebody said let’s change, let’s move away from subsistence farming and agriculture. So someone said can we enter the citrus industry? So we said OK that’s a wonderful idea – remember by this time, our land has now been subdivided into your own plots – and so that’s what we decided to do. Everybody went into this programme, and you know what? The programme was very successful. Why? Because after 5 years of planting your trees, you begin to see progress that your trees start from there and after that then you start to reap. Any citrus farmer in this community made between 2 acres to 5 acres at 80% of citrus eventually and each acre would provide, or would give you between 300 to 400 boxes of oranges per acre, that was a good yield. Now if you’re able to do that each box of citrus you take it to the factory is going to cost [bring – i.e., reward] you 12 Belize Dollars, so 300 or 400 boxes times 12, for a small farmer that doesn’t know much, it’s such a great thing, so if you have 5 acres, times 400, times 12, that is what you’re doing and people were so happy.

We were very happy. We were very good in terms of meeting that number, so we started light, we don’t have to do subsistence farming because the plant helps the economy or helps make you an income, right? So everybody went into the citrus industry for a period of time. Then again it came crashing down, a loss, and one day they said, do you know what? This here is going to be hard for citrus the prices on the market is really going down. So the price of a bag went down from 12 dollars a bag to 8 dollars a bag and we’re going to sort out the problem because to get involved in the citrus industry you need a lot. It’s a cash crop – you need a lot of items to meet the supplement. You need to have fertiliser, you need to have chemicals, you need to do your reading, you need to do your reaping, you need to do a lot of work, and when you really look at it, that’s not much, but the next thing you know, you get down to five dollars for a bag and eventually, three dollars for a bag. A bag of fertiliser was too much so we said how could we try to balance this? A lot of the farmers were scared and not only here but the other farmers that got involved had to work their farm up to the point where they are not going to be fussed anymore. And that was around the 90s and up until this time, alright?

Conservation of the Cockscombe Basin Jaguar Reserve

So the benefit that came from the citrus industry and the oranges, was really the kind of good income to afford ourselves. So that stopped and now where do we go from here? The next thing we needed to do is? We don’t know. Until finally, there is another programme that came into the region, part of the locality and that is the conservation movement. The conservation movement in the first instance was not necessarily a good move because nobody really knew about it as well, so when this new movement came into this village, a lot of things happened. We heard stories about jaguars hunting etcetera, but we didn’t know what it meant, and then finally in 1984, there was a declaration that said the jaguars are now protected here. It means a lot of things for local communities; that one, it means that nobody can go and hunt in the park anymore; nobody can go and fish in the park anymore; nobody can do anything in the park anymore. But we said what is that for? See, two things are happening here; first there is another programme coming and we are not aware of it, and second of all, I don’t know that anyone of us that I know were consulted and explained to us that it’s such a good idea. The only thing that we know was that this area became protected – you people cannot go anymore into the park.

In addition to that, there were a group of Mayan people that went to live in Cockscomb prior to the establishment of the park. And so this village ideally wanted to go and relocate in Cockscomb before it was a park. But we could not do it because of the children that were going to school that we had established for them – the distance from here to there is so difficult that on a very troublesome day, how would we take care of the problem? For example, if somebody gets sick back there, how are you going to bring that person here? So we said let’s stay here. But those people who broke away and went to live there at this point had to come back – they had 30 days in which to leave right? They have their palapas, they have their farms, they have their product, and so they were told they had 30 days to leave OK, and they had no choice, they had to leave. And when they left, they left with a very heavy heart they were sad because this kind of programme for the first time made them leave their homeland, alright?

I want you all to understand a little bit here that when you tell or when you ask a community of Mayan people to leave their homeland or their houses, it’s like taking a fish out of water and throwing it onto dry land with no help. So those people when they were forced to leave were never compensated or reallocated to a given area, in fact they were told to leave and go to a place of their own choice because they were squatting and squatting is illegal in this country. So, while we were living here, we decided well we would take care of them, so those that left came back to the village and those that decided to go, got another place of their own choice. Most of those people came back to this village. So that kind of agreement immediately created a barrier between the park and not only this community, but also the communities lined around the park.

Now this is a new problem. In the first part of the life of the park, we felt that we were taken advantage of and that whatever it is that was going to happen up there, we would having nothing to do with it because it is all about somebody else and costs. The question is, at the time, how come an animal like a jaguar can be given access to land, when people need land and there’s no land for people to live? Why is that so? Why does the system have to decide that? Who decides that? Why should it be, right? So now those are hard, hard questions. You don’t go to communities and ask them, do you like the park? They’re going to punch you in the face, because of their views about it. The issues were those of management.

At the time there was a system called the ‘Peace Corp’ and they asked the Peace Corp to come up and speak to the management of the park. It’s not all that obvious, but you talk and you’re honest, so what you do is you go up there and you establish a set-up on the side and you send the idea that Cockscomb is very good for you, right? Besides that, the community realised that this thing was not for them. In Cockscomb, they refer to this place as ‘the white man’s paradise’, that’s how they look at it. There was such a negative thing about it and people don’t seem to understand it; the planners don’t seem to understand that we are doing something that is good, we support this. That is something very, very important.

Now besides this happening, we continue to develop. We are now making good strides. By now we had good electricity, a good water system, the roads were built and the community was beginning to see the light. But there’s one problem – how do we work with this park? Because any time you think of the park, this is the problem – how can we get our own back; who can help us? So when the Peace Corp started to come here and help the people, people were so upset. One day, the village got together and they wanted to trap this Peace Corp guy, trap him, tie him to the side of the tree and lash him – that is the extent of how much they had this thing about why did this thing happen to us?

So it was at that point that we decided something has to happen here; we cannot continue to live like this as it was not our intention.

So whilst this was happening, I became a leader. I’ve been a leader in my community since 1984. I advanced a little bit, I actually went to farmers school and then I studied primary education as a teacher, but now I’m qualified to teach at the school. I’m also a very good leader and very, very good at prompting and actually getting people’s support. I just can do that. So those people at the time were very strong with us and then being a leader you have to have a vision. You have to try and answer some of these peoples’ questions and find some solutions for some of these people and it’s very important, because we’re talking about development and we’re talking about improving our lives. We’re talking about wanting to empower ourselves, so that we can be like our own leaders. Because one of the things that’s said, is that if you want go to Cockscomb, then your life will be better, but how? Tell me how, I don’t want you give me an idealistic opinion; I want you to give me a tangible example of how this is going to happen.

Now nobody has the answer. The Belize Audubon Society who was the executing agency at the time and still is now, had a serious problem, because – whilst we didn’t tie a Peace Corp [guy] to a tree to lash him and hurt him, because that’s not going to answer our problem – we had to conduct work and be real, and discuss this issue at length. So the Belize Audubon Society, I was teaching at another school, moved me from here because they think I can be the problem in instigating problems for this organisation. I said no, I had nothing to do with that. In fact, I believe that the establishment of the protection is one of the most important things. But I can’t go and tell them that, because I don’t know why it was created before at the time when it’s new. But then I give myself some time and talking to these people. I said that maybe there’s something for us. So when I came one day, back home here in the village, we have our meetings, they said to us, how can we get rid of these people? That’s the question. They don’t want to work in the park. So the first thing they did was to go illegally to Xunantunich which is the traditional thing to do if you have a problem. So I told them that it’s really not the way to do it, and so the discussion from the management point of view and the village relationship to the park became an issue. So one day, the Belize Audubon Society, like I told you, the executing agency, came to me, came my school and said, “you know what, we are looking for a Belizean counterpart to create some management and at the same time, integrate some of the relationships between the park and the villagers.” I told them first of all, I am not a jaguar oriented person; I am people oriented; I am good at dealing with people. So I don’t want to take the job in the park. At the same time I don’t want to jeopardise my relationship with the community. They said no, we want to work together, hand in hand. Because I think this is something good. I decided let us look at this, and I told them that I’m going to reconsider it and maybe it’s a good thing, maybe I can go and help.

Developing alternative incomes

So after six months they came back and said are you ready? So I decided yes, I’m going to keep tracks, I’m going to go. So, everything was OK. We now have a job and a house, and we can start this time. I came to the village, now I have to explain to everybody I backed, I said look, from now on I will be helping the community in the Cockscomb Park, I will be in charge of the park, and when I said that, everybody was up in arms. They said, “you are going to be with the enemy!? I thought you were supposed to be on our side.” I said “well, I am on your side, except I have to go to that side, learn it, and bring it to you so that you work with it.” That was the hardest thing that I could have done, in a small community. So some of them were sitting there sleeping, but as soon as I said that, everybody really started to pressure me, that was the only time that I felt my leadership was in question and I was really worried, but then there was a while after that I was like you can go ahead, I’m going to work. I give it some time, now we have to work with these guys our responsibility is not just for us, but to help change the attitudes of people that I have learnt that you can never change.

But anyway, so that day was gone, so now I need to work, I need this, now I’m sure the judgement [26.32 to 26.39 inaudible] and after a period of time, I went into the village and said to two women, “would you be able to come and meet me, I want to have a little chat,” and they said OK, if it’s important.” So everybody came. So I sat down and I told them, “listen, I know you people are very great people, I know you can help me and I would like to do something, I am in charge of the park, and I want us to work together.” I had to explain to them when they asked, “how should we do that?” I told them, “all I want you to do, is I want you to support me, so that we can bring out another programme that all of us can benefit from.” So they said “well OK, well maybe that’s good, but how are we going to start?” Then I told them “first of all, we are Mayan people, you are the people that the world wants to come and see, am I right? And we can tell our story through our eyes, if you really want to do something, we can tell them who we are, we are Mayan people.” And they said it’s very good.

So at our first meeting, I give them an assignment because we have to be real, I told each one of them “look, you go and make something with your hands, we are artistic people, we are people who do embroidery, we do ceramics, we do all sorts of things, go and do that. Then when we have our next meeting, I want to share something with you.” So they left and went. Three weeks later we came together and I had two tables, one here and one over there and I told them when you come back and bring your items, right? Bring it, because we’re going to talk about it and talk about all of them too. So I told them as they came in the room, I said look, if your art is very nice, put it on that table, if it’s not so nice, put it over there. The point I’m trying to make is that I want them to look at themselves, I want to see the difference between their work. … So they came and it was very true, some of them realised in their own minds that it’s very nice and some said it’s not so nice. That idea was clear. So I said to some, this can improve, let’s work overtime. So we grinded a lot of work, we worked together, and now I have their support, nobody can get in-between the women and myself, because they saw that I am trying to work with a programme on it. They have to touch it, they have to feel it, they have to experience it, they have to care for it for them to believe it because I’m going to go somewhere with this.

Now, I’m still at Cockscomb, I’m also the leader, but now I’m trying to create a new cross-hair. So this will be the driving force for the community to come, it won’t be me to do it. And so there came a time, after a long time, … and one day I told them, let’s do another thing. I want all of you ladies here to create a small centre, where we can show these to people. They said but how are we going to do this? I said to the ladies well, we have to because nobody else wants to. One lady said, you know what, I have my husband, I’m going to take him to come and build the house, and everybody said the same thing. So next thing you know, the men helped put up the house but the ladies said not me, which is good. We’re learning and the house is up now, then we’re ready to make the move. … So when these people move building, you see where the gift shop is right now? That used to be a little Cockscomb hut. So the next thing I need to do is to tell the organisation for which I work, that employed me. I went and I told them, listen, I will take the gate that is over there and I will bring it and I will put it in the village, right? And they said, “why are we going to do that?” I said we are going to pretend to take the gate, right? That is of no use there, the way that it’s there is just a barrier for everybody, we want to make it look like a welcoming idea for anybody that wants to feel part of this thing. I will have to monitor it. They will be the first contact for the people coming into Cockscomb, where I want them to feel a part of this thing, they have to have a certain feel or something, if they don’t feel part of it, they don’t want it, right? So I want them to be part of it; I want them to know this because conservation is going to be coming in the next few days in terms of resources. Now this is something that they’ve never really thought about directly. …

So the Audubon Society told me that if that is going to happen, then we are going to create a new problem, because we are about conservation, we are about communities, but we need people to support us. If we have people supporting us then that’s 50% of our problems taken care of. They might have a read, they might not have a read and may have said something, but the next time they said we are going to discuss it some more, so I said very good. So by this time, this little place, we divided it first room: the items that they made they put in the second part of the room and each one of the ladies, I told them look, I measured a certain section for them, you’re going to put all your stuff here. You are responsible for this part, then you’re responsible, then you’re responsible. You take care of your piece in that given area and you will learn how to sell. You’re going to sell what’s yours and then eventually it becomes an activity for you to think about and figure out a way how we can make this thing work. And they were so happy.

So they were ready, and finally I went back to the organisation and said: “look we’re ready to move these people.” They said they’ll do it with a heavy heart, if you take it down there and it doesn’t work, who’ll be responsible? I said I have no problem with that, I’ll be responsible, because I really wanted to make this thing work. So we set out on a day when we were going to do this, so finally now we were going to go to the centre and show them how we were going to do things, you know like book-keeping, how much we earn, how much we sell, what money we were making. So it’s very important that all of them are happy. And so, that day came and the last thing we needed to do was among the women that were there – there were 18 women at this point. Among them we had to select 5 women amongst these beautiful ladies. And the reason we had to do this was because we had to smile, now that’s the catch to get them to do the work and we had a hard time making a choice, but we got the ones and told them they had to do this. You’re going to smile, you’re going to be nice, you’re going to meet people when they come in and then we’ll do the rest. They were so happy doing this, they were so confident that we were going to do this properly and then that week came.

So, we sent flyers and said look, from this day onwards now we’re going to register at the Maya Centre and not at Cockscomb; and again we did this because we want to have that contact the people and get them involved and realise that we can work together. So that day comes, the first bus came and lady went up and put the gate up and asked them to come inside and sign the guest book, then push her through the door and then outside. When they get in here, they can’t believe their eyes, “wow these things are nice, these are beautiful, are they for sale?”  “Of course they’re for sale.” Then they started and that is really what I wanted them to understand, because you see this is important for them to feel, to touch, to see and experience. If we doubt this you’ll never get them to do anything, because they don’t feel as though they’re a part of it, right? So that bus had about 40 people and it took about almost an hour, people couldn’t believe they were buying everything out, they were buying.

So they left and then another group came, then another group came, and that was the way it was for the first day; and in the process, I can see how much this means to a group of people that never had an opportunity to do anything like that. Now they can see a different life through it, alright? So at the end of the day at 5 o’clock, the gate has to close, and we looked on the table and we had about a basket of money for the first time. We’ve never seen that kind of money before – a basket full of money for the first time; and it was at this point that they understood about themselves, that they have potential, they can derive a benefit, provided there is an opportunity that is given; and I felt so good about it because from that day onward, I never had to tell them anything.

This kind of system is very important because once over time those same people became business people, they understood the economics of the park. They probably didn’t understand the conservation resources or the principles of conservation, but they understood the economics. If this park is going to be here and we are going to send for people then this must mean that this is good for us, you know why? You can bring all the Peace Corp you want – they will never try to catch the man because they are connected, they are part and parcel of a decision. They can see the benefit of it, they can touch it, they can talk about, in fact they can send it. I am so happy about it – I’m just going to give you a figure – on a good day like between January to March, these women paid themselves 2 weeks every time, and the least that any one woman would get is about 1200 dollars and the most that one gets is about 5000 dollars, Belize dollars. That, you will never make anywhere else, at that point in time, and that really sparked off the interest that wanted to keep these together.

So you have a bad relationship turning into a good relationship, but the other side of that story is that the Belize Audubon doesn’t have to worry about hunting and fishing because the people who were doing that were people who now understood what was happening and they just wanted to work together. There starts a good relationship, we have a win-win situation where the common people are happy that they can make money and making a living for themselves. Now that is what you call empowerment, right? I can get involved and I can show you that I can make money, that’s empowerment, because I have learned the abilities, I don’t really have to go anywhere. So today they’re involved in home industries and they are making different kinds of things, so much so that it isn’t only arts and crafts anymore – people have got enough of one thing, so they have started to look at avenues to see if they can expand. So, this is my wife Aurora.

Aurora Saquí (AS): Hello.

ES: So she’s going to talk to you now, so I am saying that kind of helps you to understand people’s service, that we can do a little bit of business, that we can now understand what this tourism industry is. And it’s changed now. So they are not only in one set of projects, people you have to be able to grow, which is good, that’s the idea. If we can’t stay in one group then fine, some people back out and start up their own industry, which is good, that’s telling me you’re learning so you have different gift shops now, you have services providing now and then, people have started all kinds of businesses to show that what is happening in Belize is they are taking advantage of the opportunities that are provided. And we got into trouble, because we had someone else who is not a local wanting to come here and create a gift shop for us, for the Mayan people. Come on man! We don’t need you, we can do it ourselves. Now that’s the mentality and approach we took. We have to beat ourselves. So that is the reason why these people are still part of this old programme.

OK, so that is the connection from community to protected idea. Now, what does protected idea enforce? I got involved: it was created in 1984 after a jaguar study in 1984. They wanted to look at, examine, the gates and what species of the jaguar were there and this is as a consequence of a programme or a congress that happened in Belize on the environment, the status of the environment and tourism. One of the discussions that came in that programme was how come Belize is still doing trophy hunting of jaguars? Why is it that you are still doing that? So the environmentalists at that time questioned the government of Belize – can you give us this status of the jaguar? They said we can’t do it now, but we will do it; and they did, and that was how that study was done between 1982 and ’84.

Jaguar research and conservation measures

The government of Belize at the time did not have any conservation department; the people to do it were not there so you know what, people decided that it needed existing. So the government of Belize asked the Belize Audubon Society, please could you do this job for us? And they said we will do it, and that’s how they went back to the NYCS at the time and then Dr. Alan Rabinovich came over and got interested in doing the programme here and that’s how it started.

It was interesting because when we looked at what was happening, he tracked five jaguars in the basin and he looked at it and out of the five jaguars that were there, three of them were sick; sick meaning either blinded eye, or broken canine. So three out of the five is not great. They said that’s more than half the sample. Then the next thing they needed to know was the physical appearance of this animal. A lot of them are the time swishing around now, a lot of them have butterflies on their skin, big ones. So that can easily make it troubling. It’s about their life span in the wild – anywhere between 12 to 15 years because of the hiding secure or diseases, and their health; and then they disappear. It’s a harsh environment for them to live in. The next thing they found out is their home range – how big an area does a jaguar require? Well, at the time they said it was 14 square miles, but now it is more than that. The least you can have now is 14 square miles, but more than that if you wanted to have really good conservation of the jaguars. They are huge animals, they need enough space to find their food as well as enough space so that they can roam. They’re always solitary animals, they never work in groups, so they move by themselves. So you never see them until they’re mating, the only time they muck around. So the male, who we have been waiting for, the male is always the winner, so when there is a male in there, no other male can come into the given area. We’re looking at a huge area of anywhere between 150,000-200,000 acres of land for this job, that is the size of the area that we are managing now for the conservation of the jaguars.

The researcher also said there can always be two cubs, or there can still be one and the babies stay with the mother for two years. After two years then they get kicked out. Now sometimes, the mother can kill one of two babies if it comes to a point where the baby is sick or there is something wrong. It’s not pleasant but we have seen scenarios like that before. So that is some of the information that came out of the programme and it’s so important to protect the jaguar because of man-hunting, destruction of their habitat, and at that time we were still doing black marketing, which meant I can kill a jaguar and sell it, or eat it, or put it on a chain and round my neck. Although, once the jaguar became protected, it’s illegal to have any part of it, and anybody who is doing this will go to jail for 6 months and can be charged 500 dollars; or if you repeat the offence it can be double that; but that is the way it was then, it’s sad.

Now 90% of the animals are at the jaguar base. The reason for this is they are common because the rainforest as you know, is not really primary rainforest, it’s rather a sub-tropical forest and we only get 180 inches of rain; and the forest because of logging for so many years, you never see big trees, so the forest is still considered as secondary, and it makes more cover per square miles, so the jaguars go there and they hunt like jaguars every now and then, so at least that’s what they’re doing.

So it’s very important for this programme to have acres of land and as a consequence of this now, there are still none. That is how I think in our year 80% of our income is generated from that protected area. People service providing as tour guides, as other programmes, taxiing. So it is a benefit for the community because it provides and people are taking advantage of that, so that is really the reason. Communities are very used to the park, now you can’t tell anybody that you’re going to close the park because people are going to jump up and try to stop you from doing that, which is very good now because they feel they’re part of the programme, and I’m very happy for them and for that, because you know that any programme that comes to this country, any programme whatever comes for this country could be the brightest idea. When it comes to this country, the indigenous people or the grass-roots people are the first ones to get impacted in the most negative way and they are the people who get the least out of that programme, so our lives never really improve. Many of these programmes come as a programme that will help lives, to eradicate poverty. That never really happens because people are never really impacted. Now the only reason why there is success in this community, people let me tell you this, the only reason why we participated [bird cheeps loudly a lot, laughs] is because we had to take the bull by the horns, twist it, and we make it go the way that we want it to go. So nobody come to tell us look, you must do this and that – we decide this, but that comes as a consequence of the vision of local leaders. So we are very happy to say now that we are a community that helped Cockscomb with their management – we didn’t know it, but it’s the only way that success can come, so that’s just the idea but the point I’m making is that conservation of resources is so important.

The existence of Mayan people now is not only stable, but sustainable, alright? And then finally, conservation of resources is so detrimental to our own past, if you take a helicopter and you fly over, there is a huge operation around. In the north here, citrus industry, in the west, in the east, citrus industry, here you have the protected area and here you have the farms to make oil, etc. etc. So we are squeezed out and then where do we go from here? We can only develop and build this way, so the next thing we would want to do I believe is take the companies land by force and we’re going to occupy it and we’ll be like human rebels so that we can have space for ourselves. You know, they’ve got so much land, we only need a little bit. Why can’t you just give us a little bit!? Not for free, but let’s compensate you for a little bit and we can live together.

Now that is the challenge. We are still Mayan people, we still believe that we have work, expect that we have to have vision in terms of where we are. Whilst the Cockscomb [Basin Jaguar Reserve] must exist now – because just one last thing before I finish: the management objectives of the park state that the area there should be left intact with regards to the ecosystem; so that people can use it for education, for research and for information; and if you want to do some research you can go there; if you have to do your classes you can go there; if you want to get married up there you can also do that as well; but everybody says that’s the idea. The second most important thing is to continue the conservation of resources, because we felt that one day tourism is going to be a thing in this country and that we’ve prepared ourselves so that people can come and enjoy the natural resources and do what they have to do and go back, and then continue to teach the principles of conservation and let this place become a role model.

Cockscomb will become a role model to other protected areas, or it can also be a watchdog for people who are developing and abusing the resources. Like for example, you have all these big plantations; they do every spring on people’s houses, they are bringing a lot of poison, what are you going to do? How are you going to address this situation, people taking fertiliser bags running down on a trailer and dumping the bags down below the river so that it takes care of the problem. That’s not taking care of the problem. So we have a lot of work that we need to continue to focus on and address that.

And then finally I want to finish by saying that if it’s true that this protected area, that Cockscomb is for us, then we want the Mayan people to be the managers. Today, all the people that are managers are Mayan. They can do a good a job just like anyone else. When we were run short by NCS, we tell them, come show us how to do it, so you do it, and then go back, we can take care of this. So we did a lot of work with howler monkeys, dendrochronology, botanical work, we did. Well I guess next year they are going to start to build an introduction for howler monkeys, we’ll have to have a look at all of this in a broader picture.

So, I think that I want to say tourism is actually supporting conservation, but we need to do more, but I think that it is teaching us a lot more than before. I’ll give you an example. When we first started to live in this community, all of us children made slingshots, you know what that is right? We wanted to go and shoot the birds, today I have young people in this community or young children in this community including my son, when they see a toucan, they call people over and they say look, a toucan is there! Ideas have been changed and people are realising that they are way too good to do this, they don’t really have to go anywhere, but we learn that these things are useful right? So I am very happy for that as well. So tourism, very important, and conservation I think they sort of go hand in hand, although let’s leave that alone for right now.

Generally speaking, I think that’s where we are, and if you need any help with this thing, you should bring more work into us somehow, right? Though that’s just an observation I am making. So really I don’t have much more to say, I would just like to give a little bit more time to questions? Martin, do you have any observations?

Martin Mowforth (MM): Well, yes we’ve just been given a lesson in conservation and the lesson of people’s participation in conservation, so thank you very much indeed. We do of course have a lot of questions. I’d be very surprised if we don’t, but I really think we ought to show our appreciation right now. [Applause] I think that was a great talk, thank you. How much time have we got for questions?

ES: We can do another twenty minutes.

MM: OK good, well would anybody like to kick us off in what prompted in me a huge number of questions about conservation? I think they should come from the conservation group.

Jamie Quinn (JQ): We’re going to look [at the Reserve] later on, so your time is precious more than ours.

MM: OK, you mean you can give Ernesto a grilling later. OK, I will kick off, but I’m glad the tourism group have come down with a few questions that you were preparing. Have you any idea what the jaguar population is now, given that some time ago it was just five individuals?

ES: Yeah, at the time when the programme was first implemented, they sampled five, and the number that we estimated was 20 jaguars; but that’s just an estimation, we could not live with that, so somebody came, one of the researchers came and said let’s find out the figure, and indeed 7 years ago, we did what we called a ‘jaguar survey’ in Cockscomb where we had this region divided into 100 metre quadrants and we put cameras up in each of the quadrants where we feel jaguars would pass. We ran the programme for five years and we had to do the cameras every two weeks, to change them so that we could get the information; and we realised there were at the time 50 jaguars counted on the camera – different jaguars – we know it’s different because the researcher also has a technique where he takes the markings on the paw and he locks it into another one, and then another one. If it fits, that’s the same jaguar so we can find like today or tonight if we can find one right at point A, and on the other side of the park, maybe at point F, you can actually find the same animal moved. So you can clearly see that they are different jaguars. But because actually not all of these animals came on the camera, we are saying between 50 and 80 now. That’s what we decided. Now I don’t know when that will happen again, but I think the jaguar numbers will pretty much stay the same.

MM: A sign of success compared with many years ago.

ES: Yeah, that’s the point. It’s good that there’s been an improvement in the population of jaguars, which is very good. Although, they’re not in the same area, they move around a lot.

Student, Jess Vagg (JV): When you spoke about the individuals that had to leave the park, you mentioned that they didn’t get any compensation, did they not get any land or any sort of other places to go? When we spoke with the Belize Audubon Society they said that they were given land.

ES: Where? Did they say where?

JV: No.

ES: Well, then it’s a lie. We had land here and we were the ones who observed that problem. Now I’m not fighting with them but I know they keep saying these things. But now let’s stay and talk reality. The truth is no. I know when these people were told that you have 30 days in which to leave and you have to go to a place of your own choice. They didn’t say look, we’ll give you so much dollars or we’ll give you this land, that’s not true. So that is not very true.

AS: Some of them didn’t even stay here, some of them went to Belize City, some of them went to Belmopan and some of them went back to Toledo.

ES: Yeah, they went back to different places, but some of them stayed, but the point is that they were never given land. In fact we tried to use it but we couldn’t, no.

Student, Isaac Pelham-Chipper (IPC): So now you’ve kind of integrated yourself into or rather, working alongside the wildlife sanctuary, how many people in the village are still kind of opposed to the original sanctuary?

ES: Now?

IPC: Yes, now.

ES: Yeah, to be honest with you, I think I can confidently say that I don’t think I can find anybody who is against it. I’d find some people who don’t really care about it, but if you say something then I guess most people would be in favour of the park for a good reason. So that’s something that isn’t highlighted all the time, but I guess if you build a relationship with it and it’s a one-sided thing then they would support it.

IPC: What about, you said there were nine communities around?

ES: Yes, there were nine other communities around.

IPC: Do you know what the reaction in any of the others was?

ES: Yeah I used to work with them, I was involved with them for a long time. In fact, I paved the way for some of the programmes to happen. The only communities that really mattered for them at the time were villages called Mayamopan, San Román, Santa Rosa and Georgetown, besides Hopkins. The reason for this is because they were kind of roped into it, they have no choice about it, they had to be taken, the programme had to go there because they were right at the boundary. In fact Red Bands is another one, and they had to come in because it was important and in that same sense it was very good because we got to know what the problems are, what they would like to see done. It was not easy and they were never really happy all the time. The reason why they were not happy all the time was that everybody then said the Maya Centre got the best deal, everything is Maya Centre. The only reason for this is because it is the gateway, and because of that problem, they became jealous of the Maya Centre. Because of that problem we went back to the group there and we asked them, could you people become like a B point? Let those people start that programme that we did here, bring it to your centre, you buy it, you pay them the money, and I think that worked for them. And we said look, all the people are working [inaudible due to wind] … into one area, one in each of the Mayan villages because they are so close together and that is the group that is making the start right now. So at some point they have taken an opportunity, either as employment, as service providing or any other programme that they want to do. The Audubon Society mind you, also came up with another programme, a starter programme in the community, like checking for eggs and different kinds of Audubon activities, that is more also Mayan based and community based so that they can continue to produce. So I think they were jealous for a while, but they learned because we had one more activity.

MM: Again, they’re involved – that’s the crucial thing.

ES: The involvement is very important right? You can’t tell them look, this is good for you and I don’t feel it or believe it, and I will not believe it and that’s a problem, and that’s what we came across.

Male Student: Have you got any idea how many visitors there are a year?

ES: Here at Cockscomb? I was trying to ask this question, I don’t know for this year but last year I was told that we had about 25,000.

MM: You might find out when the conservation group go up and find or look up that figure for us when you get up to the entrance.

Female Student: You mentioned the importance of the Mayan culture within the community. Do you think the move to tourism and that sector, do you think that has affected you?

ES: That is a very important observation, do you know why? The only reason why we are surviving is because we take it from our cultural approach. We don’t want to serve pizzas here, we want to serve local food that you can come and taste right? We are doing additional programmes in the community where we are saying look, let’s take a test of this life. My wife was the one who started the ‘Cockscomb Day’ programme, based on what people are looking for and we said look, this is very good, this is a Mayan community we want you then to come and experience Mayan life, how to taste Mayan food, how to help make Mayan food, how to do this and how to do that, to get an inside view or picture of what is going on. Some people end up making tortillas, some people end up making this, making that and we always get a report out back saying that it is one of those most interesting experiences, not comfortable but at the same time it’s worth experiencing. I think that is very good because when that happens too, you’re strengthening the base which is the grassroots. They know they are appreciated, because without the culture we could never compete with these other groups of tourist operators that are here right now. We don’t get tourist groups here, we are not even qualified to do this is what we are saying, because why do you have the monetary investment that’s so good you don’t even think about it. We are looking at the approach of eco-tourism where we share our culture, share our stories, share our lives with you and learn what is happening on the ground. So that is the only reason why I think we continue to survive, that’s the way it is.

Male Student: I heard you have like a hotel or a Bed and Breakfast here?

ES: Yeah we have a Bed and Breakfast.

Male Student: OK, so what kind of percentage of people are just passing through in terms of eco-tourism?

ES: Well truly, we would like every person to pass through here, … We are not really up to date in terms of marketing. Firstly marketing is so expensive. Second of all, we have a website which we hope to change for good. Some people get us through the website and they are mostly people who are looking at local activities. For example, I want you to understand how Mayan people come to live here, or let’s talk about the Mayan people, or what we can do through Mayan programmes such as making chocolate, making tortillas and others. So it is easier for us to get those people because it’s not just the reason because they come, these are people who have already been organised, they’ve known us for a long time. We have like six or seven people or operators that come and want to include us in their programme. I know one group who has been here 18 times, they came here 18 times, some other people 12, some other groups 10 and they keep coming back and they bring other groups. They are more into now natural medicine; they are into more like spirituality and a lot of that happens at the Maya end and so they want to see things differently. So that kind of programme, some of these people have reservations and say we are hoping to come back next year. The right people book, and then we have another programme that we call ‘Classes for Herbalists’. My wife is the herbalist and she is now going to start a class, but then she also has students who come from overseas. Starting this month they are going to come and take classes there and there’s another 3 or 4 groups coming Saturday to start this. Now that kind of programme is available here and so they write to us and tell us what they want and that’s what we agree.

AS: I think it’s very low the percentage that comes from the village, I think 5% of classes around.

ES: Yes, yes. I think as far as people staying in the village, they don’t do that, except if we were going to do home stays. Like I said, it is a community where things happen on a regular basis where you know, they come and we try to explain to them that this is what we can do and they do that, but only those who would want it, to spend time with families. They mostly visit the centre here because that’s our contact point, but they don’t stay in the community for too long, I can tell you that we have about 6 or 7 home stays that we had who stayed in the community, we have a little more who stay here because we operate our little guest house and we provide food, some of them stay here, some of them would like their service provided for them, but we have a very small number of facilities for them.

Female Student: [Inaudible question due to wind, but it’s about cruise tourism] So the cruise tourists just come and spend the day, so if the cruise industry wasn’t as strong, would you find that people would want to stay for a few days within your community?

AS: I don’t think that it would change.

Male Student: How heavily reliant are you upon the cruise ship industry?

AS: Yeah, because the last time when they started to do their meetings I usually go and attend meetings and see how I can get in and I started to sell my business through a circle meeting, like numbers and people come in and that would be good for my business and for my community because then I would employ more people, because there is a lot of ladies, not only from this community but other communities who want to come and get a job from me. But then I cannot offer them a job because there aren’t enough jobs for them as well. So directly or indirectly we would take advantage of that opportunity, but if they came with a contract then I’d be very nervous about signing any contracts because it happened to us when we were very young. So I tell my husband let us get a lawyer and see what the papers are saying, I don’t just want to sign up an empty contract that doesn’t exist. So we went to Belmopan and we had to hire a lawyer, we paid a $100 only to hire the lawyer, and then he went through the paper and told us the very important things are not even in the paper, like payments and then the amount of people that we are agreeing with, because if they only bring me 2 persons I cannot hire anybody, and it is not worth making the whole ceremony for only 2 people.

MM: Just to be clear, this was a contract with the cruise company?

AS: Yes the cruise ships that are going to start in November and October.

MM: The NCL (Norwegian Cruise Liners) yes?

AS: Yes, so we have these calls with the person who is in charge of these tours, that is going to be the one managing the tours here, and he told us that he was going to be paying us every two weeks after the cruise ship comes and we agreed that the cruise ship will come three times during the week, 40 people per group, two times a day, for three days in the week. So we said OK, that is manageable because I don’t want to overwork myself through the whole week, so that is OK for us we agreed with that. But then they said we would be paying you after the groups come and after two weeks, you know in two weeks’ time and then we would be having a minimum of 35 people. If there is not 40 people to come at each time, there needs to be at least 35 people minimum, so which was a good idea.

The only thing that they said was that we had to make another centre that is going to be only for them and then bathroom facilities. I have to invest in another bathroom for ladies and for men, so that was the investment that I was going to do and then when they came with the contract I was excited. But then I realised, I said to my husband I really don’t want to sign straight away, I think it’s better to take it to a lawyer and see what it says. If it’s OK then we’ll go ahead and sign it. So when we went they said the most important thing is that the minimum of persons, the payments and three times for the week is not even included here. It has happened to us too that those cruise ship programmes are very good for a night for the programme to come into the village.

One time we got involved into a cruise ship programme. They are elderly people and they said they only want to be around the area because they are weak, so they made us sign a contract for three years, for three months every year. The first year it was so good because they tell me they want entertainment for two hours. What can you do? OK, we do Mayan day with a chocolate drink, we do entertainment with music and a dance and we make a tour of the garden, so that will take them two hours to do. It went so good for the first three months.

After that the bigger hotels started to question it because why is it that they are coming to me and not to them? The bigger fish want to eat everything and you are not leaving anything for us, the smaller fish. If you leave yourself, they’ll eat you too and suddenly I can see that those people that are more like powers, demand the power. They want to be in charge of my business and my organisation like the BTB (Belize Tourist Board). They bring me the law, like the tourism police; they bring me the police force. They said first of all, I want to question who is doing the tour-guiding for you? They wanted to take people round the trail. I said I do it all myself because I have a lot of knowledge with the plants. Second of all, they said where is all the trash going? They don’t bring any trash, they don’t even eat here to begin with; we don’t do any lunch for them. They said my sign was illegal because I was advertising bird watching and guiding here. I tell them I don’t hire anybody to do the guiding because you sit right here and you watch the birds, I have over 100 species of birds in my yard. If they tell me off, I will tell them off too because I am not afraid of them, because I know my rights, and I tell them to take them people on the trail and I do it myself, where can I go to train myself to know all about the plants? Have you told me about a school where I can go, this is part of me and you’re not going to stop it.

So you know all of those came to an end and then they stopped the cruise ships because their other excuse that they said was because it was on terrain like the ‘Jaguar Reef Hotel’ in Toledo. That is a big resort and they said it’s breaking quotas and this and that so it stopped and only ran for one year. Now other cruise ships would come, there was one group that started to come and needed lunch here because they come from Belize City and they come to the reserve, they eat lunch and they go back again. So this person that is bringing me the cruise ship knows me also so that is why he brings the people for lunch here. So they said this only verbally, they said OK, every time we come we are going to bring the people to eat lunch with you so it only happens two times, it’s going to happen other times like every Sunday. So I was excited I went and invested in more chairs, I didn’t have enough chairs for sometimes 60 to 90 people and that day when I went and invested in more chairs, that following weekend they never came, they went to another place because there was no contract signed, it was only empty.

So that could have happened to me. Now when they bring me the contract, I would have signed the contract thinking now I am set to go, but it was not even true. So whatever they are promising for people like the locals, especially those who don’t know the law, how to defend themselves, they will take advantage of them, they will really mess them up. And so I tell Ernesto, the way I feel about it. I still don’t feel bad because if they are going to come to me and lie saying that they are going to bring me these people, I’m going to sign an empty paper that I don’t even read. … At the end of the day when they’re like standing on a rug and they pull the rug, you drop flat on the ground too. You know, so before I said that I was excited that the cruise ship will be coming, but I am not anymore because only today we sent word with the person who came with the contract that we are ready now to sign the contract because we have fixed it properly now. They have not appeared up to today.

Female Student: Do you think anything will change when they build the new cruise ship terminal? Do you reckon you might get more possibilities or …?

AS: No because the cruise ship tourists only have a limited time and if they’re going to come to me, they’re going to come from here and back to the ship again. They don’t have any time to spend anywhere. So if they don’t come directly to me that means I cannot offer them this.

ES: Well of course this whole idea of the cruise tourism in Belize was never received with a welcome. There’s always an outcry, and the only reason I personally felt that it could work is that they were going to be using local people. They’re asking us, are you interested in participating? If you’re interested in participating we’d like you to tell your own story; we don’t want to tell you what to see or what to do. Can you do that? That I think was good. If you are coming to me and you ask me what can you share with us, then if I think that it’s good; then I know that I am the one who is creating or making this activity; then I know how to manoeuvre it and how to control it; but that was good because they are going to go to the most interested. But as is, I also feel that they’re maybe not honest about what they are doing in some ways. Maybe it’s just an excuse to make their own programmes to do what they want. I know Cockscomb did not want them.

MM: Did not want the cruise tourism?

ES: That’s what they said. I don’t know if they changed their position. I asked them because I wanted to get a feel for it as well. They kind of just pushed it aside; they didn’t say yes or no, but from the people I am talking to they said no they would not like it. So when they ask if they can come to the village, the village in that sense said maybe not – we are not ready for them because we don’t have a programme to give them. It’s not because they said well we have this programme and we don’t want them; we’re saying we don’t know what programme to give them.

So when they came here because we used to work with the cruise business for a short period of time, every time when they had something, we came across and said what about this place, and then we came up with this new destination at the time that we talked about and they liked it. There was a guy from Miami who had a cruise business there – he said “well I like this, so let’s sign up the programme,” but we didn’t sign the contract, since we started to investigate if this was really true. That’s the point we got to and they haven’t responded up to this time. So I believe we are out more than him, which is not a problem because then you know that they are not honest. And if it’s true that this is the way they are going to work, then they are not going to be for everybody. I know some of them that are involved – they are very poised in terms of getting things the way they want to work, but I don’t know if they have all the little fishes around them swimming to feed, I think they are going to take it.

The other part of this – sorry, just one last thing – they came and said to the people that don’t know anything about tourism or don’t want anything to do with tourism, “Farmers, you farmers have the only opportunity to stand, because if you get together you plant food and fruits, we’ll buy it. We buy an enormous amount because we have to feed people every day; we’re talking about 4,000 people every day.” That’s the capacity of the ships we were talking about. Then for the whole year, they’re talking about 200,000 people. Right so if you have food to buy every weekend or Monday, now a lot of people get excited about this, but they don’t really know how this thing works. Like you give me the taste of this thing, I can taste it, the imaginary phrase is like ‘wow, it’s good’, but in reality we have to do that to see if that is the scenario. So those were some of things that I thought of and maybe they could work. The farmers could get together and do their farming and sell it, but is it true?

MM: But you have to guarantee production as well. It’s a difficult one to do.

ES: Exactly, but it is something we could do, because there’s not many new things happening, and the last thing I want to see is that I got involved into the idea of tourism. We negotiated our time and they were looking for people to work at the office or on the ship. Last year or a year and a half ago, we got some publicists and said come this way and we’re going to talk to a guy about a job. All the young people got excited, we realised if we look at them, you have a tattoo on your skin, oh you have dreadlocks, you you’re too short. I mean like, what’s going on!? So I called this guy and I said you’re blowing my people out, and he said OK let’s give it a second thought. They accepted a few of them for an interview, but that’s it, it was never really a job that came through. So what I realised is that they’re looking for only people that would work for them. … They said some more employment will come, but by the time comes around, I won’t be one of them. So whether you want to get involved or not is not my problem, it’s not their problem, but it’s our problem because this is a government supported programme. To help poor people to get better, which ones are supporting those guys? Not me, because I haven’t gotten word from anyone.

Female Student: Do you know if there were employers? Did you know if they employed anyone?

ES: They employed a few people, a few Mayan people, but I don’t know to what extent or what exactly they did because I haven’t heard from them, but one or two people were employed. I heard this guy, one of the Mayan guys that they employed went on the ship and after three months he said he started to cry, he wants to come back he can’t handle it. So he served his time, but he’d never go back again, he said. Well we are not seagoing people, we are Mayan people. We like the land better.

MM: Maybe Abi wanted a job? Anyway, you’re probably quite tired now, so I’ll just ask one more question of particular relevance to the conservation group, but more of an interest to me. It is my concern about the cultivation of palm oil. You mentioned it once – is the cultivation of palm oil and palm oil plantations, is that exerting any pressure on the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary?

ES: Because it’s on a very small scale at the moment I know it’s going to have an impact, but I don’t know when, but it’s not great. Likewise, this can be for the future as well because you can do it this year, you can do it next year, you can do it for however long you want to do it. But honestly, it’s going to have a huge impact not only on the community but the reserve as well. There’s a lot of development that’s going on. I have two neighbours that are coming right next to me, they said we are only going to do 150 acres of land clearing and they are going to put houses for Mayan people there. Now the problem I have with that is that I know it’s not true because they are going to do real business that is going to impact us like this one right here. I’m going to show you a particular example. Here is a conservation group, their name is ‘Sanctuary Belize’ – you can Google it if you want. They are trying to break that hill up there for mining, right up there, right above the water that we drink. When the rains come, all that rubble will go into the water and wash up with us. We are Mayan people, we are used to going into the basin to wash. When we told them, they said that’s really not a problem that we can solve, it’s just the company. So I said where do we go? It’s typical that they’re taking advantage of people who don’t have anywhere to run to for help, we are always exposed because we don’t have anywhere to go, to the point now that this forest we used to go and we’d cut our leaves and we’d cut our sticks to make our houses, but we can’t go there now because there is a sign that says look, if you get past here you’ll go to jail. They might not be here again, but the point is that they don’t want me here again, so where do I go now? What do I do now? So a lot of the pressure is going to come, I can see this happening, in fact I’ve been hearing now – you don’t have to record this now.

MM: OK, I’ll turn it off.

Matt Miller

Interviewee: Matt Miller, Director of Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary
Interviewers: Andie Whitfield, Jessica Meaden, Sam Buse, Ollie England and Beth Grant
Location: Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize.
Date: 6th September August 2013
Theme: The development of tourism in Belize.
Keywords: tourism development; cruise ships; independent travellers; cultural differences; Belize Tourist Board; natural capital.
Notes: This interview was conducted by undergraduate students from Plymouth University, UK, whilst on geography fieldwork in the country and whilst addressing specifically the issue of tourism developments in Belize.

Andie Whitfield (AW): So basically, we are focusing down on cruise ship tourism. So it may not be your expertise/skill, but we feel like you would at least have a sense of what’s going on. Is that right?

Matt Miller (MM): Yes

AW: So what’s your impression, at the moment, of the cruise ship tourism in Belize? Give us your overall summary.

MM: Well, my impression of it is that it benefits a few people rather than many people. I see the difference between overnight tourism and cruise tourism as benefitting those that are already well off become better off; while overnight visitations give people at all levels of society an opportunity to engage with the tourism industry. So, you know, the other end of the spectrum would be a community-based overnight homestay – you know, where guests stay in a rural village guesthouse or family home and that’s where you can put your money to where it is needed the most; in the hands of local rural people.

AW: We saw that in Maya Centre Village actually.

MM: Yes. When we run students through the homestay programme in Maya Centre it puts money in the hands of the woman of the house, which is an unusual thing in this culture because men are the usual income earners and women, they might help him manage his money; but for women to make money like that is a recent positive change. And I’m going to go on a little bit more about this because it’s important that women handle the money, or earn the money, because you know what they do with it? They invest in the family; buy the kid’s school books and shoes and they maybe improve the kitchen or the house. Typically, when the men get a hold of cash, they tend to go to the bar and drink. And so this is one way that tourism can really benefit rural communities in developing countries like Belize – whereas cruise tourism is at the other end of the spectrum, I mean they sell big fancy diamonds and the tour operators have to have a high level of standards in order to compete for the cruise tourists’ attention and money and there’s not yet that many people in Belize that have that level of sophistication. So what happens is these international companies come in and plant a franchise of their international company to run tours, cell food, art and craft. And they import big boats and things that are not from this part of the world in order to capture more of that flow of money that goes off of the cruise ship. So I’m not too impressed with Cruise tourism in general.

AW: No. I think we can pretty much agree with that. What we saw today, we saw the flow of money go off the ship and you’re lucky if it will get to the port.

Jessica Meaden (JM): With the port all owned by the private companies.

AW: It’s all privatised, like the Diamond Company; 49% built by the cruise ship itself – so that’s why they really want to keep you there.

MM: Yup

AW: And then you’ll be very lucky. I don’t know if you heard that we said that 2,900 got off the boat today.

MM: Ok

AW: 2,100 left the port, but of those 2,100, only 450 took independent travel from then on.

MM: Out of Belize City.

AW: Yes but, you know, for the Belizeans. Otherwise they want already pre-booked tours, so it’s a minuscule amount.

MM: Got you.

AW: So that’s what I was quite surprised by.

MM: It’s quite impressive that you were able to capture that division of where people went.

AW: And then 900 people just stayed on, sorry 700 people, just stayed

MM: In the terminal?

AW: In the port. Yes.

Sam Buse (SB): And then 2,000 people stayed on the boat.

AW: Yes

SB: And we asked why, and he said “oh they are either hung-over, or they’re too old.”

AW: And also the cruise ship passengers, the cruise ship companies, I don’t know if you’ve got the sense that the cruise ship companies deterred people from going.

MM: Yes

AW: They’ve often said things such as “it’s too far.”

MM: Deterring the people from not going far. Yes. An interesting story, just before coming here on this trip, about a week before you all arrived there was a PBS news report about cruise tourism in Alaska, where a lot of North Americans go, and they discussed Anchorage (which is a big cruise destination) where people get off the boat and shop for Native American craft or smoked salmon or all kinds of, you know, products from that unique part of the world. And they have these cruise dock lecturers, they’re called, and people gather around them to get the scoop on what to do in town and where the good deals are and these lecturers are biased already because the cruise company that hires them also has financial relationships with retail vendors in town. And the role of the lecturer is to try to influence the passenger to go to those shops and avoid the others that don’t pay a $25,000 a month fee to the cruise company, so that the lecturer will mention their name.

AW: Yes.

MM: And that was found in the courts to be illegal. It’s like racketeering; it’s trying to control a market as a monopoly. And the cruise company was fined $200,000 which isn’t much for them to pay back into the community that they were manipulating. And it was a big ‘to do’ in the news, when really it was just a slap on the wrist. So it’s just something that was brought to the light really that I didn’t know was going on and I’m sure that a similar type of influence is happening here.

JM: Do you think it’s a sort of ignorance on the visitor’s point of view? Because I mean we’ve seen a different light – I asked yesterday whether they have more people come there as an independent traveller, because when you’re an independent traveller or a backpacker you do your research before you go. I mean, like you take out your Lonely Planet guide book and you go on TripAdvisor and all sorts of different things, whereas people that get on a cruise ship just go – and they’re going a lot of the time with no idea of what it’s about., I mean today, Sam told me about the cruise ship website and how they were glorifying Belize even though no-one is going to get to see Belize

AW: The bits they were advertising

SB: Like “You can go swimming with sharks off the reef or trekking through the forest”. But they don’t even advertise that and they don’t even do it as a tour.

AW: If people were going on a tour, what was it? 89% ended up going to Altun Ha and then maybe some cave tubing but 89% just went to Altun Ha and then back.

MM: Yes.

AW: Which is nothing.

MM: And the sad thing is that the passenger then goes home and says “oh we visited Belize” but they don’t know what the country is really like.

AW: Yes, we were getting quite angry.

JM: That’s what I mean about the port. Because people are thinking they’re visiting Belize, but if they walked just 20 steps outside that port they would see a totally different side of Belize.

MM: Right.

JM: And, maybe they would change their minds about helping the people and the community because, you know, you can see it, like there is so much deprivation outside of the port.

AW: We were relieved to go back into Belize City.

AW: I was wondering if you know.… So we spoke to Terry today – who is part of and she was saying that she thinks, perhaps, cruise ships have too much influence over the country – because they are bringing so many tourists to Belize, they can actually use that to get what they want. Do you think that’s the case?

MM: Absolutely. And when the idea that Belize was going to be a cruise ship destination came about, there were negotiations right up front between the companies and the government about what kind of arrangement are we going to have. How much are we going to pay per passenger to come to the shore? What kinds of facilities can you construct for us so that we can operate our cruise operations? And there was hardly anything that the government could influence the company to do. They literally just said “here’s what we are going to do, take it or leave it.” And if the government had said “well that’s not good enough for us, then the threat was “well we just won’t come to Belize”. So they do wield a lot of influence and generate big bucks and it’s very easy to influence a politician with, you know, a gift.

JM: Much of it is about money as well.

MM: But I think, you know, on your question about the education of the tourist – tourism is the number one largest industry on the planet. It’s very important that we as tourists (eventually all of us are going to be tourists at some point in our lives), that we understand how our dollar impacts the destinations we go, how we get there and all of that stuff. So, if tourism really is the biggest industry on planet earth, then it should be part of our training as young people early on to understand that, you know, what our choices mean.

JM: Today personally for me, I mean I was just stood there and I decided that I never ever want to become the kind of person that stands on a port and says “I’ve visited a country”. I never ever want to do that.

Ollie England (OE): It was a culture shock going from there and then going to south Belize City.

AW: We really were relieved to get back into Belize City.

MM: That’s interesting.

AW: So you think that cruise ships wield a lot of power, can you see any way that perhaps the government or other stakeholders in Belizean tourism can get some of that power back or influence?

MM: I don’t know if they go head-to-head with the influence of the cruise companies because their profit margins per quarter are more than the annual budget of the whole country. They’re so powerful because of their economic influence. But I think that the Belize Tourist Board could focus on somehow educating those tourists that do land on our shores, about why this is such a great destination to come back to with their families for an overnight visit, you know a week-long stay and visit the parks, go mountain biking and view Victoria Peak and the Blue Hole and all these other natural features that Belize is becoming so popular for.. So I don’t know that they could go head-to-head but they could do a work-around where they are beginning to let people know what this country really does have to offer and why it’s worth coming back on a family vacation on another time.

AW: Like an enticer for the future.

MM: It’s a way to educate – because they are not getting it from the cruise companies.

AW: Do you think it’s too late for Belize to try and switch its focus on another type of tourist? Like backpackers or ecotourists? People that stay overnight. Do you think it’s too late to do that?

MM: No. And they have been doing that from early on. When you look at the BTB website and some of their promotional materials, they do a very good job of promoting the cultural aesthetics of the country and how friendly people are to interact with and share their culture. And they do a fantastic job displaying all the natural features, from the bird watchers to the, you know, the river paddlers to the snorkelers and SCUBA divers. So they already, I think that BTB is doing a good job and I think they could do more specifically targeting cruise passengers on why this country is worth coming back to again for a second, long-term visit.

OE: Are the overnighters and long stays with other companies in the BTB’s plans? Do you have any say at all? Do you have any influence over them?

MM: Well I think they have an open ear to comments. I don’t know really what the communication channels are, but the BTB is supported entirely by our accommodation tax. So with you guys sleeping here and paying seventeen dollars per night to sleep in the dorm, nine percent of that revenue goes directly to the BTB.


MM: As a tour operator/hotelier – we are classified as a hotelier – then we are the ones responsible for collecting that and paying it on time. There was a time when I would avoid paying it and they came back and they slammed me with a big fine.  It took me five years to pay it off – so I learned my lesson the hard way. But, I think, because we are supporting BTB by pay the accommodation tax, then there should be a way we can influence their policies. And I don’t know, I don’t really have a whole lot of desire to try to influence the BTB other than when they go to these big tourism trade shows in Europe and North America, it would benefit our organization if they had at least a portion of their promotional materials to let people know what a great education destination this is for students and researchers who are interested in doing the kinds of the experiential learning activities that you all are doing. Because, when you look at the tourism pie, there’s a growing slice that represents education programs and student groups that come – and their numbers are increasing. And you know, mission groups that come to do service projects for churches, there is all this service learning tourism that is coming to Belize that doesn’t really give much flash in the pan in the eyes of BTB. It’s not who they are going after – that just kind of happens because of community relationships or individual companies advertising on the web to attract that clientele. But BTB, I think, could show a stronger effort toward reaching out to these tourists as well.

SB: Going back to the financial side, what do you think of the banking system in Belize? Especially the business banking. Do you think they do a good job? Do you think it’s a success or do you think that they could do better?

MM: Banking, I think, is fine. It’s expensive but working fine. They still pay a good interest rate on money in the bank.

SB: The reason why I asked you that is because yesterday when we spoke to the lady that, just three years ago, opened the Caribbean Shores hotel in Hopkins, she said that the banks were absolutely unbelievably bad.

AW: Do you think it’s because she’s just moved from the USA and perhaps is not acclimatised? Or do you think there is some basis there for her to comment on?

MM: And its true there is a basis. I mean, from what little bit that Martin told me, she had a bitter taste in her mouth overall about Belizeans and the culture and the problem with holding on to employees because of dishonesty and stuff like that. But when you leave a developed country and you move to a developing country you have to expect that things are going to be different and when you bring the US or European model and try to lay it down and expect it to work the same in this context, then you are going to be disappointed. So there may some differences in the way that banks would do business in North America than how they do business here. One of the frustrating things is that the banks take a big chuck of money out of wire transfers from abroad. They not only take the part-exchange fee (which shaves off a couple of percent points), but the overall wire transfer fee that can run into the hundreds of dollars. So you’re dealing with a customer – let’s say I’m dealing directly with Plymouth – and Chris and I have agreed on a price for your programme and I send him a bill and he sends that amount of money, but by the time his bank is through with it and my bank and the corresponding bank in New York (because, I mean, you can’t wire money directly from London to Belize City – it has to go through New York) and so that bank takes a piece and then the arrival bank takes a piece (my banker) and by the time I get it I am five hundred dollars less than what Chris paid me. So that pisses me off about the banks and I understand its convenience is key; it’s a way for him to get money to me quickly and securely so that I can run the programme when you all arrive, but it’s a rip-off. It’s a rip-off. So that could be part of what she is talking about. Because if her customers are coming from North America and she’s asking for a guarantee deposit, the banks are getting a piece of it.

SB: She also mentioned the fact that she was building this new apartment next door as well and she was like “one million dollars in the bank” – she said that to us – and she was like “oh I had real trouble getting it in there”.

OE: Yes she was complaining that the guys working for her could get ten dollars in there and were saying “oh you did it so easily”.

Beth Grant (BG): I think one of the main things from everyone that we have interviewed, is that there is a massive miscommunication problem in Belize. What are your opinions on this?

MM: Well any person that is coming from a developed country with that mindset and wants to transplant it and expect it to work the same, is going to find that there are lots of miscommunications.

BG: We found out also that Belizeans, like people in the Maya Centre who are actually from Belize, they have had trouble with the government as well in terms of communication.

OE: Like trying to create licenses and what you need for your business.

JM: I think the thing is that people think that the Belizeans are uneducated, but they are educated in different ways to what we perceive education to be.

MM: Good point.

JM: So that’s how I see it as a problem.

MM: Very good point.

JM: The locals know their stuff, they really know their stuff, but why, you know, the lady was saying yesterday that she had to get a tour guide license or whatever but she was saying “but why? I know about my plants, I know about my land and I have lived here my whole life. Why do I need to go and buy a license and why is the government telling me this and making my life difficult?”

SB: Yes. They said that they threatened them with a machine gun! They came in with a gun. Yes, they said that it was very scary and it really frightened her.

AW: Any comments on that?

MM: Well, big money attracts attention and if she’s flaunting it and she doesn’t know you from Adam and she’s telling you that she tried to put a million bucks in the bank, and then she is telling a sensational story to attract attention to herself. And you can bet that there are other people around listening and they want to get in on that too. If she’s got those kinds of resources, then I want my piece of it. You know, a Belizean might look and say, you know, how can I get my piece? So, I think what is interesting is the comment about Maya Centre having problems getting their trade licenses or, who knows, getting their tax license paid or getting a cell phone connected. There’s a big challenge with communicating with people in authority, because with that power comes a big fat ego that says “well, they are lesser than me and I don’t have to tell them everything that they really need to know.” And you’ll find people here in Belize who won’t share information freely unless you ask them very specifically for an answer to a question. One example, you know, when Josh walked into this land back in 1975, no one ever bothered to tell him that when the river floods it gets thirty feet high and two miles wide and he worked here for eight years putting in the pasture and stringing in the wire fences and releasing the cattle and then they all drowned and he was shocked and everybody else was like “well didn’t you know the river rises every year?”. So it’s the same thing, for example, Fiona has just arrived from South Africa and so she said “let’s go to the bank so that I can open my account” and we called them and said “what do we need to bring?” And they said “bring your ID”. OK, so she brings one form of ID and she gets to the bank and they take her ID and they say “ok now where is your driver’s license?” or “where is your letter from your banker?” And they kind of lead you into this, and it is almost as if they are saying “got ya”, because you didn’t ask me so why would I tell you what you need to bring. Whereas in America or the UK or Canada, people would be forthcoming and say “here’s the checklist of things that you need to come and open your account” and it would work seamlessly. Here it is like …

JM: The lady yesterday said something like “if you had patience before you came to Belize then you will lose it and if you don’t have patience before you get to Belize then you will gain it”, or something like that.

MM: Yes. That’s a cliché that a lot of us from other places use to say. The reason that is happening is to teach us to be patient and tolerant and accepting of our differences. And it’s really true. When you step out of your comfort circle, something is going to rub you the wrong way and we have to learn how to adapt to that.

AW: That was really interesting, especially to hear it again from a different person because, you know, that story is actually very much the same. But moving away from infrastructure and communications and getting back to cruise ships, do you have any apprehensions or are you optimistic about, maybe not for your business but for Belize as a whole, about the proposed new Norwegian cruise liner dock down in Placencia? Are you for or against?

MM: No, I don’t think that is a good idea. I understand the people of Placencia think it’s a bad idea because they have built a very strong tourism foundation on the overnight guests who come for the natural beauty, the coast, the diving, the fishing, the great food, the inland tourist accommodation, routes to Cockscomb from Maya Centre to Placencia. So in Placencia you can do it all and they certainly don’t need cruise passengers in bikinis with big fat rolls walking down their sandy lanes, you know. It would just be a total distraction from why people go to Placencia in the first place. I think it’s a bad idea for other ports to set up in Belize.

JM: I would be interested to know what your opinion is on the independent people that come into Belize, like the lady that we spoke to from Caribbean Shores yesterday, about them taking over, you know as they do, like in Hopkins the whole south side is pretty much foreign-owned land and they have done it up and I’d like to know what you think about that. Do you think it will go the same way as cruise ship tourism is going? Do you think that it’s a good thing or a bad thing?

MM: Well, I’ll probably be talking out of one side of my mouth and not the other because I myself am a large land owner and I’ve chosen to take this land and strip it of its development rights and that lowers the value. But we’ve actually gone through an exercise here that says that this land will stay protected long after I’m going to be here, because we have used the legal instruments available to us to say that any future landowner – there is something attached to the title – so when it transfers to another owner, they’re now restricted on what they can do on this property. Other people, most people, would look at this probably and say “oh well I’m going to work this for a few years and then hopefully the value will rise and when I’m finished I’m going to sell it for more than I bought it for”. And so I think Josh Brown – the original purchaser of this land – had a very unique approach that I’ve bought into to try and help him move his project forward. So when I see foreigners taking over the south end of Hopkins I don’t think it’s a very good idea as it creates a division in the community. You know, there is white people down on the south side and then there is less well-to-do people in the north and that just creates division in communities rather than integration and I’m sure that the resort owners down below see the folks up north as their labour pool – they want them there but they don’t want them to be partners in the business and they aren’t going to elevate them to high positions because they are cheap labour; and they’re not trained and educated at the level that it would take to run the business or manage the business. So it’s a delicate thing.

AW: It seems to me that most places we have gone to and people we have spoken to in relation to Norwegian Cruise Liners have been pretty much fairly against it unless it develops into community based tours like where they go into Maya Centre and they actually experience it. Like the lady from Maya Centre said that she doesn’t want to go down to the dockside and do her bit there. She was definitely determined that she wanted the tourists to come to her. So I was just wondering how you think that the government is listening to the people? Do you think they are listening to the people? It seems to be a general move against cruise ships?

MM: I’m sure they are hearing them, but the influence of the industry itself on those that are in the decision-making positions and the potential for that elite group to make money from it is probably deluding and the comments that they are getting from the general population.

AW: Do you think that the government sees the potential for cruise passengers to go further inland and actually spread their money independently amongst Belizeans, or do you think that they don’t actually know about that? Or do you think that they know about it but are just turning a bit of a blind eye?

MM: I think the government and the people in the Belize tourism industry, and in the government and the Belize Tourism Board, they know about the potential to spread those people out to more places and for those dollars to be used more effectively in developing our communities. But it’s probably a free market thing that is going to make that happen. If people here were more savvy, maybe they would be able to put up websites and say ‘visit us on your trip to Belize’, or maybe it’s titled ‘Cruising to Belize?’ and you click on that and you can see all the alternative eco and the community-based or the cultural exchange opportunities that are available and for those maybe ten percent of the cruise passengers interested in that type of thing – they will write to inquire. I just got an email today from a guy; “Hi my name is Michael, I’m on a cruise to Belize in December, is there any bird watching at your place?” That was all he said. So I wrote back and said “that’s cool that you’re coming and we’re about thirty miles from the cruise terminal, it would be easy for you to get here and yes there are five interesting habitat types; here’s our bird list of the things that your can see here and we would be delighted to host your visit so let us know how we can help”. I didn’t try to sell him anything, I didn’t say to come and have a meal or that there was an entrance fee, I just said ‘here is the information that you asked for, let us know how we can be of service’ and when somebody throws like that and they get an immediate response that’s focused on exactly what they asked for, I’m going to have a nice little dialogue with this guy over the next couple of months and he may wind up coming here with his family and hiring a local guide and maybe even taking a half-day float down the river in the canoe with one of our guides and staying for lunch. I might make a hundred bucks out of the deal and that’s the potential that anyone operating in Belize has if you’re willing to advertise and then engage with the person. You can’t have like a robot respond and say ‘yes, there are birds here’ – it would go flat. You’ve got to make it personal and engage the person and for them to want to know more about what we can offer them.

JM: But then you’ve got to have that person in the first place that is doing their research.

MM: Yes. Right. I’ll say ten percent might be looking online to see what else is to do in Belize other than what the cruise ship is offering. But the ninety percent are just happy to be on the boat and eat all they can and burn their skin in the sun. That’s an American approach to cruise ship tourism. It’s a great rate for eighty bucks a day to get your room and all you want to eat, you know, you can’t even go into downtown Atlanta – where I live – and do that for that price. I met one woman, when I was helping my Dad do the retirement community move, and she said “oh I didn’t choose a community, I just go on a different cruise every week – it’s cheaper for me to stay on a cruise boat in my retirement, than settling down into a retirement community”.

JM: But the cruise passengers today, they had to pay five dollars just to get out of the port and that money goes back into the private investors.

MM: You mean the individual passengers?

All: Yes.

JM: A small amount goes to the government and it’s supposed to be going on the roads outside but, I mean, you can’t see anything developing.

MM: Well we did hear that ten percent goes to PACT [Protected Areas Conservation Trust] (twenty five dollars) and Belize City were saying that they get a piece of it for infrastructure but I didn’t know that it actually came out of the pocket of the tourist. I thought the cruise company paid that based on the number of people they had on their ship.

JM: The guy said today five dollars per person.

AW: It might be paid by the ship though.

MM: We don’t know, I think it’s probably included in the lump sum that they pay. It’s like the airline flight. In your ticket here, you paid an extra thirty dollars that stays in Belize and most of it goes towards that PACT fund, but it’s the departure tax and now it’s incorporated into the ticket rather than you paying it just before going through immigration. I think that’s happening with the cruise terminals.

JM: And that’s the point I’m making; a lot of it goes back into the government.

MM: Wouldn’t it be great if that was triple that and then we would have a better relationship with the cruise company?

JM: Five dollars per two thousand five hundred people a day and, most of which is going straight back out.

AW: Yes, five dollars doesn’t seem like an awful lot of money.

SB: It’s like the hot sauce they sell there. We’ve seen it as $2.75 Belizean, but in the port it was $8.50 American.

MM: Yes, they know very well. [Pause] Also, in the past, there were big problems with cruise ships dumping their garbage over the side during a cruise and emptying the bilge with all the sewage into the ocean when they are cruising and who knows if that is still going on? It’s supposed to be regulated but it’s sort of a self-regulating industry because there is no-one following them. Anyway, those are issue too that have, in the past, influenced or put a bad name on the industry; is how they manage their waste. I think the cruise ships have negotiated with the government to be able to offload their solid waste to go into a landfill. So that’s another, you know, certain environmental cost.

JM: They are thinking of putting a road all the way from the road to the island off Belize City.

MM: That’s like five miles.

JM: And every one of us was like “what!?”

MM: Yes, that has been debated now for over ten years.

AW: Yes, it’s in one of the books that we are researching.

MM: And when a certain political party was in they had a ‘let’s go do it’ approach and then they were voted out and now it’s resting but it’s still brewing because it’s big money people that have influence over government that is driving all of that. But what a disaster that would be. You know, first of all of the dredging that would need to take place to sink piers; that’s going to stir up sediment. And it goes within two miles of this beautiful manatee sanctuary that’s been declared as a marine reserve. But with the events of hurricanes that come through here, I can’t imagine it surviving though a big storm with an eighteen foot storm surge. It would be an expensive piece of infrastructure to maintain.

AW: I don’t know if this is the last question, but I’ve got a question. I was wondering, as a stakeholder in the tourism industry, where do you see tourism in general going in the next ten years? Do you see a reliance on cruise ships? We have also seen a lot of people thinking that Belize is going to aim for the higher-end people (such as in Hopkins). So yes, if you could just tell me where you think it is going?

MM: Wish I could predict. Here’s what I hope will happen. I see the world, in general, becoming more and more developed and so that makes places like Belize (that are still relatively underdeveloped) more attractive to people who want to see nature and how natural systems function and I think that that is going to continue to be a big draw for global visitors and tourists to come here. You’ve got, you know, beautiful rivers and an abundance of wildlife and sixty percent natural vegetation cover – all of these are fantastic statistics when you compare this country to others in the world. So I think that natural capital that we have here, that we are conserving, is going to continue to be the draw for why people want to come. And I see our little business of more education and, you know, more study abroad options available to people – I think it is going to grow. And I believe that as Belizeans become more and more savvy on how to win more of the tourist purse, we are going to see more innovation in the communities and from small business owners. Like Vitalino, that guy, I mean that’s an entrepreneur right there taking you guys up on the zip line. He’s a real great example. He started off as a cook in a resort and now look what he has done with just his passion and his willingness to work hard.

SB: He is one step ahead of the rest of them. Even talking about his flashlights and his helmets.

MM: He is!

AW: And he knows his target audiences appreciate quality of service more than anything.

MM: And, you know, he is a great communicator. Martin called his office and he wasn’t in and his office called him and said that somebody from Monkey Bay had called him and they didn’t get their number. So he then called me and asked who would have called him from Monkey Bay and I said that it was Martin and I will tell Martin that you called him back. And then Vitalino called me back and said “no, give me Martin’s number and I’ll call him directly”. So, you know, he really worked it. And that was simply after having you guys come down for an interview.

SB: And then he spent half an hour to forty-five minutes with us.

MM: Yes! And, I mean, you weren’t customers but he gave you a great rate. Twenty bucks a head when it would cost the cruise passengers sixty-five bucks to do what you all did. But he realises that that’s an important service and that you are all an important audience – so he goes out of his way to make it work and that’s what an entrepreneur has to do and not many people are willing to work it to that degree in order to make it successful.

OE: Do you think that, as a country, Belize can eventually go away from the cruise ship industry?

MM: Oh yes. I think that they can live just fine without it. I don’t think that it is doing us any good over the long term. As a matter of fact, it might be keeping some people away that might not want to travel to a destination where they are going to run into one hundred cruise ship passengers getting off of a bus to visit the Mayan ruins. It may be tarnishing that same image of, you know, a natural destination that the BTB is promoting.

SB: Vitalino said that on a busy cruise ship day, on Wednesday he can have five hundred people there, whereas a normal day he would see fifty people. So for us to go on a Wednesday, with five hundred people as well would be no chance. It would be unbelievable.

JM: It would be good to see what the people [unrecognisable…]. Because, obviously they’re benefiting a great deal from cruise ship tourism, so it would be good to get a balance.

BG: Yes

SB: Because so far everyone has been against cruise ship tourism.

MM: Oh good, so you get some positive feedback on why they are good.

AW: Well we thought that the port today would give us some positive.

SB: Can you think of anywhere else that might give us more positives towards cruise ship tourism?

AW: Where’s somewhere that really appreciates the cruise ship?

MM: You know, I don’t really know what destinations that they go to – I know the cave tubing and Altun Ha. When you get to Altun Ha, I imagine that you are going to see local wood carvers out there selling their craft, they’ll be food vendors but they may not be doing much because I think most of the tours include a little packed lunch and they have probably already encouraged you on the boat not to eat out because you might get sick! There will be guides, there will be people that are drivers, but do find out. “Do you guys live within a twenty mile radius of here?”, “Do you come from far?”, “Are you chasing that cruise ship dollar or is it coming to you and you are modifying your work life in order to capture some of that impact?”. It would be really interesting to find out where the local people are actually from that are interacting with the tourist and doing business. Give me an update tomorrow evening!

All: Thanks very much Matt.