1.18.2009

About Belize

Some of the readers of TBZ Blog may be interested in learning a little bit more about the country of Belize. Recently, Tom led a group of students and friends on a week-long trip to Belize. The group spent 5 wonderful days and nights based out of the Tropical Education Center at The Belize Zoo. In addition to some special visits to Zoo (posts to follow), the group took a number of side trips around the country. As a participant on the trip, I jotted a number of notes and took some photos to share.

Before traveling to Belize for the first time, I wasn't exactly sure where in the world it was. I knew it was in Central America, but I had to look at a map. The following quick facts about Belize may be of interest:

During the 19th century, Belize was referred to as British Honduras, after being colonized in the mid-19th century by England. It is by that name that many people of a certain generation remember it. It was a rich landscape colonized by the British for their interest in exporting mahogany. In 1974, the name for the colony changes from British Honduras to Belize, in anticipation of its independence. In 1981, Belize became independent from England. Though still a member of the British system, with the Queen as its symbolic head, it is now a sovereign democracy with a prime minister. They have municipal elections every three years, and a general election every five years. There are two primary political parties, both fairly centrist.

Throughout its history, Belize has disputed borders with Guatemala, and it has been the location of geographic rivalry between English and Spanish colonists. A fairly complete summary can be found at Wikipedia.

Today, the population of Belize is approximately 300,000 people. It's geographic size is similar to that of the state of Massachusetts, or about 800,000 square miles of land. There are five major ethnic groups that comprise modern Belize: Creole (Kriol), Mestizo, Maya, Garifuna (shipwrecked African Slaves from French sovereign areas), and Spanish. There are also sizable populations of Mennonites (Europeans who left Germany before the WWII and emigrated on a zig zag path across the Atlantic and south through Mexico to Belize in the 1950s), as well as Chinese, Lebanese, East Indian's and Arabs. Belize is also home to refugees from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. According to our expert guide Peter, there are not a lot of racial tensions in this multi-racial country. He attributes this to the fact that it is a small country with a lot of interdependence and intermarriage. The Belizean Constitution prohibits discrimination. The main religion in Belize is Roman Catholicism, but we saw evidence of a number of different Christian churches throughout.

Most people in Belize speak three languages: English, Spanish, and Creole, with Creole being a uniting vernacular with 98% of people speaking Creole. (Similar to that throughout Central America, it is an English-based Creole rather than the French-based Creole of Louisiana.) All schooling is in English. Primary education is free and compulsory. Secondary education is free (must pass an entrance exam for private education). All higher education must be paid for through tuition and fees.

The export economy includes citrus concentrate, bananas, seafood, and lumber. Agriculture is a very large industry within the economy of Belize. Tourism is also a very large part of the Belizean economy, with 1 in 4 people estimated as being employed in some aspect of tourism. Belize has 3 of the 4 barrier reefs in the world that are "underwater mountains" caused when plate tectonics exposed the tops of mountains, and the erosion of the tops created lagoons. Belize is a country of cayes (keys) and mainland rainforest. Twenty percent of the vegetation is pine savanna. We passed areas that looked clear cut, but Peter explained that fire is a part of the natural ecosystem, and in the dry season, with windy periods, pine cones heat up and fires spread, dispersing flammable seeds -- a symbiotic process.
Belize City was the capital of Belize until 1961, when Hurricane Hattie ripped through, leveling the city. This caused leaders to relocate the capital to Belmopan, in a more central and secure location. There are approximately 16-18,000 people in Belmopan, the administrative center of the country. Belize City, however, remains the largest and busiest city in the country, with an estimated 70,000 people. Belize is a developing country. Most of the people there seem happy and productive. People were very friendly and open and relaxed. I am trying to maintain that Belize state of mind!

Our trip involved five days on the mainland, mostly in the central regions (Cayo and Belize districts), and two days on Ambergris Caye (the largest of the Cayes). After two trips to Belize, I still don't feel like I've seen enough. I hope to go back some time soon, and I highly recommend that you check it out! There are so many things to see and so much to learn. This was not a "luxury vacation" trip per se, but it was most definitely a learning adventure that has changed my life for the better.

Remember, to enlarge a map or photo, simply click on the image.]

3 comments:

lindsay.kennedy@orchidbaybelize.com said...

The Tropical Education Center at the Belize Zoo is such a fantastic experience! I would recommend to anyone.

Thanks!

Orchid Bay Belize

bathmate said...

Interesting posting. Thanks for the info. Keep up the good work.
Bathmate

Friends of the Belize Zoo said...

On October 24th, 2010 the BELIZE ZOO SUSTAINED A DIRECT HIT FROM HURRICANE RICHARD. Sharon Matola, the director of the Belize Zoo reports "Hurricane Richard did a number on the Zoo. We are closed for repairs and renovations and probably will not be able to re-open until December. Thankfully, none of the animals were injured or escaped, but our facility has been hit hard."

There is an URGENT NEED FOR DONATIONS to help the Zoo get back on its feet. Each year the Zoo struggles to balance its budget with the food for the animals and staff salaries literally depending on gate receipts. But right now, the added expense of repairs, combined with the closing of the Zoo, puts the financial future of the Belize Zoo in jeopardy.

Please help by donating money for lumber, steel pipes, metal fencing, cement, roof materials, wire, nails, paint, replanting, and labor. If you take a minute to look at the photos taken by the staff a couple of days after the storm, it will be clear there is a tremendous amount of work and resources needed. Any amount will help. Go to WWW.BELIZEZOO.ORG AND CLICK ON THE PUMA (HURRICANE RELIEF FUNDS).