It has been a most eye-opening, inspiring, and rewarding experience to visit Belize. For many of us, this was the first time visiting this beautiful and diverse country in Central America.
Prior to the trip, we had had a week of coursework on campus and learned about the history, climate, and geography of Belize. But seeing the land and its archaeological sites in person, and interacting face-to-face with people from various cultural backgrounds provided us with a far deeper and richer understanding than any coursework could have.
We flew into Belize City (point A), took the bus through the capital city of Belmopan (point B) and Dangriga, and arrived at Sun Creek Lodge, located in the thick of the jungle near Punta Gorda (point C). We soon got acquainted with our surroundings and some of us over time even made some new friends — moths, spiders, leaf-cutter ants, frogs, and tarantulas.
As an economist interested in the relationship between the environment and development, I was naturally drawn to the transportation system of the country. Although it was not part of the official curriculum, we did learn quite a bit about the roads and the modes of transportation in Belize on this trip.
Three major highways (the Western Highway, the Hummingbird Highway, and the Southern Highway) connect Belize City to the Toledo district in the south. The Southern Highway was the last one to be paved, significantly reducing the time needed to travel to the south. As in many other developing regions, paved roads have provided easier access, both for traders to transport local agricultural products such as cacao and citrus, and for tourists to visit this culturally rich and environmentally diverse region.
Currently, the government of Belize is working to extend the paved highway from the village of Big Falls, where we had many evening discussions with Dr. Prufer and his students, past Santa Cruz, the Mayan village where we spent two days volunteering at a primary school, all the way to the Guatemalan border. The cost of the project is estimated to be BZ$48 million, funded through a loan offered by the Kuwait Fund for the Arab Economic Development, the OPEC Fund for the International Development, and the Central American Bank for the Economic Integration (CABEI).
Although many families we came to know in Toledo have their own cars or motorcycles, the cost of owning motor vehicles is still relatively high, especially given the per capita income. For example, in Toledo in May 2012, the price for regular gas was BZ$11.58 (about US$5.79) per gallon, and the price for premium gas was BZ$12.43 (about US$ 6.22) per gallon. During the same time period, gas prices in the United States ranged from US$3.66 to US$4.22 per gallon. Bear in mind that the per capita GDP in Belize is less than 1/10 of the United States!
For most families, bus service is still the preferred method of transportation if they need to move from one city to another. The service by James Bus Line is reliable and economical. For example, it only cost me BZ$18 (US$9) to travel 6 hours from Belmopan to Punta Gorda. Their service from Belize City starts as early as 6:00am in the morning daily. But since the buses do make frequent stops, the travel time is usually extended from 4 hours to 6 hours. The Hummingbird Highway is hilly and scenic and winds through several national parks. The southern highway cuts through pine forests, grasslands, banana farms, and citrus groves. Occasionally, we saw billboards with political ads leftover from their most recent election back in March.
Given the importance of the bus service in people’s lives in Belize, it has also taken on a more significant role than a means of transportation. Buses have become a place for food vendors to sell their products. Throughout my 6-hour trip, vendors from various villages got onto the bus at different points to sell tortillas and cakes to hungry passengers. The conductors on the buses also seem to have taken on an additional role to provide delivery services from one place to another. At one time, I saw a conductor delivering goods from Dangriga for a Mayan family in a nearby village. Our guide Manuel told me that sometimes the domestic airlines also provide delivery services for a small fee. For example, it only takes about US$5 to order Indian food from Belize City to be express-delivered to Punta Gorda, some 160 miles away.
Although the Toledo district stands to benefit from all the development in recent years and the planned projects such as the road project extending to the Belize/Guatemala border, there have been concerns over whether the development will really benefit the local villagers. Many non-governmental organizations have been formed with a mission to promote sustainable development. For example, the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (TCGA) has been formed since the mid-1980s to promote the welfare of local cacao farmers through fair trade. The Toledo Institute of Environment and Development (TIDE), one of the four Belizean beneficiaries of the Debt-for-Nature swap and the only one focusing on the Toledo district, aims to promote resource management and sustainable use of ecosystems within the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor.
Many local residents have also become more active in letting their voice heard in the policy decision process. For example, Mr. Alvin Alvin Laredo, our guide in the Garinagu village of Barranco, has been leading the villagers to be part of the conservation effort while maintaining their cultural tradition of harvesting non-timber forest products for medicinal purposes. The community around the Uxbenká archaeological site also has decided to elect a chairman every two years to make decisions concerning the community welfare. Mr. Jose Mes, our guide to Yok Balum cave, is actually the current chairman from the nearby Mayan village of Santa Cruz.
Hopefully, the efforts of these local leaders and organizations will enable the people of Toledo of all cultural backgrounds to thrive on their abundant natural resources and maintain their rich heritage.
 For example, the per capita GDP in Belize in 2010 was only US$4,061, whereas it was US$47,153 in the United States. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD
Dr. Juliana Wang (Ph.D. Environmental and Natural Resource Economics) is an Assistant Professor of Practice at the Environmental Studies Program and supervisor for the field portion of the course. She is from Mainland China and focuses on the water and energy systems in her research.