Does Biological Preservation Prevail Over Cultural Sustainability? The Struggle of the Maya Center Community in a Modernizing World

With the highest concentration of jaguars in the world and an incredibly rich tropical biodiversity, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize is an invaluable area not only for its scientific potential, but also due to the economic advantages of eco-tourism. Unfortunately, the installment of the wildlife sanctuary 25 years ago also meant that the inhabitants of Maya Center—a small Mopan Mayan village with a population of some 300 people located in the Stann Creek District in southern Belize—was subsequently prohibited from entering an area historically sacred to their culture. Does this mean that the new economic and scientific “necessities” prevail over the livelihoods and traditions of populations already living in the area?

In the early 1980’s, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the International Division of the New York Zoological Society began studying jaguar populations in the Cockscomb Basin after citrus farmers and hunting magazines reported sightings of jaguars in the area. Soon after the initial reports, scientific inquiries into the population of jaguars within the area resulted in the highest concentration ever recorded with estimates as high as 11 animals per 100 km². With eastern Belize dominated largely by a few wealthy citrus farmers, the establishment of a reserve was seen as a vital step to impeding and preserving the land from the increasing deforestation spawned by the citrus industry. More commonly known today as the Jaguar Reserve, the original 3,600 acres set aside in 1987 has expanded to encompass over 128,000 acres.

For generations, the Mopan Maya have viewed these lands as sacred and were partly responsible for its rich biodiversity by rebelling citrus farmers from encroaching on the land. They accomplished this largely by making citrus farmers aware of their claim to ownership over the area and by continuing a sustainable lifestyle that spiritually and culturally reinforces the notion that a well-established forest provides water, food, medicine, shelter, and all other necessities of life. Yet, despite their lifestyle and occupation of the area, the Maya were not consulted on or integrated into the newly created reserve. In the end, with elders being arrested for unauthorized access, the community fought back through protests. After numerous arrests, demands of compensation, and legal battles, the Maya Center community finally won the right to access the land for religious and sustainable practices.

This is not a new issue to Central America and certainly not to Belize. To date roughly 26 percent of the land in Belize, over 2.6 million acres, is currently designated to wildlife reserves. This is in large part due to the economic advantages of tourism revenues, which are directly linked to the reserves through eco-tourism. According to a press release issued by the Ministry of Tourism, Civil Aviation and Culture, 25 percent of jobs and 18 percent of the national gross domestic product (GDP) comes from tourism. With such a substantial percentage of GDP deriving from tourism, it seems a difficult balancing act between insuring a sustainable national economy and the cultural traditions of indigenous populations.

In an attempt to resolve issues like those of the Maya Center case, Johnny Briceno—the simultaneous Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Natural Resources and Environment of the Government of Belize—led a task force to establish a policy and system plan in regards to the formation of current and future nationally protected areas. In the main development strategy section of the report, the task force noted the importance of integrating “local and indigenous scientific, technical, and traditional knowledge” into policy decisions in order to successfully develop, manage, and maintain natural areas. However—despite this admission of the importance of the indigenous community to the sustainability of the Basin—The Task Force on Belize’s Protected Areas Policy and System Plan cited the Belizean constitution and chose to specifically highlight the constitutional legality to:

“protect the environment” over “ensure(ing) “a just system of social security and welfare.”

It went on to say that:

“Whereas the people of Belize require policies of state which protect and safeguard the unity, freedom, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Belize; which eliminate economic and social privilege… which prohibits the exploitation of man by man or by the state; which ensures a just system of social security and welfare; which protects the environment…”[emphasis original].

A question then arises: Why is the government not recognizing that—since the Maya have managed to thrive while protecting the basin for centuries—establishing a reserve for the Maya would effectively protect both the environment and the Maya Center community? Instead—and despite the importance of indigenous perspectives to the management of the reserves—it is still constitutionally legal to remove people from ancestral lands in order to establish reserves, only later to try and attempt to integrate them when they fight back.

While, through continuous struggle, the Maya Center community has successfully secured their traditional lifestyle in the midst of a modernizing world, few other communities have been able to obtain the same success. For example, in the case of the Garifuna in Hopkins—an Afro-indigenous culture inhabiting coastal regions of the Caribbean and Central America—ancestral farmlands and graveyards have been destroyed in order to make way for the construction of economically beneficial resorts and tourist attractions. Granted, the Garifuna are dealing with private hotels instead of national nature reserves.  Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, the Dominical Republic and many other countries have ratified the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and/or the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which makes them legally obliged to obtain “free and informed” consent from indigenous persons prior to decision-making that will impact their land and well-being. Nevertheless, without due and often internationally legally required consultation with indigenous communities, governments in the region are prioritizing economic advantages over the social wellbeing of its populace.

While Belize can be seen as a progressive government through its attempts to integrate indigenous populations into economic policies, large economic and social discrepancies still occur to the benefit of wealthy landowners and international investors rather than the Creole, Maya, and Garifuna populations living in Belize. In reality, as was demonstrated by the Mopan Maya case, economic development, biological preservation, and cultural sustainability should not be seen as separate goals, but an integrated policy can and often does achieve the best all around results.

Do you think that policy can support a stronger role for indigenous cultures in economic development and environmental sustainability? Please leave a reply below.

Adam Nelson is a Research and Communications Intern with the Institute of Advanced Development Studies.

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