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The Proposed "Toledo People's Eco-Park" and Governmental Influence on Ecotourism in Belize

As Steinberg [1998a; 1998b] notes, land tenure is a real problem faced by the indigenous Maya communities in Toledo , as the government has failed to acknowledge their calls for greater land rights. Many people in Toledo fear that the paving of the Southern Highway (the only main road in the south of Belize ) will further threaten their land right claims as currently remote village communities will be exposed to development and increased logging.

For years, the Maya communities have been calling for a “Toledo People’s Eco-Park”, based upon sustainable tourism initiatives, that would be managed by the local communities and protect much of Toledo from uncontrolled development. All the indigenous people questioned during my research supported the plan, most pointing out that the main obstacle was the government which has traditionally marginalized the Maya people. It is believed amongst the people of Toledo that eco-tourism programmes would greatly benefit from such a large protected area and subsequent increased visitor numbers, which are currently very low. As Steinberg [1998a] notes, the government seems to have different plans for Toledo , plans to claim the land for themselves and “sustainably” log it. Many Maya people disapprove of the logging that currently takes place on their traditional lands (see appendix A), a practice that gives them no benefit and deprives them of land to farm and hunt on (and show tourists around) [see also Steinberg 1998a; 1998b]. Many suggest that the logging companies are not controlled properly and that the logging that occurs is indiscriminate rather than sustainable. Their loss of control of the land in Toledo means they are now even more strongly pushing the government to grant them an Eco-Park. Various sources in Punta Gorda stated that Toledo Area West representative and politician, Mr Mike Espat, recently promised his support for the proposed Eco-Park, but subsequently went back on his word. In Zisman’s [1998] PhD Thesis “Sustainability or Status Quo: An assessment of elite influence in the political ecology of Belizean mangroves”, the author identified Mr Espat’s (amongst numerous other politicians’) past “blatant political interference” [p.184] with environmental and development issues for his own personal gain. The proposed Eco-Park presumably doesn’t suit Mr Espat’s environmentally indiscriminate business interests [as shown by Zisman’s study], nor does it suit the government’s interests, and so it seems doomed to fail despite its widespread support.

Most of the plans for an Eco-Park are being instigated by the Toledo Ecotourism Association members under the guidance of Chet Schmidt, but there were suggestions that TEA executive chairman P. Ack was also part of the problem. Despite his informing me that the plan had his support, other TEA members told me he was pressurizing them not to support it and was actively disrupting the plans by “losing” important letters that were meant to be passed on to the government. Mr Ack himself may be under the influence of local politicians. What is clear from both my own research and Zisman’s [1998] is that corruption and self-interest amongst the elites are rife in Toledo (and throughout Belize ) and this severely hinders the proposed Toledo People’s Eco-Park and local eco-tourism.

There are further examples of the government’s failure to help ecotourism initiatives in Toledo . Weaver [1998, p.100], considering Belize as a whole, notes that “Although government rhetoric and structural reorganisations suggest commitment to an eco-tourism based resource strategy, actual developments raise questions as to whether such policies are actually being implemented”. Steinberg [1998a; 1998b] notes that in 1992 a group of Maya Mopans in San Jose requested permission to build a tourist trail into the nearby Columbia Forest Reserve. The requests were denied because of logging concessions already granted within the reserve:

“This was a clear indication to the villagers that the government was not interested in a locally-initiated sustainable development project that might call into question tenure rights of the forest reserve” [Steinberg, 1998a].

Ten years later, the residents of San Jose seem to have forgotten about this past experience – none of those questioned had any knowledge of the matter.

Some of the Toledo Ecotourism Associations members, generally the local chairmen, noted that the government was a real impediment to the TEA eco-tourism programme (see appendix A). Many believed that the government has failed to promote tourism sufficiently in Toledo . Despite the TEA’s international awards, the government controlled Belize Tourism Board (BTB) seems to be unaware of the TEA programme (Belize Tourism Board offices in Belize City had no knowledge of it when questioned). When a German television company planned on featuring the Toledo Ecotourism Association in a documentary following it’s 1996 “TO DO” award for socially responsible tourism, the Belizean government intervened and sent the television crew to one of the Cayes (islands) in the north of the country. Many TEA members believe the government to be deliberately ignoring tourism enterprises in Toledo so that tourists can concentrate their time and money in the more accessible tourist infrastructure in the north and west of the country. Despite protests and marches organised by the TEA in the capital city Belmopan , the government still fails to promote the programme.

Sustainable Development based Ecotourism in Ecuador at Piedra Blanca