No. 3: Belize:

                - Enterprise at the expense of the environment?

                - The contradictions and ironies of community-based ecotourism in Gales Point


The following two documents shed light on the harsh realities of ecotourism in Belize,  Central America. The first one, a ENN report by Linda Baker, describes the foreign dominated ecotourism industry as another kind of “colonial enterprise”. Since the bulk of profits made from ecotourism is pocketed by expatriates and leaks out of the country, the proclaimed goals of biodiversity conservation and economic benefits for local villagers remain only so many words. 

The second document prepared by the Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team looks at a study by Jill M. Belsky, who offers a cultural and political critique of a “community-based” ecotourism and conservation project in Gales Point, initiated by two American wildlife biologists in 1991. Belsky shows that the benefits from the creation of tourism infrastructure quickly became concentrated in the hands of local elite, while the majority of residents, whose survival depends on the natural resources packaged and sold as ecotourism attractions - hunters, fisherfolk and trappers -, have been left out by the scheme. Rather than resolving contradictions between environmental protection and use, the ecotourism initiative has reinforced historic conflicts within the community as well as with powerful national and global forces. As human injustice has intensified in the process, villagers have refused to cooperate and even turned hostile against the project.

The Campaign coordinating groups:

Third World Network
Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (tim-team), Thailand
Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM), Malaysia
Consumers Association Penang (CAP), Malaysia


ENN: March 07, 2001

Enterprise at the expense of the environment?

By Linda Baker

It was just like the "Heart of Darkness," minus the foreboding. One month after Hurricane Keith knocked down 50 percent of the rain forest in northern Belize, I was headed up the New River on a reconfigured military boat en route to the Lamanai Outpost Lodge, an eco-tourist accommodation deep in the jungle.

My guide was Carlos Godoy, a Yucatec Maya who combined intuitive understanding of the rain forest with the intellect of a Harvard-trained botanist. For most of our two-hour journey, Godoy explained and illustrated the art of camouflage in the rain forest: an iguana snaked around a mangrove tree, kingfishers roosting, a baby crocodile feasting on snails.

Two decades after it won independence from Britain, Belize finds itself yoked to another kind of colonial enterprise; the foreign dominated eco-tourism trade. With a small population of 250,000 spread over 9,000 square miles of coastline, mountains and lush forests, Belize has managed to avoid the uncontrolled development that dominates so much of Central America. Today, close to 70 percent of the country is still covered by native forest.

But although Belize is one of the most environmentally conscious countries in the world, a significant percentage of its ecological wealth is concentrated in the hands of expatriates and foreign investors. Across the country, there is widespread feeling that eco-profits are seeping out of the country, hampering conservation efforts and often providing only marginal benefits to local villagers.

"Everybody hides under the word 'eco,'" gripes Nazario Ku, the outspoken Mayan curator of the tiny archeological museum at the Lamanai Archeological Reserve, the oldest, continuously occupied Mayan site in Belize. "But what eco-tourism really means is destruction of the rain forest."

Foreign tour operators are pocketing most of the money, he says. "We Maya are at the bottom of the eco-tourist food chain."

Over the past few years, well publicized environmental violations by foreign-owned diving outfits on Belize's popular offshore cayes have exacerbated concerns about land sales to expatriate residents. In 1998, a Belize Department of Environment Report found that foreign-owned resorts and hotels were flouting environmental laws, causing damage to coral reef and fishing grounds.

"We have to manage our product and keep it sustainable so we don't have the mass market tourism of Cancun or even Costa Rica," says Sandra Aguilar, owner of Mayaland Villas, one of Belize's few native-owned luxury eco-hotels. "This may be difficult if outsiders control the direction of our tourism."

Many of the country's major conservation organizations such as the Belize Zoo and the Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary are also controlled by expatriates. A few, such as the Belize Audubon Society, are controlled by Belizeans, at least at the board level.

To encourage local oversight of the eco-tourism trade, the Belize government in 1998 made grants and loans available to native-born Belizeans who wanted to start or upgrade tourist businesses. A poor, developing country, however, Belize is no match for the influx of foreign capital. Whether you're adventure touring, visiting Mayan ruins, or staying in a jungle lodge, chances are pretty good that "eco-colonialism" will be the name of the game.

One of 40 Belizeans who staff the Australian-owned Lamanai Outpost Lodge, Godoy works from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. seven days a week as a rain forest guide, getting up at dawn to scope out black howler monkeys and toucans, leading daytime tours of the archeological sites, and taking guests on nocturnal boat rides to see crocodiles, bats and owls around the New River Lagoon. By most Central American standards, Godoy makes a good salary, although he says he "survives" on tips guests leave him.

Every night, after leaving the luxuriously appointed lodge (where individual cabanas are furnished with writing desks and linen shower curtains), Godoy walks five minutes up the dirt road to his home in Indian Church, a Mayan village relocated from its original site a few miles away when archeologists from the Royal Ontario Museum discovered and began excavating the Lamanai ruins in the 1970s.

"People say the Maya are a lost civilization," Nazario Ku tells me as I tour the archeological site, walking through the dense jungle past enormous ceiba and breadnut trees, strangler figs and allspice. "But the archeologists who are saying these things don't want to feel ashamed about ignoring the living culture right in front of them."

For better or worse, one of the unspoken rules of third-world eco-tourism seems to be this: Suffer the foreigners to save the rain forest. In Belize, many foreign tour operators insist they have simultaneously improved the welfare of Belizeans and furthered the cause of ecological preservation.

"Thanks to our lodge, Indian Church is the wealthiest Mayan village in Belize," says Mark Howells, who runs the Lamanai Outpost Lodge with his wife Monique. "Plus we're attaching a value to land conservation through ecotourism," he adds. "Better that than logging or burning."

Belizean tour operators, Howells says, find it difficult to compete with foreign marketing savvy. "It's evolution; it's reality," Howells tells me. "They just don't understand what Americans and Europeans demand in terms of hotels and service."

For every eco-conscious hotelier in Belize, there's another bent on commercialization. In the tiny southern coastal town of Placencia, irate "gringos" and natives alike tell me about New Yorker Robert Frackman's plans to add a casino to his oceanfront resort, the Inn at Robert's Grove. Further north, I hear, Kentucky mining millionaire Larry Addington has torpedoed the environmental process and built the nation's first golf course on his private island, Caye Chapel.

At Luba Hati, an Italian-owned beachfront hotel in Placencia, I meet an American couple, Bill and Allison Moore, newly minted owners of an offshore caye. "We wanted an adventure," says Moore, who sold his computer company in Texas before moving south to build a new home and mull over plans for a resort.

Belize is in the midst of a major tourism explosion. Between 1995 and 1999, the number of tourists visiting the country increased by 42 percent. Although the outlook for conservation in Belize is still positive, it remains to be seen whether the environmental and economic wealth stemming from eco-tourism will be distributed equitably or stay in the hands of a privileged few.

"Tourism proceeds are not being reallocated to the management or enhancement of the natural systems or to compensate local individuals who are adversely affected by the presence of protected areas," wrote Osmany Salas, executive director of the Belize Audubon Society in a recent newsletter. "In Belize, there is a fundamental need to address the question of who owns the resources and how responsible stewardship will be effected for the benefit of all."


The contradictions and ironies of community-based ecotourism in Gales Point

The community ecotourism and conservation project in Gales Point began with a proposal by American wildlife biologists Robert Horwich and Jon Lyon to the government of Belize in 1991. The project planners proposed that an area of 170,000 acres, including the village, be designated a biosphere reserve. The coastal zone around Gales Point is best known for its population of manatees (plant-eating, aquatic mammals that have no natural predators)

In November 1991, the Belizean government approved the scheme by designating the Manatee SDA, and the Ministry of Tourism and Environment committed funds to begin the project and to build a hotel that was to be turned over to a community ecotourism association, once it was formed. The Belize Audoban Society lent its support, and US Peace Corps assigned two volunteers to the project. Later, the project received funds from USAID and the Global Environment Fund (GEF) for biodiversity assessments and village improvement initiatives administered through the NGO Belize Enterprises for Sustainable Technology (BEST).

According to project planner Horwich, the project had three main objectives: (1) to develop a locally supported reserve that integrates multi-land use for private and government-owned lands and ensures sustainable use of resources; (2) to maintain and strengthen the local rural culture (based on farming, fishing and hunting); and (3) to give the village a supplementary source of income through tourism, resulting in economic self-sufficiency and less pressure on natural resources.

Belsky  points out the large role played by American wildlife biologists in conceptualizing, organizing, funding, and implementing the ecotourism programme in Gales Point. “That the project was not initiated from within the Gales Point community, nor built upon historic community-based resources management traditions, contests its representation as ‘community-based conservation’”.

Also, the image of Gales Point community that is marketed to international and wealthy Belizean ecotourists through promotional brochures and videos “is an invention of and intervention by the project planners” and has little to do with reality, Belsky argues.  “…rural ecotourism in Gales Point, and in Belize more widely, has become a key commodity, packaged and sold to an international middle-class consumer. What is being sold is a Western, idealized image of tropical rurality and exotic culture devoid of the ugliness associated with real Third World poverty, inequities, and globalization, In their consumption of ‘natural’ Belize, international tourists bypass the reality of British colonialism, slavery, racism, and extensive forest extraction, farming, and gathering.”

Tourists, who flock to Gales Point, are ignorant of the limited economic opportunities, the aggravating resource scarcity brought on by the encroachment of non-local developers, and the fact that “residents have survived by cutting the bush; killing, consuming, and selling wild game; fishing; and, to a lesser extent, farming,” says Belsky. “Even in the absence of local resource management customs (offset by high rates of out-migration), nature has, until recently, provided. Environmental degradation and scarcity, intensified with foreign commercial enterprises that significantly raised the scale of extraction and limited access of local villagers to fertile land and remaining fish.”

According to Belsky, the list of mistakes made by the project managers is long. She describes as to how efforts to deliver “authentic Creole” culture to attract tourists and replace “unsustainable” livelihood practices have created unintended consequences and ironies.

For instance, the advent of tourism has generated renewed interest in the old tradition of drumming, and many locals come out to dance and sing songs in Creole to entertain visitors. So the demand for drums has increased. But unfortunately, local drums are made from various woods and skins of wild animals that according to foreign conservationists’ philosophy should no longer be hunted and killed in the Manatee SDA.

Since tourists expect to enjoy “authentic” Creole meals as featured in the promotional brochures, Gales Point residents are confused about what food to serve because many of the local dishes consist of meat from endangered wildlife species such as turtle, armadillo and iguana.

To increase opportunities for tourist income, the project planners have also encouraged the production of handicrafts such as baskets. However, the greater extraction of vines for baskets and other handicrafts sold as “jungle products” may disrupt flora and fauna and can, thus, be considered as environmentally damaging. Similarly, since the souvenir business involves making jewelry and other products made of black coral, harvesting of coral persists, although it is illegal and has negative impacts on reef ecology and the coastal environment.

Contrary to the planner’s claim that the conservation-cum-tourism project has had strong village support, Belsky writes, “…widespread and grassroots participation in community ecotourism activities has not developed, nor has anything close to “empowerment” been achieved in Gales Point. Indeed, participation and benefits have been uneven, and new vulnerabilities associated with community ecotourism have arisen, especially for village women.” She points out that most of the villagers involved in Bed & Breakfast (B&B) enterprises belong to the same five or so households, namely those that play a dominant role in Gales Point’s political and economic affairs. “The rights and welfare of the poorest households, those not aligned with the proper political party or traditional elite families, are not advanced by this effort. Furthermore, women in the households who are benefiting are encountering new burdens”, as they are striving to combine traditional domestic responsibilities with providing ecotourism-related services.

B&B operators are also increasingly concerned about their future since their income has declined in recent years as a result of decreasing tourist numbers, a rise in food prices, and the establishment of new tourism businesses in the village. Their problems have exacerbated by increasing debts. B&B operators were encouraged to take loans to improve their facilities. But the reduced tourism earnings make it difficult to repay loans.

The ecotourism and conservation activities have reinforced stratification and rivalries in Gales Point, and non-participating residents resist the project in several ways. When project funds were allocated to build a community craft center in the village to facilitate the marketing of locally produced handicrafts, residents refused to assist in the construction so that labor had to be hired elsewhere. When the building was half completed, it was burnt down by members within the community because of disputes over the land on which it was built, the construction methods utilized, and the perception that the same few families benefited from employment opportunities, reports Belsky.

Villagers also became contentious and even violent, when government officials associated with the project began to collect from households a flat fee of US$10 per month for water and electricity rather than an amount on individual household usage. Unwilling to subsidize the B&Bs, which use considerable amounts of water and energy in the form of refrigerators, lights, fans, and other appliances used by or for overnight tourists, many households consuming less have rejected to pay their bill. 

One resident expressed his anger about the project by threatening to let the garbage pile up on the beach. “Refusing to pick up his garbage is this man’s way of resisting and speaking back to foreign-led ecotourism and conservation, the greater capital accumulation of his neighbours, a loss of personal control, an affront to his ethics and aesthetics associated with all of these,” comments Belsky. “His critique is lost on project planners, who call for more training in ‘hospitality’ and providing international standards of tourism ‘service’. They miss the point or choose to ignore that the failure to pick up garbage, or ‘impoliteness’, is not just the result of different approaches to service but is related to the unequal and racist historical relationship between blacks and whites, masters and slaves, and colonizers and colonized.”

In addition, families that make a living from hunting and are not involved in ecotourism activities, protest government officials and foreign consultants, who are responsible for new conservation regulations and the restriction and prohibition of hunting certain species. There are complaints such as “We don’t hunt, we don’t eat”, and that government officials do not properly enforce the laws or take advantage by confiscating illegally hunted turtles for their precious meat and shells.

Political manoevrings in relation to the project have also been a cause of dismay. Residents say they are not able to join community ecotourism associations because they are not connected with the right political party. When the new Manatee road was built in 1992, linking the village to the country’s two major highways, patronage was offered by two major political parties to support community conservation and ecotourism with the promise of land titles to adjoining parcels. However, the villagers’ hope to receive a piece of land for farming has not been fulfilled. “[They are] going to sell that land to make big money,” Belsky quotes one resident as saying. “But without land to farm we in Gales Point [will] never be able to get ahead. Food is so expensive and now the government [doesn’t] want us to hunt anymore. What are our kids going to eat?”

Belsky further explains that Belize, “spurred by debts and structural adjustment mandates, continues to adhere to an export-led, productivist model of development with little or no regard for environmental costs and unequal concentrations of landownership. These trends suggest further contradictions between community-based ecotourism discourse and practice, namely, that focusing attention solely on the community ignores social and environmental impacts of state actions and global policies.”

Gales Point residents are aware of official and private sector activities to intensify production of commercial export in the Manatee SDA, which appear to be incompatible with ongoing conservation efforts. For example, the government allowed gravel and dredging operations in a tributary of the Manatee River with no regard for the impacts. Timber was cut in the Sibun drainage with permits from the government without any prior inventory or environmental impact assessment as required by law. Furthermore, conversion of forest and bushland to export-crop plantations continues in the area, placing additional pressure on existing resources for poor villagers who lack alternative means of livelihood. In the light of this, it is understandable that disadvantaged residents raise the question of justice. Why should they respect the government and their rules for conservation, when officials are involved in environmentally suspect practices?

Nevertheless, planners of conservation and ecotourism projects tend to shift the blame on local people, when things go wrong. According to Belsky, this is also the case in Gales Point. “In the eyes of project co-planner Dale Greenlee, there were problems encountered in the Gales Point community ecotourism project that centred around the failure of instituting wildlife conservation, and the blame is largely placed on the community itself. While acknowledging encroachment and other threats created by vacation home development and the construction of the Manatee Road, he nonetheless chides the community for its inability to work ‘cooperatively’, ‘logically’ and pointedly toward the goal of ‘conservation’.”

She further notes that the Caribbean tourist industry criticizes the “locals”, particularly their “poor attitude” and “service performance gap” and suggests that the people at the tourist-receiving end should be properly educated. But, “Who really needs to be educated?”, asks Belsky.

Her conclusion is, “That in Gales Point resistance to ecotourism is louder and clearer may be linked to its escaped slave past and historic ability to subsist from the natural resource base. The all-white American planners ignore this history as they impose a form of cooperation and environmental ethic foreign to the place and peoples of Gales Point.

“No wonder nods of approval are replaced by acts of outward resistance when planners leave, even though they take with them opportunities for political patronage and development aid, which were the reasons the villagers… had taken up ecotourism activities in the first place.. Resistance also symbolizes rejection of factional disputes, which deepened in Gales Point, between those who benefit from and thus support rural ecotourism, and those who are left out or who reject what the project symbolizes.”

Jill M. Belsky’s study “The meaning of the manatee: An examination of community-based ecotourism discourse and practice in Gales Point, Belize” is published in: Charles Zerner (ed.), “People, plants, & justice: The politics of nature conservation”, Columbia University Press, New York: 2000.