Saturday, March 10, 2012

Bumping Through Belize

"If all capital is eventually backed by natural resources and ecosystem services, how can a country so rich in those elements, a country that has hosted monumental (solar-powered) civilizations in past centuries, find itself so intractably desperate and deprived?"  


Riding the bus from Cancun to Belize City we noticed something so quintessentially Belizian we knew for certain we were in the right country. On a small concrete home, painted bright yellow and orange, there were two beat-up wooden doors. Above one, in large brown letters, were the hand-painted words, “Lose Fat Gym.” Over the other was written “Burritos.”

In many respects Belize ranks with the poorest nations in the world. The per capita GDP, according to the most recent IMF report, is $4,275. Compare that with $50,200 in the United States or $34,300 for the average of the EU. The Belizian economy ranks 163rd of 183 nations. Average wage is $10 per day. Average annual income is about a third less than GDP per capita because that missing third goes to foreign banks and businesses, which is what makes elections so interesting.

Belize has a nominally 2-party system — the governing United Democratic Party (UDP) and the opposition People’s United Party (PUP). In actuality, there is hardly any discernible difference between the two. Both promise more jobs and economic growth, a fair shake and an end to corruption. Once in office, all of the opposites to those promises prevail. And, since whichever party is in power can siphon off the most graft and kickbacks, a lot of money gets spent on elections, which are premised on the absurd and unrealizable myths of growth and jobs.
Gomier and PDC arrivals watch political parade from the restaurant in Punta Gorda
Sitting in Gomier’s restaurant, we watched first the PUP caravan of schoolbuses, then the UDP caravan of schoolbuses parade noisily down the street in Punta Gorda. Each of the farmers, students, or workers who were on the buses wore new t-shirts of their party and had been paid $100 for that day — a ten-day wage. There were parades like this nearly every day we were in Belize. In that two weeks, a nimble laborer could, by showing up at different rallies, changing t-shirts and being paid, make half a year’s salary just by riding buses and chanting slogans. In the end, the UDP retained control by the narrow margin of 17 seats to 14 for the PUP. The PUP outsider, Oscar, beat the UDP’s insider, Juan, in Toledo West, in a nasty smear campaign that makes Newt Gingrich's look tame.
Why is Belize so intractably poor? If all capital is eventually backed by natural resources and ecosystem services, how can a country so rich in those elements, a country that has hosted monumental (solar-powered) civilizations in past centuries, find itself so intractably desperate and deprived?
Permaculture Course at Maya Mountain Research Farm
Belize is overbrimming with natural capital. While population expansion is now making steady inroads into the back country, Belize, at the core of the great neotropical migratory corridor, boasts 566 species of birds. Traveling the river to our permaculture course by dory, we saw a river otter, a pair of collared aracari (similar to a toucan), a boat-billed flycatcher, a rose-throated becard, and the violaceous trogon. A villager we met had a pet peccary boar.
The sad thing is that between climate change and the embedded poverty of the steadily growing population (36.8% are below 14), Belize’s real wealth, and the hope for any true recovery, is now endangered more than ever before. The biggest symbol of that was the wide, paved road to Guatemala being constructed through the southernmost district. It will pass straight through the middle of previously roadless and inaccessible highland biodiversity sanctuaries, home to Howler monkeys, jaguar and tapir. This is destruction of wealth on a scale that can barely be imagined.

Gomier’s vegetarian restaurant, which makes its own soymilk-seaweed smoothies and tofu fritters, displays a rare exception to the standard fare in Belizian restaurants which is always stew beans, rice, fry bread and fry fish and bake chicken (served for breakfast, lunch and dinner). In most homes and restaurants the fish plate is the local catch of the day, but as the reef and rivers grow more depleted from overfishing, industrial tilapia is the new normal, and escaped farm tilapia are devouring their ways through Belize’s rich river ecosystems. 
Looking at Belize’s population more closely, 26.43 live births per 1,000 people seems like a lot (the US is 13.8, China 12.1, Germany 8.1) until you consider that the infant mortality rate is 22.95 neonatal deaths per 1,000 live births (the US is 6, China 16, Germany 3.5). That high mortality rate for babies is a function of lack of access to medical services, unsanitary living conditions, and a number of diseases endemic to the wet tropics: bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid fever, dengue fever and malaria. These diseases are compounded by the cheap, subsidized concrete block that is replacing traditional elevated wood buildings. A block building seems more hurricane and termite resistant, and probably is, but it clings moisture to its surface and cultures black molds to be inhaled or ingested by its occupants.
 One of the films we always like to show the first night in a permaculture course is Albert Bartlett’s lecture on Understanding the Exponential Function. Bartlett displays two columns of solutions to the population dilemma. The left column shows things that people usually consider valuable pursuits of civil society – food security, sanitation, and medicine, for instance. The right displays things society abhors — war, disease, murder, and famine. Bartlett asks a straightforward question: if we want to bring down population, which column should we favor? He also observes that choices of measures like abstinence, contraception, and abortion — political punching bags in the US political scene, as they are also in largely Catholic Belize —are obviously less painful than letting nature decide.
The story is a familiar one, repeated often in the Americas over the past 500 years. A “wealthy” and industrious country (in this case England) arrives seeking trade goods (sailing masts, cacao, spices, and dyes made from native plants). In place of the local form of agriculture (in this case the carbon-endowing milpa system of long-rotation agroforestry that we described in The Biochar Solution), the Europeans impose the plow and irrigation style that desertified the Middle East, where it originated, and was steadily doing the same to the soils of England in the 18th Century, forcing the fleets of exploration. After the invention of the Haber-Bosch process and the development of Round-Up and terminator seeds, this process accelerates to bolster corporate profits in London and other trade centers. As a result, the thin tropical soils are ruined, chemical dependency established, food security demolished, and poverty embedded.
In Belize the Royal Navy was especially keen to harvest two types of trees, samwood and bloodwood (Haematoxylum var.). Samwood grew straight and dense and was ideal for tall ship construction. Bloodwood (Palo de Tinto in Mexico) extracts are used as remedies by indigenous peoples and were included in the London Pharmacopoeia of 1740, which listed bloodwood tea as being effective against tuberculosis and dysentery. More significantly for the woolen mills in England, the heartwood is used to produce dye for cloth and a pink coloring still used today in pharmaceuticals and toothpaste.
The new southern road cut a swath between the farm of Burton Cadiz (left) and his neighbor
Pirate log cutters gave way to permanent settlements and by the late 18th century, an oligarchy of relatively wealthy British settlers controlled the political economy of “British Honduras.” These settlers claimed about four-fifths of the available land; owned about half the slaves; controlled imports, exports, and the wholesale and retail trades; and levied taxes to economically enslave the free population. When the indigenous Caribbean Garifuna migrated out of Honduras and founded Punta Gorda in the mid-19th century, slavery had been abolished in English colonies but the economic tricks of enslavement remained, and they quickly ensnared the Garifuna. In order to pay their taxes to the Crown, they had to earn sterling, and the only way to do that was to produce an export commodity or labor for an English plantation. The 1872 Crown Lands Ordinance seized the family lands of the Garifuna and the Maya and established reservations. Nonetheless, Belize, with its relatively stable system of British control, became a sanctuary for Mayan and Garifuna populations fleeing war zones in southern Mexico and Guatemala.

By the end of the 19th century, the ethnic pattern that has remained largely intact to the present was in place: Protestants largely of African descent, who spoke either English or Creole and have clustered in Belize City; Roman Catholic Maya and Mestizos who speak Spanish and Mayan and live chiefly in the highlands; and Roman Catholic Garifuna who speak Creole English, Spanish, or a native dialect and live on the coasts or inland at Stann Creek. Sprinkle into this some Protestant Mennonite clans and a wave of recent Asian immigrants and you get the modern mix of Belize. In Punta Gorda you can get by on any of four languages and most people speak them all. 
As rich as this cultural diversity is (and wasn’t that also a reputed source of the wealth and innovation of USAnians?) the country is still enslaved. Large plantations — citrus, habanero, rice, banana — dominate the agricultural economy. Rather than learning from the Mayans, who still grow mixed age, mixed species tree and understory crops, albeit with an unhealthy dose of annual maize for sale to pay taxes, the Mennonites and Asians arrive with the same methods, tractors, and chemicals that the British brought in earlier. Instead of food security, what is being harvested is food insecurity. A drop in the price of maize or rice, a banana blight, or just a financial collapse that takes out the local banks, ruins people and more children die.
As we reached the dory landing in San Pedro Columbia we happened upon some village boys playing a game they had devised using an old tire and a football. One boy rolls the tire down the hill, another boy catches it, a third tries to throw a football through the tire hole at the moment of greatest speed or bounce. Then the boy who got to toss has to push the tire back up for the next thrower. This is low cost entertainment, and more exercise than an X-Box.
PDC students Reginia (Humana People to People) and Raneesha (Plenty) learn to swale
Belize is a tropical paradise, and its people should be some of the happiest and healthiest on the planet. That they are not thriving is through no obvious cause, such as indolence, alcohol or bad education. They are not thriving because they are wedded to a food production system that is destroying their underlying wealth, and they are suffering the consequences of that system and its financial prerequisites. Voting UDP or PUP won’t change that, the parties are just there for entertainment. Both UDP and PUP advocate staying with the program. So do the government agencies, schools, churches and most aid agencies. 
This is why the work being done by groups like Plenty Belize, Humana, and the Maya Mountain Research Farm are so important. If children and young people can learn the difference between living nature’s way versus fighting her each step of the way, Belize could prosper the way it is meant to.
Mark’s Serre
Serves 2
In Belize coconut oil and coconut milk are ubiquitous ingredients in both Belizean Kriol/Creole and Garifuna cuisine. Coconut adds flavor to stew beans and rice, often accompanied by the rich umami of pigtail. Coconut oil and milk may help explain how life expectancy at birth, despite the obstacles, is 66.5 years for men and 70 for women. The oil is used to fry everything from plantain chips to fish and chicken. Crab soup, conch soup and fish serre are the coconut equivalent of a cream-filled chowder; rich, tasty and filling, without cholesterol.
Fish: about 2 pounds of mackerel, barracuda, culibri, any firm fleshed fish, steaked or cut into other bowl sized pieces.  
Coco yam about 1 lb (or dasheen or taro root, found in most well stocked produce sections, in the "exotics" section. Ask your grocer, or substitute potatoes if you absolutely have to)  
Cassava root about 1 lb (again, most well stocked produce sections in a grocery store will have this around.)  
Onion (about two medium, finely diced)
Bell pepper (about two medium, finely diced) 

1 can (2 cups if fresh) Coconut milk
Water (normally not listed as an ingredient, but you need good water here)
Garlic (plenty, finely minced)
Black pepper (fresh ground, to taste)


1. Peel cassava and coco yams (collectively known as ground-food in Belize because they come from the ground), cut into big chunks. The brown skin of the cassava will come off along with a white thin layer of underlying flesh. Finally chop onion, bell pepper. Crush black pepper, salt. Cook all vegetables and ground food in a pot with coconut milk, plenty of minced garlic, pepper, a little cumin, salt and enough water to completely cover the food. Cook until tender. Add minced cilantro to taste. People often include breadfruit, ripe plantain or green plantain fu-fu (cooked mashed green plantain dumplings) in this stage of the serre.
2. Once fish is cut into steaks or pieces, fry until browned in a little coconut oil.  
3. Place fish in pot, on top of the stew of tender ground-food and vegetables, simmer until fish is done. This won't take long, test with a fork if need be.  
4. Serve with pepper/onion sauce.  

Pepper or Onion sauce: 

This is an essential accompaniment to the Serre. The acidity of the lime and vinegar and the heat of the habanero cut the richness of the coconut milk and create a perfect balance of flavor. Whether you call it pepper or onion sauce depends on the ratio of onion to habanero. Go with what works best for your taste buds and heat preference.   

Habanero pepper
Lime juice


Mince an onion and add to taste a quantity of finely minced habanero pepper. Remove the seeds and white internal membrane if you want to tone down the heat even more. Add minced cilantro, lime juice, vinegar and salt to taste. Some people like more vinegar, some like more lime juice. Experiment and see which you prefer. Let the whole concoction sit in a glass container. You can leave it covered on the counter for several weeks and it will stay perfectly fresh as the onion and pepper pickle themselves in the lime juice and vinegar. Serve with Serre and other heavy stews, with refried beans at breakfast, on top of guacamole or anytime you need some hot pepper flavor. 

No comments:




The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.