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Boon or Threat? Potential Impacts of Belize’s New Highway Project on Mayan Sustainable Tourism

Belize is quickly becoming an international tourism hot spot, but will the country deal with an influx of tourists sustainably, with respect for indigenous groups and the environment? Or will it go the way of American fast food franchises, cruise ships and garbage? With the construction of a major new highway underway, some groups are concerned that Belize’s tourism development may be diverted onto a dangerous path.

The Toledo Ecotourism Association (TEA) is one organization that is working towards a non-intrusive model of tourism that benefits Belize’s natural environment as well as the people and culture of local communities. Founded in 1990 by a diverse group of Mayans, Garifunas and Creoles who wanted to become involved in ecotourism in their villages, the TEA established a system of guesthouses in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, an area full of historic culture, natural attractions and archaeological ruins, particularly Mayan in origin. Local residents participated in the planning, management, benefit and control of ecotourism in their villages.

Kekchi Mayan Woman in front of ancient Mayan ruins in Lubaantun, Belize

Now community leaders worry that a new development in the Toledo district could undermine the TEA’s sustainable tourism and environmental efforts. Earlier this year, Belize signed a 47-million-dollar contract to expand and improve the last 23 miles of its southern highway system, which will link Belize to neighboring Guatemala and the Pan American Highway system, a network of paved roads from Mexico to Panama. The Belize government is promising hundreds of temporary jobs and a connection to the most underdeveloped part of the country, the Toledo district.

The new highway will run through five villages, one of which, San Antonio, currently participates in the TEA program. The highway will offer benefits including easier access to the villages and increased commerce for local communities. However, some San Antonio villagers are concerned the new road may also bring an increase in drug trafficking, prostitution, illegal logging of mahogany trees and an influx of tourists the village currently can’t accommodate. “Mayan sites will be the first target for the investors once the road is built,” says Reyes Chun, chairman of the TEA. “If we don’t protect, they will likely be overtaken by outside influence.”

The TEA is also concerned that an increase in development could undermine the village experience and contribute to a degradation of the Mayan culture. In addition, there is speculation that the new highway is being built in order to provide access to petroleum deposits in southern Belize that have yet to be developed.

In its environmental impact assessment of the project, Belize Environmental Consultancies stated that an improved security presence and a freeze on the issuing of land titles along the new highway would safeguard against expected changes. At the signing agreement between the Government of Belize and the contractor, Cisco Construction, Ltd., Cadet Henderson, CEO of the Belize Ministry of Works, said, “This 23 miles of road has been an area of major maintenance demands for us due to the rugged terrain, so it’s long overdue and we can’t wait to see it upgraded to the standard we have designed.”

Construction of the highway extension is scheduled for completion in 2012.

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