From Belize Times, Friday 4, September, 2009
Perhaps this feature on San Pedro will be the most ambitious ‘Voices of the Village’ that the Belize Times will undertake, because San Pedro is officially recognised as a town. Yet the essence of San Pedro is somewhat village like, due to its long-standing history as a small settlement, and therefore it still warrants attention in ‘Voices of the Village’. Many of the issues affecting San Pedro are the same as other villages are experiencing, only on a larger and faster scale due to its demographic dominance. Perhaps the lessons learnt from San Pedro could help other villages avoid the same issues altogether.
San Pedro is the success story of the tourism industry of Belize: in a matter of decades, it has gone from an unknown fishing village to an international attraction on the global tourist map. Yet even before its time as a fishing village, San Pedro had a history. The north of San Pedro (or more precisely, the northern mass of Ambergris Caye) was of exceptional importance to the ancient Maya, who used its strategic position at the mouth of Chetumal Bay to develop their trading routes. As whalers began to frequent the area in the seventeenth century, San Pedro became a favourite ambushing spot for pirates too, who used the island’s coastal coves as hideouts as they waited for wealthy fleets to pass.
Later, as local communities started to settle on the island, and relied on its natural abundance of fish and vegetation to survive, the settlement was given the name San Pedro, after the patron saint of fishermen. And even when imperial colonialists tried to transform the area into coconut plantations in the 1800s, somehow the essence of the place as a fishing village remained, and in the 1960s, the government forced the ‘owners’ to release the land for distribution among the islanders. And from this private ownership of parcels of land on the island, grew a real estate industry which exceeded all hopes and expectations for San Pedranos. A book entitled ‘Living Abroad in Belize’ published in 2005, and designed for US ex-pats, claims that San Pedro has such charm and charisma that ‘rents for a pier and a shack can run US $5000 or more a month’ – which is, according to the author, well worth it!
There are a few San Pedranos who feel as though their opportunities for owning land or businesses in the town have been decimated due to predominantly North American interest, which has raised prices and standards beyond the reach of the average islander. However, San Pedro has become a mecca for Belizeans seeking greater employment opportunities and better salaries, without having to follow the trend of emigrating north to the United States. Few of the resort workers and tour guides on San Pedro are, in fact, native islanders; many are from mainland Belize, particularly the Orange Walk and Cayo districts.
A few issues being raised today are about the social implications of such proportions of migrants on the island, who now exceed the native population by several thousand. And as San Pedro continues to develop (albeit at a slower pace since the global economic downturn), construction workers are being shipped in by the dozens (and occasionally hundreds) to work on new projects. There are subsequently scores of accommodation facilities for menial workers on the island, and pocket communities of Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans are emerging across the island. A relatively significant proportion of San Pedranos wonder about the implications of this: people separated from their families, with little or no entertainment geared towards them, and often without the funds to participate in activities charging ‘tourist prices’, may be more easily tempted to find dubious ways and means to entertain themselves and afford island rates. And there is no surprise that Orange Walk style bars (to be discreet about the issue!) are popping up in secluded parts of San Pedro to serve these working-class communities on the island.
The other major concern is that the obvious affluence of certain resorts, residents and visitors encourages certain less-wealthy people to commit crimes against them. In fact, last month the US Embassy in Belmopan alerted American citizens of various ‘confidence scams’ occurring in San Pedro, from petty theft and armed robbery, to physical assault and illegitimate money laundering schemes. A few cases have involved groups of youths befriending tourists and accompanying them to their holiday accommodation, and later the youths returning unaccompanied to steal from them. However, the San Pedro police are confident that the majority of perpetrators are caught, and occasionally red-handed, such as one chap recently who was confronted by police officers as he carried a stolen laptop out of a hotel room! The Police also recognise the value and assistance offered by the South Ambergris Caye Neighbourhood Watch group, who now communally pay the wages of six special constables who rotate shifts around the clock to better protect the south end of town and beyond.
However, there is a growing consensus among residents that more must be done to control the spiralling drugs problem in San Pedro. One person asked how the police cannot catch drug deals in action, when everybody else knows exactly when and where such illegal happenings occur; as if to prove the point, as I walked down Back Street, a chap appeared from nowhere and called out to me, “whatever your thing, I can get it for you – weed, rocks, coke”. Not that people can be held entirely responsible for such business ventures if they are simply catering to the demand of wayward tourists. However, the permanent ‘camping out’ of several contingents who ostensibly scour the shores every day until they find wet-drop drugs to sell could surely be controlled and better discouraged? The irony is that while the illegal drugs trade earns the most money in San Pedro, the cash is rarely spent in the town itself, and is much more likely to be frittered away on the mainland.
It appears that many of the social problems on San Pedro are a result of financial restrictions felt by Belizeans living on the island. There are schemes being conducted by local groups to address this problem, which are full of potential for changing the direction this crisis is taking. To name just one such initiative, NGO Green Reef aims to develop the Bacalar Chico National Park Marine Reserve (BCNPMR) into a sustainable tourism model ‘where conservation management, tourism needs and community benefits are balanced’; Green Reef has already trained dozens of tour guides and fishing guides to specialise in tourism within BCNPMR. Similarly, the Lion’s Club of San Pedro is exerting a greater positive influence over the town since the new Presidency of Melanie Paz began in June. Already, the Lion’s Club has participated in La Noche San Pedrana and Los Tres Pescados International Fishing Tournament this summer, both of which were successful fundraisers which will undoubtedly benefit portions of the San Pedrano community.
So there are hopes that the positives will outweigh the negatives in San Pedro, despite recent growing concerns to the contrary. And with a little more cohesion between the officials on the island and the residents, it seems that social development can once again be top of the agenda, to ensure that San Pedro reclaims its Madonna-inspired status as ‘La Isla Bonita’.