| The Courier: - N°153 - Sept- Oct 1995 Dossier Southern Africa - Country Reports Namibia; Djibouti |
Culture and nature in Belize appear to be inseparable. It is rare for Third World countries, bogged down in insoluble problems, to show such concern for nature conservation and to closely associate this devotion with their concept of culture. One could almost speak of a culture of nature. On a more lighthearted note, one could say that this Belizean culture/nature is the adopted daughter of Baron Bliss and Coca Cola. The latter company has given a great deal of sponsorship, money to 'Programme for Belize' (PFB), a private company operating as a foundation which is involved at the very crossroads of ecology and ancient architectural heritage, dealing with environ. mental protection in the widest sense over a vast territory containing dozens of Maya sites. The American company has of course made use of the operation that it is sponsoring in its marketing. The programme entailed the purchase of several hundreds of thousands of acres, an act which provoked some unease among a number of Belizeans. Baron Bliss, however, was a true patron-a 'benefactor' to use the term usually applied to him in Belize. His earlier legacy enabled the country to set up and run an arts centre which has been operating for several decades. Although modest, it is certainly worthy of the name.
In the minds of many Belizeans, the nationality, the size of the bequest and the links which Baron Bliss had with their country are sometimes ill-defined. Some think he was Portuguese, others that he long ago 'adopted' this small Central American territory, and yet others that he left an immense fortune. No matter! The benefactor has the status approaching that of a cult figure throughout the country, and particularly in Belize City. Baron Henry Edward Earnest Victor Bliss is referred to locally simply as Baron Bliss, even if his striking name gives rise to all kinds of embellishment. The true story is that he moored off Belize during a voyage, but never actually disembarked from his vessel. This British - indeed, quintessentially English-nobleman arrived at the port of Belize City in 1926. Suffering from food poisoning contracted in Trinidad, he was unable to come ashore and he spent his time fishing. His health never recovered during the months spent offshore, but he was befriended by the city's citizens who would come to visit him, caring for him and bringing food. When he died, he left two million dollars to the country. As a kind of funeral monument, Belize City erected a lighthouse at the entrance to the port. This structure linking land and sea, is at the site where the Baron spent his last months. It is obviously very useful but, at least as far as art lovers are concerned, the most productive part of the Baron's legacy is the Bliss Institute, home to a number of cultural and artistic institutions run with money from the same fund. These institutions include the National Library and the Belize Arts Council. The Institute is home to a permanent exhibition of Maya art. Belize even has a national holiday (9 March) dedicated to Baron Bliss.
Defying the laws of probability
A lot of the Baron's two million must presumably have been spent if the precarious existence of the Belize Arts Council is anything to go by. It has no permanent store of exhibits, apart from a few Maya works. However, this cultural institution manages to keep a range of activities going. Every year, it organises some 20 exhibitions, combining art and crafts. In addition, there are plans to build a 'proper' museum in Belmopan, the capital. Some exhibitions are staged within the framework of exchange arrangements with other countries, particularly Mexico which is the only foreign country to have a Cultural Centre in Belize. The centre is proud to present the works of any Mexican
who has succeeded abroad, but its limited means prevent it from doing so as often as it would like. The next event, according to Mrs Beverly Smith-Lopez, Director of the Belize Arts Council, which will be in November 1995, is an exhibition of the work of Pen Cayetano who lives in Germany. In the plastic arts, the local 'stars' are Terryl Gordon, whose works were on show during our visit, Benjamen Nicolas, another painter, Louis Belisle and, above all, the sculptor Georges Gable. The last-mentioned, who is also a poet, has his own gallery and is akin to an 'official' artist under contract to the government. His works are often to be found adorning prestigious government offices.
Most of the sculptures produced owe more to crafts than to art. The source is family workshops producing mahogany pieces amongst which an art lover's trained eye can sometimes pick out something which is obviously finer than the stereotype of mass-produced work. A dance company is also part of the Council, having a modern and a folklore section. It sometimes tours abroad, particularly in Mexico and neighbouring Caribbean countries. The laws of probability being what they are, one would not expect a country of 200 000 inhabitants to produce hundreds of great artists. But despite the limitations, the Belize Arts Council manages to struggle on with its limited means. The dance company is responsible for giving courses in state schools and, by promoting a National Children's Art Festival, the Council hopes to stimulate young talent. In 1994, the Festival brought together 4000 children from the Belize City district. This year, children from other districts will be invited to the economic capital, in anticipation of next year when each district will organise its own festival. The stage after that will be to coordinate a national festival scheduled for the year 2000.
Solving the Maya mystery
The Programme for Belize began with the purchase of 110 000 acres (50 000 hectares) of land, supplemented by 92 000 acres donated by Coca Cola and a further 10 000 acres in the area where the borders of Belize, Guatemala and Mexico meet. Those in charge aim to make this combined area part of a park spanning all three countries. The initial fund of $6 million has come from outside donors. Some of this amount has been rasied through an ingenious subscription scheme involving the 'adoption' of an acre of tropical forest. Foreigners, particularly from the USA and Europe, are encouraged to subscribe. A significant sum provided by USAID enabled the organisation to clear its debts in 1993. Other donors include the European Union which supports archeological research work at the La Milpa site.
The area managed by the programme contains about 60 known Maya sites. Research being carried out at La Milpa is concentrating on the reasons behind the collapse of the Maya civilisation. This site is broadly typical of Maya cities as a whole and is one of the three largest in the country which, overall, has hundreds of such sites. High up, the ceremonial temple made up of 85 structures separated by 24 inner courtyards is the dominant feature. The immense 'great' palace is flanked by four pyramid-shaped temples and it was here that the sacred ball game took place. Dignitaries used to live within the first perimeter. At the very bottom of the slope were the living quarters of the masses and, between the two, the residences of the middle class. Four years of work at La Milpa have resulted in the deciphering of a number of the epigraphs on the steles. Researchers have also reached certain conclusions based on the study of the vegetation which has invaded the ruins. One of these is that one should be cautious in referring to 'the Maya civilisation' or 'its' decline, since there were a number of stages involved. It is probable that settlements evolved completely independently of each other and without coordination. They also collapsed at different times although, clearly, they all faced a series of similar crises.
Construction at La Milpa began in approximately 400 BC and continued for about 1000 years. After a long decline, there was a short-lived revival in about the eighth century and then the site was completely abandoned. However, it must have been inhabited later by peoples other than the Mayas because the foundations of a ninth-century house, in a completely different style, have been found. It was frequented on and off at least up to the 17th century, offerings deposited at that time having been found. The site was rediscovered in 1938 by a chiclero (a peasant farmer collecting sap to make chewing gum) who told a British specialist about his find. Unfortunately, more recently, at the beginning of the 1970s, La Milpa was also the target of looters who completely devastated it.
The greatest Maya centre in Belize was probably Caracol, a city-state extending over 100 square miles and which, at its height, had 200 000 inhabitants-as many as the entire country today. At the time, the population of the current territory of Belize is thought to have been about 750 000 although some researchers speak of figures as high as two million. What is increasingly certain is that this land was the centre of the Maya civilisation during the classical period (250 to 900 AD). Caracol was discovered in 1938 and was partially excavated in 1950. It was suspected that this site was more than just a great religious centre, but it was only in 1986 that the deciphering of an epigraph on an altar stone enabled the archeologists to say for sure that Caracol had conquered the city of Tincal (Guatemala), hitherto regarded as the most powerful Maya metropolis. This discovery filled a gap of nearly a century and a half in Maya history and enabled Caracol's supremacy to be given due recognition.
We were unable to visit Caracol which is difficult to reach, not being served by a major road. However, it is not so difficult to admire Altun Ha and Xunantunich, both magnificent sites which have already been restored to a considerable degree. Work is still going on at Xunantunich. Like Caracol, this is close to the border with Guatemala, a few kilometres to the south of the superb town of San Antonio.
This impressive place exudes mystery and magic, with the giant face of the Sun God at the centre of the newly renovated facade of El Castillo (The Castle) which is the central structure. This is a cathedral of stone, earth and vegetation, heaped in that order. Viewing the sequence of structures from the heights of El Castillo, the sight of blue tarpaulins protecting the parts under restoration adds to rather than detracts from the sense of mystery. The edifice takes on the appearance of an 'operating theatre' for a vast surgical operation! In order to reach Xunantunich, one has to put one's vehicle on a tiny boat and cross a small shaded river which seems to act as the link between our century and the Maya world. It is possible to visit this site and the one at Altun Ha at night if one exchanges a few pleasantries with the guards. The evening light and the solitude add a special chemistry to the mystery of these Maya ceremonial places.
Belize has been selected as the HQ for 'Mundo Maya', an organisation promoting tourism along the Maya Route. This is tourism at a high cultural level, grouping together the efforts of the five regions in question: Yucatan, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, in addition to the host country.
The tortoise's reproach
Archeological research is only one aspect of the work of the Programme for Belize. The protection of animal and plant species and environmental conservation are in fact, the main elements. Indeed, it is the ecologically orientated exploitation of the forest and the highly controlled development of ecotourism which ultimately will enable the Programme to finance itself. The PFB also acts as an educator with a mission which includes teaching young people about the ecology. It both receives students and goes out to speak to them in schools and educational centres. Young American and European university graduates also come to make their knowledge available to the centre and to complete their training under the direction of, among others, Roger Wilson, who is Technical Coordinator of the Programme. He came to Belize with a wealth of nature conservation experience gained in the Seychelles, Guinea and Rwanda.
Although the PFB is the most important environmental protection scheme in Belize's cultural programme, it is far from being the only one. Among the many others, the Blue Hole National Park deserves a particular mention. This is sponsored by the Belize Audubon Society, a local branch of the US foundation (which also helps finance the PFB), the Belize government, the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the MacArthur Foundation. The park extends over an area of nearly 600 acres of essentially rocky terrain with lakes, underground rivers and caves. Its main attractions are the 'Blue Hole', a 100-foot-deep hole which is 300 feet in diameter and from which an underground river emerges, and St. Herman's Cave. The park is home to many rare species of fauna including jaguar, ocelot, jaguarundi, tapir, opossum and the howler monkey, a species related to the baboon. Added to this are many reptiles, including the boa constrictor and the iguana, and an infinite variety of birds. Other institutions devoted to defending the ecology include the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Guanacaste National Park and the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary.
One park particularly dear to the inhabitants of Belize is the Community Baboon Sanctuary inhabited by many thousands of monkeys (in fact, black howler monkeys rather than true baboons). Its management structure is highly original, being based on voluntary help from eight village communities, with aid from institutional sponsors. Each proprietor undertakes to respect a strict code of conduct which includes protection of the forms along the riverbanks, maintaining fruit trees during felling, and maintaining a forest corridor between individual farms. The advantage for the farmer is that these techniques protect his land against erosion and prevent the silting-up of waterways which are essential to him. It also enables him to avoid the tortoise's reproach.
In Belize, a widely appreciated West African legend relates that an old tortoise saved some men from a huge flood by advising them to plant palm trees to hold down the sand. That is why, when captured by man, the tortoise beats her breast for not having anticipated man's ingratitude.