There's Oil in those Hills: Fracturing Land and Communities in Southern Belize

Aerial view from the sea of Sarstoon Temash National Park in southern
Belize, where US oil interests have begun to drill.
Photo courtesy of News 5 Belize.
by douglas reeser on November 8, 2012
As some of our regular readers know, I've been working and living in southern Belize for most of the last year and a half. Spending so much time in a place begins to provide insight into the day-to-day lives of the people that live there. An understanding of the strengths of the community and the challenges it must face begin to emerge. The south of Belize has historically been the region in which poverty is most concentrated in the country. In 2009, nearly half of all households (~47%) in the south were living  in poverty, and in 2010, unemployment in the district was over 21%. These statistics sound alarming, but probably remain abstract to most readers. Living in a place makes the abstract real.

During my time in Belize, the ways in which these types of economic statistics are experienced have become evident. Many of my closest friends have struggled financially, to the point that the economics of providing the basic necessities of life (food, clothing, a roof to live under) were everyday challenges. Jobs are scarce, and when they do open up, the applicant pool is always huge and usually includes more qualified or better educated applicants from outside of the region. In many cases, people are forced to turn to a more informal economy in which they may do things they may not otherwise do given the choice. I have seen people struggle immensely in this type of position, but when it's a choice between a home for you and your family or no home, there really isn't much of a choice.

Enter the Oil Man...

When people have no money and no jobs, almost any job will do. Such may be the perfect situation for a company looking to exploit the resources of the region. When you can offer what people desperately need (jobs and money), it allows you some freedom to move forward with ventures that may not be in the best long-term interest of a people. Enter US Capital Energy - and the shady business arrangements. Gregory Ch'oc of the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM) has written two pieces in opposition to what's going on in Belize, one in Cultural Survival, and the other in Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources. Each is worth reading for more detailed information on what's happening from a perspective shared by many community leaders and members. But I will also quickly sum up here.

SATIIM is a locally-based indigenous organization that co-manages the 41,000 acre Sarstoon Temash National Park in which US Capital Energy is operating. The organization includes community members from the villages surrounding and bordering the park - those that use, manage, and maintain the park's natural resources, and those that would be most affected by oil drilling. The Belize government has given US Capital Energy permits to drill in the Sarstoon Temash without contacting or  consulting with SATIIM or the surrounding villages. In a public consultation on the environmental impact assessment of the project, SATIIM was basically not allowed to speak, while representatives of US Capital Energy were given over two hours to make their case. At this point, US Capital Energy continues on in its quest to get oil out of the park.

In the meantime, local communities and organizations are beginning to fracture. Some Maya leaders and others have been "bought out" and have begun to speak in support of the oil company. The oil company is offering jobs, painting schools, and even handing out candy to children. Some people see this as an opportunity to alleviate an immediate pressure on their families. A job could allow people to send their children to high school, or otherwise satisfy some of the pressing needs that families living in poverty so often face. With the oil company claiming impacts on the forest will be minimal, to many, the costs of doing business with US Capital Energy are far less than a life of continued poverty.

Some of my friends are considering taking work with the oil company if they can get it. But it's not an easy decision for them. It seems that those I have talked with see the conflicting nature of the entire situation. They know that oil companies cannot be trusted. They know that the jobs will probably be temporary and fewer than currently being claimed. They know that ancestral lands will be destroyed and potentially contaminated by the drilling. They know that many of their respected leaders and community members oppose the drilling. They see the situation dividing their communities. Yet, they need the money and there are precious few other options. Southern Belize is basically integrated into the national and international economies, and this means that living costs money. In a place where money is scarce, just about any job will do.
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  1. Anonymous8:24 AM

    Nice article dooglas, but sad to read. It's interesting to hear this perspective on a major issue. I hope you keep us updated.

  2. Samuel1:39 PM

    It's a hard situation down here right now, and I think the Maya and other groups will soon begin organizing. The oil people have really just come in and bullied people and are doing whatever they want. I don't know what will stop them.

  3. A short addition:
    SATIIM and the Indigenous communities in the Sarstoon Temash National Park in Southern Belize have gotten some high powered lawyers to challenge US Capital Energy's oil exploration activities in Mayan communal lands.

    According to a release from SATIIM, "a team of Belizean and international human rights and environmental lawyers will support the communities." It includes Lisa Shoman, along with the US law firm Sheppard Mullin Richter Hampton LLP.

    SATIIM says it must retain legal counsel because at they were denied a voice at the "community consultation" two weeks ago.
    (From 7 News)

  4. It's a terrible shame that the SATIIM and local communities were not consulted or offered some sort of profit-sharing arrangement, but not surprising. Hopefully SATIIM's counsel will help ease the situation for them.


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