June 10, 2012
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.
May 25, 2012
Lubaantun were the first ruins that our group encountered and despite the long hot trek we had before this particular visit, we were all excited to finally witness the famous Mayan ruins. Due to the on and off light showers, the ground was exceptionally muddy, which made it a challenge to not slip and slide down the hill. The first thing I noticed about the site was that there was an unbelievably steep hill that we had to climb up. It looked almost impossible for us to come back down the same hill without slipping on the mud. Bruno, our German banker turned tour guide and all-around-expert on Belize mentioned that the center of the site is artificially elevated between two small rivers, which is an excellent military defense strategy. This might suggest that the ruins are evidence of some sort of Mayan military camp or fortress.
During the tour of the ruins, Bruno mentioned two things that made the site a unique location unlike the other ruins around the area. Firstly, the sight is infamous for being the location where Anna Mitchell-Hedges allegedly discovered a crystal skull. This has been long debated because of the lack of physical evidence as well as conflicting personal accounts of her father’s colleagues. Dr. Thomas Gann who is credited to be the first academic to investigate the site accompanied her father, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges. Besides the actual skull and the testimonies of both F.A. and Anna Mitchell-Hedges, there has been no other evidence to support their claims that the skull was actually found in Lubaantun. Additionally, there has been no reported tombs or even human sacrifices in the site; therefore, the presence of such an artifact is unlikely.
The name Lubaantun means ‘place of fallen stones’ in Mayan, which I believe describes the site’s physical appearance quite well. The site is believed to have been occupied during the Maya Classic era; however, it displays uncommon and unusual architecture for its location and time period. Lubaatun is known to have buildings that are built from large black slate blocks that are laid with little to no mortar. Furthermore, several structures are evenly stacked like stairs until the finished building resembles a pyramid. It is impressive to see that some buildings have stood the test of time and are still standing despite the lack of mortar; however, the Belizean government have attempted the rehabilitation certain buildings by rebuilding them. Bruno pointed out which areas were original and which were rebuilt. I understand why the government would opt to rebuild such buildings because it would look more aesthetically pleasing to see a more complete and cohesive site; however, I believe that the government should work more towards preserving the site as it to stay true to its name as the ‘place of fallen stones’.
Above: interactive panorama of Lubaantun from Dan Killam’s 2011 trip to Belize
Britanny Cheng is an incoming junior at the University of Southern California where she is pursuing a degree in Environmental Studies. She attributes her love for the environment to her upbringing in the Philippines where she was exposed daily to ocean. This inspired her to become a certified advanced water diver where she specializes in night dives. In the future, she plans on hopefully research diving for a living whilst increasing awareness for the implementation of marine reserves in the Philippine waters.
May 22, 2012
After a 5-hour van ride from Belize City airport, we arrived late last night at Sun Creek Lodge (outside the town of Punta Gorda) where we will be staying until next Monday. Our digs consist of open-air cabañas planted in the middle of what looks like pure jungle, complete with all of the bustle you would expect to come with one—little frogs, swarms of leaf-cutter ants, tarantulas and moths with wingspans bigger than your hand. Sean even had the opportunity to get intimate with a particular spider, making face contact with an impressively thick web that could easily rival any work of Charlotte’s.
Early this morning we set out for the village of Barranco, accessible only by a bumpy dirt road with puddles that splash up against the van as it rattles its way along. Our guide Bruno, a soft-spoken expat from Germany, handles the 1-hour drive with acclimated ease as we pass through thatch-roofed villages and slash-and-burnt fields. Nearing Barranco, Bruno points out a small, concrete structure with the words “Medic Post” and “U.S. Capital Energy” painted on the front in big black letters.
We finally stop in front of a one-story house made of wooden planks and topped by tin. The door opens and Alvin, our local guide, comes out to meet us. Alvin is a Garifuna local who was born in Barranco and, apart from extensive traveling (reflected in his eloquent manner and worldly perspective), has lived there his entire life. The Garinagu (plural for Garifuna) are descendents of Carib, Arawak, and West African peoples who converged on the island of St. Vincent in the 17th century and struggled repeatedly against colonization by the French and British. After Britain gained control of the island in 1763, many Garinagu sought refuge along the eastern coast of Central America. Barranco is one of the communities that formed on the coast of Belize, with a current population of 160.
Alvin walks us over to the small bluff next to the ocean that inspired Barranco’s original name, Red Cliff, though the distinctive red clay is now covered over by vegetation and the cliffs have significantly receded. The coast is experiencing heavy erosion, the effects of which are clearly visible even within Alvin’s lifetime. They try to keep it at bay by planting coconut trees and rubber tires; perfect rings of Goodyear moss whimsically dot the sandbar. Alvin also points out the mangroves that shield the coast from the full impact of hurricanes, and, as we head back into the village, the plants that provide their herbal remedies. These include the cola nut, which induces vomiting in case of food poisoning, and the piss-a-bed, which deals with urinary tract-related issues.
Continuing through Barranco we pass by an orange-and-white tower of monolithic proportions, easily the tallest structure for miles around. The cell phone tower, recently installed by U.S. Capital Energy, has enabled more efficient means of communication both within the village and with their relatives abroad. But this comes at a cost. U.S. Capital arrived in Barranco three years ago to begin seismic testing for oil extraction in the Sarstoon/Temash National Forest, which borders the village. They were given the okay by the Belizean government, who established the national park and controls all operations within it. When the park was first set up, there were strict rules banning fishing, planting, and harvesting. This came as a surprise to the Garinagu, who had depended on the area’s resources for hundreds of years. Now it was being offered up for the possibility of oil drilling.
Alvin’s views on development are ambivalent and I get the sense that he doesn’t want to discuss it further than acknowledging that “progress brings problems.” He speaks appreciatively of the cultural, intellectual, and economic exchange that modern development has made possible. He also cherishes Garinagu culture and is so clearly passionate about sharing and preserving it (he told us it was his calling). The two shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive. But in a hierarchical world of infinite competing interests, and especially a country as diverse as Belize, the people most affected by big decisions tend to be the last ones consulted.
We come upon a garbage dump at the southern edge of the village where the jungle starts to encroach and swallow up the trash. “We haven’t figured out the best way to deal with the garbage,” Alvin says. “Us either,” Dan tells him. After a visit to the Barranco cultural museum, which is a single room packed with photos, traditional clothing, Garifuna texts and handmade tools for processing cassava—a labor of love, according to Alvin—our tour concludes at the village’s spiritual house. Here he tells us about the spiritual healing ceremonies that occur something like every 1-2 years, events that must be precipitated by a spiritual calling from the ancestors (as in a dream or sign) and then attended by the entire extended family. It is a way to resolve spiritual illness as well as a reason for people who have left Barranco to come back and be reunited with their family and roots once again.
It’s refreshing to hear Alvin explain his understanding of spirituality and how it has served him and others in great ways. As a non-religious person by habit, I appreciate living affirmations that the worldview that I’m used to is not the only one that works. We found it interesting that the Roman Catholic institution in Belize, which had originally banned drumming and dancing in the churches as pagan worship, changed its mind after coming to the decision that the Garinagu were just using a different means to the same end. They are the only Christian denomination in Belize that allows it.
At the end of our trip, we got to dance with some of the drummers and singers, including Alvin’s aunt and “brother from another mother.” Awkwardly, at first—okay, it was mostly awkward, all of us trying to shake our hips to an impossibly fast beat—but you can’t deny the entertainment value there. As Alvin likes to say: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
Michelle Lim is a rising senior from Queens, NY, currently double-majoring in Narrative Studies and Interdisciplinary Archaeology at USC. She is interested in the cultural systems, thoughts, and stories of the (near & distant) past, especially in the ways they inform and enrich our present. In the future, Michelle would like to pursue nonfiction writing on topics involving science, history and social commentary.
May 17, 2012
Stepping off of the plane, as a wave of humidity hit my face, my first thought was “I love my major.” It was May 2011 and I had just breathed Belizean air for the first time. The country was in a state of drought, with an aftertaste of smoke in the air from the many spot wildfires covering the country, but for a Southern California native used to the desiccated air of the desert, it was an absolute sauna. I silently expressed gratitude to Environmental Studies, my parents, and even myself for taking this opportunity to visit a foreign, unfamiliar land. Adventure awaited in this diverse landscape.
The following 11 days are still burned in my memory with photographic detail. The sights: remote Maya ruins, pristine caves, dense jungle. The food: never have I seen so many interesting and delicious combinations of rice, beans, and chicken. I was introduced to cacao and as a seasoned coffee addict, I instantly fell in love with the bitter, textured and highly caffeinated drink. Our accommodations were incredible; the Sun Creek Lodge cabanas were the ideal way to sleep in the open air without surrendering ourselves to the bugs outside. Placencia was a postcard made real, with clear waters, white sand, palm trees and a cool ocean breeze. Outside of the Indiana Jones-style shenanigans on land, I even got an opportunity to indulge my favorite hobby, diving in the Laughing Bird Caye Marine Protected Area. I kept reminding myself that it was technically for course credit. Education has never been more effortless.
After that amazing week and a half, it was difficult to coax myself onto the departure flight. I became immersed in my summer job after the brief period of readjustment and euphoria that follows every journey abroad, wondering if I’d ever be able to return to the land of the Maya. I was overjoyed to see the email from Lisa Collins in my inbox this fall, inviting me to return with the next Belize class as the course TA. Breathlessly replying “YES!,” my mind swam with excitement mixed with a minor dose of anxiety regarding the responsibility that I had just accepted.
Since then, I have graduated and received my degree in Environmental Studies with a Biology emphasis. I am ready to end my USC undergraduate career in a blaze of glory, hiking through jungles, descending deep into massive caves, and diving in one of the most marvelous marine environments on earth, all the time sharing this experience with a group of students seeing these sights for the first time. I’m also eager to share these experiences with the audience reading this blog, as part of this trip’s main appeal is environmental outreach through cultural exchange. We will have experiences to share with Belizeans as their guests and bring knowledge and ideas home to enrich our own educational experience as Trojans. Stay tuned for a chronicle of this adventure.
Dan Killam is a newly minted USC alumni, holding a BS in Environmental Studies. He attended the 2011 Belize course and is returning as the course TA. His duties include maintaining this blog, logistical support and comic relief. He appreciates concise biographies as much as you do.
May 15, 2012
Is this thing still on? I’m here to announce that this blog is officially back in business for the 2012 edition of USC Problems Without Passports: Role of the Environment in the Collapse of Human Societies. As you may remember, the main topic of our study concerns the environmental factors contributing to the collapse of the Classic Maya society, and how those concepts may apply to our global civilization of the present day. We will travel to the beautiful nation of Belize in Central America to investigate these issues in the field. There will be breathless reports from the jungle, descriptions of remote Maya ruins and beautiful Caribbean beaches, with a healthy dose of admiration for the remarkable and diverse cultures of Belize.
Beginning May 20th, we will journey down to and will remain in the country until June 1st. Though we are currently deeply engrossed in the on-campus classroom portion of the course, posts will begin to trickle in soon, including an introductory post from me, the humble Teaching Assistant.
Expect more soon!