Views from the ANThill: Where are the Activists?

The town square is filled with parades and parties throughout the year,
but never with any protestors. Why?
photo by douglas c reeser
by douglas c reeser on September 12, 2012
On a recent morning, while writing at my computer and having some coffee, I received a surprising text message from a good friend. It read, “Belize Lodge burned last night! Folks can have a pretty nasty way of settling conflicts.”  She was referring to a foreign owned eco-lodge in a nearby village in which I have conducted research for a number of years. The lodge had fallen into financial difficulties over the past year or two, and owed back wages to many of its workers. Local authorities became involved and assisted in the negotiation of a payment plan to ensure workers would receive what was owed to them. It’s unclear what transpired after that, but less than a month later, parts of the lodge were set on fire and burned to the ground.

This wasn’t the first time I had heard of people here resorting to the use of flame to settle differences. In September 2010, a nearby group of villagers torched a foreign-owned crocodile sanctuary. Two local children had gone missing, and rumors spread that they had been fed to hungry crocs. Without an investigation, villagers decided to burn the sanctuary and chase the owners from the region. These and other stories I have heard tell me that the use of fire, while extreme, is one form of protest that people resort to here.

That same morning that I learned of the lodge fire, I had just read about an 82-year-old activist and her slightly different form of protest. Sister Megan Rice made the news for breaking into one of the most secure nuclear facilities in the world. She and two companions (aged 57 and 63) snuck into the Nevada complex in an act of civil disobedience to protest the continued spending on the US nuclear arsenal. Instead of using fire, these elderly protestors splashed blood on the walls of the facility and hung banners lettered with words of protest.

Protests and activism have taken many forms over time and space. Recent examples from the Middle East, Europe, and the Occupy Movement offer a wider vision of the varied forms that protests and activism can take. These events have kept activism in the news for much of the last year, and in fact, September will mark the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Movement. I’ve been in the field for well over a year now, and so have only viewed these protests and activism from afar. From my vantage point, much of the media attention has shifted to the Olympics and the US presidential election, and it remains difficult to tell the vitality of Occupy. I’m pretty sure things are less dramatic that burning buildings.

I’ve shared all of this to get around to a larger point that has been on my mind when I’m not doing interviews. After living here for more than a year, besides the few torchings, I have not witnessed a protest or other form of activism in this part of Belize. There is no graffiti on the walls, there is no marching in the street, and there are no meetings trying to organize the unemployed. I know of a youth group that has organized an effort to recycle plastic bottles. This is certainly a form of activism, but I wonder why, in a region with high unemployment and few job prospects, there is virtually no activism and no protests to speak of, especially when such is occurring with frequency around the globe.

I decided to look through the latest census to see what I could glean from the numbers. Economically, things aren’t that great here in the south of Belize. In the Toledo District, 40 percent of households live in poverty. The unemployment rate sits at 21 percent, and is particularly high among women (nearly 39 percent). Young people find it especially difficult to join the labor force: 48 percent of those aged 14-19, 25 percent aged 15-24, and 18 percent aged 25-29 are unemployed. These numbers haven’t changed significantly since at least 2000, and are visible in the day-to-day life here. Most households that I have encountered through my research have family members living either outside of the district, or outside of the country, where earning an income is more likely.

With such dire economic conditions, it would appear to be an ideal place for activism to take root. However, these numbers do not offer a complete picture of the situation here (can numbers alone ever paint a complete picture?). My research is not specifically looking at activism; however, my interviews may shed some light onto why people do not seem inclined to take action. In talking with people about the health system in a place with health statistics that are among the worst in the region, people have been surprisingly uncritical in their analysis of their situation.

Belize operates under a National Health Insurance program that offers services free of charge or at a greatly discounted rate. Still, here in the south, the services offered are severely limited, and people with anything more than a minor problem typically must travel hours outside the district or internationally to access appropriate care. While most of my participants desire more and improved services than what they can get here, they express a feeling of resignation at their situation – as if because they live here, this is what they should expect. In other words, they don’t expect things to improve, and they don’t expect more services – even though they desire these things.

With all of this being said, I wonder if there is some ideal combination of factors that lead to a more activist-oriented population. Could education play a role? Here in the south of Belize, only about 1 percent of the population has completed a university education and 47 percent has not completed any education. Additionally, just 13 percent of the population are reported internet users. Could such a lack of education and low internet usage result in a less-informed population, less able to critically examine the world around them? Could these factors combined with endemic poverty and unemployment result in people being loath or unable to act? I’m not sure it’s explainable without more in-depth research into the problem. Either way it has contributed to a quite curious experience in the field, one in which it appears that much of the world is taking action towards change, while we sit here and accept the status quo. 

This article also appeared in the August 2012 online edition of Anthropology News.

douglas carl reeser is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, and is a contributing editor at Recycled Minds. He is currently working on his dissertation research in southern Belize, examining the intersection of State-provided health care with a number of ethnic-based traditional medicines. He also loves food.

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  1. Mike K.7:16 PM

    This is an interesting article, but I don't know that I would call burning things down activism exactly. It's more like vigilante justice. High poverty and low education must be factors here.

  2. Anonymous12:55 AM

    Have there been arrests made in the arson cases? You make it sound a little like the wild west there, so you may want to be careful about that.

    1. Funny that you mention this. In the time I have been in the country there have been a number of violent crimes and a few arsons that have gone without arrests (in the south). In a way it is kind of like the "wild west", and many residents express concern about what they see as the rising tide of violence that they claim is coming out of Belize City - one of the most violent cities in the hemisphere. To avoid criticizing the police too much, I will say that they are given few resources, especially here in the south.


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