REPORT #204 Mar 2000

Produced by the Belize Development Trust

We currently have an articulate Maya on the Belize Culture List, who is reminiscing on how the Highland Maya go through periods of scarce, or no food. The conversation sort of leads itself toward topics of bad politics, lack of government concern and other such subjects.

In reality, the problem of periods of scarce food have hit every country in the world during certain periods. The Highland Maya are far from unique, nor is their situation as terrible as many other places. They are not even alone in the nation of Belize. I went through that same situation in Europe during World War II and for a few years afterward. It was nothing to see the trucks and prisoners, load 3 ton trucks with dead bodies of people who died during the night, with the bony legs and arms and ribs sticking out ( by the tens of thousands). In Canada, things are tougher for rural Canadians than they are for the Highland Maya in the Toledo District of Belize. Up in Canada, you only get one crop a year and for half a year, you are blanketed under snow, when you could freeze to death. I learned there, about food preservation, canning foods, bottling vegetables, pickling, making pemmican and sausages for storage to eat year round.

The problem with the Highland Maya families and other rural groups throughout Belize is, they know very little about alternative food preservation methods. And for most of them, it is simply too much trouble. The two growing seasons a year, the fruit trees that will span some of the time between seasons and other things, just let most rural Belizeans prefer the easier way of doing without for a few weeks, or a month. To hear our articulate Maya contribute to the list, it is the government's fault. Not so, surely!

Any Maya nowadays, know of the existance of the USA Peace Corps. A simple request at local level for a volunteer to come in and teach families and villagers other food preservation methods, so that food will cover the periods between growing seasons, is just common sense. Even if the Peace Corps Volunteer does not know how to do these things, they do know where to find the information. And this information is already in various libraries in Belize. I know, for I donated a trunk load of hundreds of pamphlets on Food Preservation to the National Library Service in Belize 20 years ago. I got them in turn through the USA AID program FREE, from Washington, 25, D.C.

Food preservation in the tropics is a bit trickier in some ways than in Canada. Up in that cold country they can store things in pantries, which are cool and dry. Even cold. But down here in Belize in the tropics, the humidity, insects and heat play havoc with some food preservation systems. You may not get years of shelf life, but you certainly can get the 3 to 4 months to span between growing seasons.

Some of the things I have tried myself successfully in Belize are: Smoking meat, or fish. Salting, pickling lobster and fish fillet, jams made from fruits, using cast off containers and I think it is a wax surface covering called Pectin. Sausages using pig intestines combined with salt and smoking.

Now, I know the Toledo hill country Maya communities store their corn cobs in cribs under a thatched roof. They also smoke their hot peppers which give them their vitamins over the fire hearth in the house. Some of them still use a ground floor fire, rather than the upraised wooden table fire heart that northern Belizeans use, to save the back and legs. Making pemmican, which is 1/4 inch strips of meat thick, about a 1 inch wide, which is either heat dryed, dehydrated, and or smoked is another method of preserving meat. If you want to get fancy nowadays, a bicycle pump will work as a vacuum pump for sealing meat or other dried food in plastic bags. Pickling works. I used to pickle lobster tails for the off-season. They are soaked in a brine of salt and pepper flavored water in a jar after they have been boiled and taken out of the tail shell, then dried either in the sun, or over a fire. (We use the sun in Caye Caulker, but in Toledo a fire might be more appropriate). I then used the bicycle pump and sealed them in a plastic bag. You can buy plastic in rolls and just heat seal it, or use a rubber band over several foldings. I sold a few of my pickled lobster tails to a vendor in the Belize City market one time, and after that had a fine business providing all the pickled, dried lobster tails I could supply. As I recall, the money helped buy material for sewing my children's clothes at the time.

Scarcity of money is probably what our Highland Maya contributor means when talking of poverty. People who live subsistance but have land to grow food, a roof of thatch over their head and independence are hardly poverty level. They may not have money for manufactured imported things. There are more people in Belize City southside that are worse poverty level than Highland Maya. What the Maya lack perhaps, is some lessons and examples of group work, in food preservation technology of a hundred years ago. It does not have to be current modern technology, but that of the late 1800's would be a vast improvement on building food supplies to be set aside during off growing seasons. To alleviate food problems some teaching of alternative methods of preserving food might be appropriate in Mayan villages. None of them I am sure, use the intestines of their pigs when they butcher them on a Saturday morning for village sale, to make pickled sausages which are then smoked. A smokehouse would also be a useful introduction to food preservation, instead of the more primitive fire hearth in the middle of the house they currently use.

But my observations do not think lessons in food preservation will have much effect. Life can be still had in off growing season times, via wild bush meat, and traditional ways. This makes the impetus to do the hard time consuming work of food preservation less attractive to the Maya. That is my observation anyway, true or not.

Another alternative to the lack of protein, or meat, is the construction of multilayered 8 tank Tilapia fish farms. Very little money is needed. What is needed is group organization, lots of sweat and labor like the times in January to clear bush for milpa. To make fish growing tanks, you need lots of rocks, sand and gravel. Shovels, wheelbarrow and pickaxe are the tools and lots of labor by volunteers, or shareholding participants via some organization like a co-operative. The bags of cement needed cannot cost more than a couple hundred dollars. By group effort this could be accomplished. Some few dollars for PVC pipe to run water from higher up the stream to the top tank built on a slope and an exit at the bottom back to the stream would give you all the water you wanted. Fish fry are not expensive, you start small. But eight tanks about 12' X 18' by 5' high should give you a continuous fish meat crop every day. To the tune of a couple thousand pounds of fish per week. Lots of fish to eat for every participating villager and some to sell in Punta Gorda for cash dollars as a medium of exchange for the manufactured goods imported from abroad that they want.

The problems pointed out by our Mayan contributor are common to most rural peoples around the world. Food preservation to a certain extent must work with the materials on hand. But when life is fairly easy in the tropics, the incentive to preserve food for lean times between growing seasons is usually lacking. Most rural families opt for the lean times, rather than the hard time consuming work necessary to preserve and stock food to carry them through. That our contributor remembers the days without food, or little food is just the path his parents chose. We had the same situation in our fishing village of Caye Caulker when I was a young man. One tortilla and a piece of hard Dutch cheese could be the meal for the day. You make your choices and each family makes it's own choices. But it is not the government's fault or problem.

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