Politics, Forests and Indigenous Peoples in Belize

Campaign signs in the southern Belizean town of Punta Gorda - UDP held power in the elections on
March 7th, 2012. Photo courtesy of doug reeser. 
by douglas reeser on March 17, 2012
As some of our regular readers know, I have been in southern Belize working on my dissertation research for most of the last year, and I was quite interested to be here for the national elections that just took place last week. The lead-up to elections brought out people's colors: red for the UDP (the United Democratic Party who were in power), blue for PUP (the People's United Party, who ruled for decades before the last round of elections), and green for the PNP (the upstart greens, the People's National Party). Every day in the weeks prior to elections, groups of people dressed in their colors would canvas the town, vehicles would drive around, party flags waving and horns blaring. I thought election day would be mayhem.

The morning of elections, I woke up, and things were especially quiet. No music. No loudspeakers. No car horns. No chanting. I decided to ride my bike into town to look for the action only to find empty streets and stray dogs. I remembered that elections were held at the local school, so rode in that direction across town. Sure enough, that's where all the people were, but instead of the expected energy and excitement, I found people quietly waiting in a long line wrapping around the school. They were waiting to cast their vote. At the close of polls in the evening, most people went home to listen to the radio or watch TV, waiting for the votes to be counted. Election day turned out to be rather quiet.

In the end, PUP made a valiant run in an effort to return to power, but the UDP retained their majority, and effectively remain in power. So despite a few changes around the country, it appears that things will go on much the same way as they have been: slow and deliberate. The most surprising development occurred a few days later when the Prime Minister announced his new cabinet. In what he said was an effort to bring the best minds into the government fold, a number of surprising choices brought new faces into decision making positions.

Most surprising, however, was the Prime Minister's creation of a new Ministry: the Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries, Sustainable Development and Indigenous People. This has caused a bit of consternation among indigenous groups, especially here in the south, but I found it especially odd that indigenous people would be included in a Ministry that has historically dealt with environmental issues. This feels to me like the Prime Minister and his advisors see indigenous people as a part of nature or a part of the forest, equating them with something less than the rest of the country's population.

Indigenous groups found other reasons to be upset. A statement from the Maya Leaders Alliance included the following:
To the best of our knowledge, this new Ministry was created without any consultation with any Indigenous Peoples. Neither the National Garifuna Council nor the Maya people of southern Belize through the Toledo Alcaldes Association or the Maya Leaders Alliance, was advised nor consulted. This is particularly disrespectful and disappointing since the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – which Belize voted to adopt at the United Nations - requires governments to “consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous Peoples concerned through their own representative institutions before adopting and implementing administrative measures that may affect them.
The MLA continued by noting the fact that the new minister is not an indigenous person, and therefor may not fully understand the issues from perspective of the indigenous groups in the country. Further, by lumping responsibility for forestry, development and indigenous people into the same Ministry, there is a definite likelihood that none of them will be adequately served, especially in resource-poor Belize. It seems that a move intended to be a positive, may have peeved a number of people and organizations, and in the end, it has come off as rather insulting.
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  1. Anonymous11:09 AM

    Interesting example of how language can have far-reaching consequences -- including subtly constructing cultural biases. It reminds me of the term 'illegal alien' used in the US.

    1. yes! the language we use can certainly have an "othering" effect which often results in people forgetting that they are talking about actual people.

  2. well - anthropology has much to blame for setting the precedent for the naturalization of the "noble savage"

    1. Ha! Yes, the legacy of anthropology is a conflicted one, and we have often contributed to problems as opposed to alleviating them. I think this move in Belize is instructive in realizing that indigenous issues remain in a critical state, and that in some ways, the effects of anthropology's past continue being felt today.

    2. Anonymous12:16 PM

      the whole problem that we fail to realize is that we must learn to have cultural acceptance rather that biases also the work must me shared up equality with different portfolio so each one of them and be concentrate on properly rather than it gets neglected.


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