Pyramids and Political Strife: A Day in the Belize River Valley
Belize River Valley, Belize
The country was on strike. A situation that stemmed from the January 13th release of the government’s proposed budget for 2005-2006 by the current legislative majority, the People’s United Party. The budget included major tax increases on a variety of businesses and commodities and a hold on previously promised wage increases to public school teachers - an attempt by the Belize government to address the country’s problematic and worsening fiscal condition. A coalition of teachers, union members, civil society, business people and members of the Belize’s other main political party, the United Democratic Party, all joined in protest of the budget when a two day nation-wide strike was called for on January 20th. It was, purportedly, the worst political crisis in Belize since the country’s independence in 1981, but it would have been hard to guess from a seat in Eva’s on January 31st.
A farming couple from British Columbia, Canada and I met our guides for the day, Eduard and his uncle Geaze. We drove across the Hawkesworth suspension bridge, up into the hills where we picked up another couple, Michael from Toronto and his wife, Ula, originally from Denmark. The combination of accents somehow left Ula speaking the Queen’s English. They brought along their landlady, Mrs. Thompson, who was a charming older Belizean woman with the best smile in the world. Thus after stopping in the town of San Antonio for supplies we continued south for two and a half hours in possession of both the best accent and smile on the planet.
I quickly fell into conversation with Ula. She said both Michael and she were writers and they had been coming to Belize annually for twenty-five years and had built a hut on Mrs. Thompson’s property ten years ago. They had recently put a new palm roof on their hut and they were bursting to fill me in on the fascinating art of frond construction, including which sort to use and how many. Apparently they have to be picked at night during a full moon and the quality of the moon dictates how long the roof will last.
Ula seconded my impression that the people of Belize were basically healthy and happy. She also noted that money was reserved for essentials and asked if I had noticed the metal things sticking out over the Northern Highway. I had not (the Maine Turnpike has some sign or reflector practically every six inches.) Ula said they were to prevent drug planes from landing on the highways at night. (Belize is a throughway for South American narcotics making their way to the United States and Canada.)
Beautiful rolling hills escorted the road through golden sunlight and green jungle. As the day grew hotter and brighter, the scenery changed, and we entered the Mountain Pine Ridge area. The conversation at the front of the van turned to conservation, geology and forestry. The entire area was barren and dead, pine stalks jutted out of the acidic soil like matchsticks. The Belizeans had a serious pine beetle infestation a few years back that gutted the Pine Ridge forests faster than they could chop the trees down. Only now could one start to see some new growth. Geologically, the area is one of the oldest in Central America. The soil is reddish and large chunks of granite are strewn about in addition to the usual limestone.
It occurred to me that I was in good company to pry further into the strike issue. I brought up the topic with Geaze when we stopped for a minute at a bridge spanning the Macal River. He affirmed the strike was still on and explained that the kids that I had seen earlier were in private school. Some religious groups in the area were also trying to hold classes but the public school teachers were home drinking Belikin.
Geaze said a controversial dam was being placed on the Macal some ways upstream. Researching later, I found that the Chalillo Hydro Dam project planned by Belize Electricity Limited (BEL), the majority of which is owned by the Canadian corporation Fortis, would flood important areas of the Macal River and its tributaries, turn some turbines, and hopefully alleviate some of the country’s energy shortfalls. It appears as though the Belize government, a minority owner of BEL, is supporting the project to the chagrin of every rationally assessing, objective mind concerned.
Currently Belize buys roughly 82 percent of its electricity from Mexico. The Belize Development Trust argues that even if the Chalillo is constructed within budget and works like it is supposed to, the dam would generate only 18 percent of Belize’s current and expanding energy needs and, at the same time, the cost of the project would prohibit further investing, solidifying supply dependence on Mexico for perhaps 50 years. The Belize Ecotourism Association, in its position statement on the dam, reveals that “to date a study of other options for energy sources has not been produced, some of which may turn out to be more economical and sustainable.”
Furthermore, the economic arguments against the dam are not the loudest or most numerous, greater numbers of people are objecting on the grounds of health and environment. The Mollejon, an existing dam which the Chalillo is meant to provide additional water storage for, is probably responsible for water quality problems and skin rashes experienced by villagers downstream. Also, the Chalillo would destroy nearly all of a unique floodplain habitat, home to a rare species of Scarlet Macaw, tapirs and jaguars - a study in shortsightedness and poor planning.
According to Geaze they decided to pour the concrete even after they realized the site was floored by limestone rather than granite and located way too close to a fault line that had acted up in the late seventies when a plate shifted in Guatemala. He said there were similar plans in the north, where the main industry is sugar cane, to use the waste from the cane to turn steam turbines. From what I gathered both of these projects were doomed and in the short term were exacerbating the government’s budget deficit.
Relating the new information to the strike, I was convinced that the protestors had a point. The government was spending money on foolish projects and then trying to pass on the debt to the people. Fortis, as holder of the BEL monopoly on energy, stands to benefit no matter what and their claims about the benefits of the Chalillo have been misleading the public. What was really happening? If I could bring an unsympathetic light to the government’s collusion with business by having a couple of conversations with local people and doing an hours worth of research, surely there was more to it?
The answer is that none of the business Musa or his cronies have engaged in has been overtly, or technically illegal; wrongheaded, self-serving, and stupid - perhaps, but lawful nonetheless. Governing poorly is insufficient grounds for the dismissal of an elected representative. Musa also correctly notes that a portion of the opposition’s agenda is primarily concerned with obtaining political power for themselves. Reaching an agreement on wages and so forth will not appease the opposition party or those seeking greater change. They are probably not going to get it. The savvy PUP’s tactic is to remain engaged and sympathetic at all costs. Thus they have nothing to fear from the legal system and have effectively removed any justifications extralegal action. The strike may drag on, in various forms, for a considerable length of time.
In some ways the organization of a modern society is very complex but we would do well to consider how, at their most basic level, most of these issues seem to break down into measures of greed, thoughtlessness, misunderstanding, and unhelpful definitions of us and them - simpler, universal human malady for which there is no institutional panacea.
Eduard and Geaze were passionate naturalists. They took their time leading us through Caracol, pointing out every tree, bird and butterfly. We saw massive Ceiba trees with root structures taller than my head and red-blossomed branches that stretched out like a tarantula’s hairy legs. According to Mayan legend the Ceiba’s roots reach into the underworld and its trunk reaches into the heavens, uniting the universe.
The trail was lined with strangler figs, lover parasites that encased other trees over more than a century until the two fell together. Eduard casually plucked up some fresh cilantro from underfoot and we all crushed it in our hands and walked around sniffing it and exploring other rainforest anomalies, like what appeared to be giant hanging pea pods on a thin string hanging from some of the trees. Geaze said they got hot if you rubbed them and kids played practical jokes with them. Someone else said they were poisonous.
The park as a whole was more charming than the Tikal ruins I had seen the previous day in Guatemala, in part because there was almost no one there. Caracol is thought to have been at the top of the Mayan hierarchy in the Belize Valley for much of history. The final two plazas were magnificent. When we stepped out in front of the Sky Palace I was speechless. The temple is the highest man-made point in Belize. I raced to what I thought was the top only to find more staircases that were hidden by the angle of the base. When I eventually panted my way to the apex the people below were toys and the jungle stretched out everywhere in a dizzying panorama. I entered it there and then onto a mental list, along with the Giza pyramids and the Duomo in Florence, as one of the most amazingly gorgeous human constructions I had ever seen, and contemplated commonalities between the three while I caught my breath. I think perhaps that their sheer size causes one to step back and contemplate the whole from a vantage point where the imperfections of their components are no longer discernable. They become almost Platonic forms, a bridge between reality and ideal, the physical world and the one behind our eyes, like a portal to the metaphysical.
We were all fast friends by this point and we talked and laughed through the banana trees back to the parking area to eat lunch.
“Eduard, this is very good. Did your mother make it? Do you have a wife?”
“I make this”
“No, you didn’t make this.”
“I packed it.”
We stopped for a silver fox on the way out, a friend of Eduard’s, and continued down the hot dusty road back toward the Mountain Pine Ridge to the Rio On Pools. A river that flows gently into progressively larger granite basins formed the pools then dropped into a valley, clearing the view to the hills on the far side. Directly after being warned that the rocks were quite slippery, I fell into one of the pools and nearly bent my thumbnail back. The water was deep. It felt cool and refreshing after being in the dust and sun all day. A tremendous number of minnows investigated my coming as if I were a pale hairy messiah. I stretched on the rocks afterward to dry off, feeling heavenly in the ebbing afternoon sun.
We arrived back in San Ignacio much sooner than the day before, so after shaking hands and saying goodbye to the others, I explored the town more thoroughly and found a place to use the internet. It felt dirty and stressful, pulling me back into a life that I was mostly enjoying a hiatus from. I poked around the Chinese grocers and a couple tourist shops under the somnolent gaze of proprietors. A Sri Lankan restaurant that had been closed the day before had its door open, so I threaded my way downstairs and back outside to satisfy a craving for curry in the company of stars and Christmas lights.
My waiter, Richard, a sharply dressed, slightly pudgy South East Asian kid of indeterminable age, came up nervously after I finished eating and started to fill the silence. He had grown up in the Mountain Pine Ridge area and was glad to hear about my day. As it turned out we had a lot in common. He had spent his youth gallivanting through the pines just as I had, building forts, shooting things and being a nuisance to the wildlife. There were differences, too, such as the Morelets crocodiles in the Mountain Pine Ridge. Once, when children had begun disappearing, Richard’s father hunted down the sixteen foot man-eater and claims to have wrestled it before shooting it in the head. The crocodile’s skull was given to a museum.
I reflected that as different as scenery and food can be, and as odd as foreign customs can seem, humanity everywhere is basically a variation on the same theme. When people like Richard and I meet each other, coming as we do from different cultures, we immediately set about establishing mutual goodwill and searching for commonalities. There are two questions that seem to underlie such dialogue: What is your reality? How do you find happiness within that reality? People from different cultures listen to each other with a rare and genuine interest as if there is something important at stake. A sense of companionship arises with the realization that the other person is seeking the same thing. You feel genuine glee or sympathy discussing the endless permutations of the quest.
Richard recommended that I check out the local ruins the following day and told me how to catch a bus up the Western Highway to Xunantunich. I thanked him for everything and retired to the balcony of my hotel to smoke, think and stare at the hellacious tangle of electrical lines drooping threateningly over the town.