REPORT #210 March 2000

Produced by the Belize Development Trust

Can you really raise the standard of living of third world marginilized people and keep their culture at the same time? It does not seem so. You can, if you work at it, keep a veneer of traditional culture, in painted wagons as in Costa Rica, or traditional dance styles, costumes and songs. But the culture itself, the way of life and socializing? Not really!

Many are my old age group in Belize, from the barrier reef island of Caye Caulker, who would like to go back to kerosene lamps, breadfruit trees in the yard, piece of sugar cane, papaya and limes off the trees in back of the house, fried GRUNT ( a fish ) at meal times. Less work, less bills to pay, less conveniences, more leisure time, a few annual lean times between seasons and all that.

The fruits and trees are gone now, replaced by new buildings for family extensions in a crowded location. Or filled with buildings for hotels, restaurants, bars and things to make the new medium of exchange - money - of the modern world.

The working sailboats you built yourself are gone, the sailmakers are gone. The 4 or 5 hour trip by sail in the middle of the night to the mainland port to do shopping and back in the afternoon and arriving in the night at the island village. The free rides for villagers are gone. Now you pay, have to pay $15 for a ride on a speedboat that gets you there in one hour or less. Return the same way. But now you have to produce money instead of a barter system, in the amount of $30 to shop on the mainland, or go to the Treasury, or do a variety of the many government offices in that port town who want you to fill out papers and pay fees with money, instead of labor, or fruit, or fish. Usually, the increase in government bureaucracy makes you end up having to spend the overnight in a hotel that costs money, eating at restaurants that cost money, because nowadays you cannot finish the chores once a month, in the half a day alloted by the travel times. The Government of Belize does not bring services to the villages, so what to do? The cost of government has risen so high, nothing simple is practical anymore. They are taxing and dunning you continuously.

Rising living standards makes new things compulsory. Now you have to have a septic tank, the outhouse over the sea on a rickety pier is gone. You have to pay a garbage fee, you have to pay electricity cause no one sells kerosene anymore, or white gasoline for lamps. You have to cook using electric, microwave, Mexican propane, or some such. The firehearts from coconut husks are out.

True these material conveniences of the manufactured nations imported to Belize are cleaner, faster and reflect a higher standard of living. More choices, more things you can do with your time. But somewhere along the way, the price lost is leisure and social interplay with your neighbors and family. No relaxation on the beach with friends, or the hammock and a good book. To find the money in the new system to pay, you have to turn entrepreneurial. In Caye Caulker this is tourism. It used to be boatbuilding. Now you buy fiberglass boats from Mexico, outboard motors from Japan, fuel from Nigeria, or Venezuela or someplace. You make more money, but you lose something precious. My old generation know that now. To hear them talk and lament when I go back home. But turning the clock back is not easy. You pretty much have to move someplace simple, like the foothills of the Toledo District.

We have some young Maya from Toledo in upper school, who want to raise the standard of living ( acquire manufactured goods )of their traditional slash and burn agriculture system of southern Belize. But will they lose their culture in the process? Of course! The Maya and Mestizos of northern Belize have already done that. They no longer slash and burn, or grow corn in a milpa. They use cars and tractors and have cement houses, not bush houses from the jungle trees. The traditional ones have firehearts still. But they are not considered traditional so much, as poverty ridden, cause they cannot keep up with the others. They lament about low sugar cane prices, the price of gasoline, the price of electricity. Unemployment and no opportunity to make money to pay for it all. Raised living standards mean you have to keep working and producing some sort of crop or activity to exchange for money, the medium of exchange. If you cannot, then going back to traditional is the way to go. Some places the process is so advanced you cannot go back, like the port of Belize City, or Belmopan.

Valentino Shal, a Toledo Hill Maya who is articulate, laments about the desires of his generation to have more "material things". But then, he is no longer traditional. He doesn't make his suitcase out of wood from a tree he cut down himself and the planks he made himself, waterproofed with the sap of the chicle gum heated over an open fire. Can't remember how long it has been since I have seen a wooden suitcase covered with chicle gum? Still have them in parts of the Peten. But Valentino doesn't carry his schoolbooks in one. Do you lose your culture in return for a Taiwanese made backpack? Or rubber boots manufactured in England, instead of leggins of chicle covered bark like the old days?

Sure don't know the answer to that. But one place I know has a nice blend of old and new. Is El Rosario in the state of Olancho in Honduras up in the pine forested mountains. Used to run tourist groups up there from Caye Caulker for gold panning trips. There were no lights after dark there, other than a pine splint fire. You ate mostly meat from the Brahma bulls people ranched and if you were lucky you could trade some golddust for some eggs to fry. If you found someone with a few chickens? A flashlight or reading light at night is a pine splint flame you hold in your hand. But vegetables, kerosene stoves, shoes, these would all be considered luxuries. But those mountain villages did have a community truck for trips down to town in the valley. But most people did not have money. They had cows, they had streams to pan gold dust in and they built everything by hand. Luxuries are tools. Hand tools of the 1800's. It's nice to live that way for a while when visiting. All traditional and quaint and all that in the old culture. But you get the hankering for a refrigerator, a cold beer, a coca cola, an ice cream, vegetables, a hot shower and running water. Things the olden culture does not have. Is a higher standard of living with more choices worth it?

Hard to say. The Valentinos of the world are in-between. His generation still gets a taste of the old ways, but lives in the new. The difference is loss of leisure, seasonal variations and a need to change the style of work ethic from seasonal and the moon phases to one of the clock and money as a medium of exchange for labor and production. In return he gets to ride a truck to school, a road to drive or walk over, rubber boots for when it rains in the forest and a chain saw for logging instead of an axe. How much can you trade off and still keep your culture?

There is another aspect to switching from the extended family village life in a subsistance culture and the rich social inter- actions that develop from mutual need and mutual poverty. Village social life breaks down, the extended family becomes nucleur and breaks apart, people help each other less. Envy and greed become more dominant traits. The change from barter and subsistance social culture changes. Families become divided and selfish in a money society when you require improving your standard of living, through things that cost money. Free community help becomes less and often non-existant. You couldn't find 25 willing volunteer villagers in my Caye Caulker island home anymore to haul a sailboat on the beach, if you had one. You have to use tourists to do what was once a common social cultural village practice.

The raise in the standard of living means a change from village social cohesion, to a more fragmented lonely selfish existance. Families withdraw. Competition between who has what and who hasn't. Jealousy and envy become the norm. Traditional culture goes. In the case of the Toledo Hill Country Maya villages. The change is already here. They mostly want to figure out how to make more money. New ways, to buy new material things from the manufacturing countries abroad. Once things were FREE for shared or bartered labor. People shared in their common traditional culture of subsistance poverty. Social customs over thousands of years worked. But bring in money earning power and the money to buy gadgets and those cultural customs are gone. Selfishness becomes the norm. Reclusiveness and isolation the norm. This is the new culture and there is no turning back.

In conclusion, when you raise the standard of living of poverty subsistance people living off old traditional methods, you destroy that culture in the process. A new culture forms. It is not the same. Maybe the village costumes will remain, the language to some extent, but there is no dance culture, or other entertainment culture in Toledo that will survive. The culture of ceremonial days around the ball court in the plaza went 600 years ago. The remnants of the Mayan indigeneous culture today are going at a much faster pace. The ones who are still traditional are no longer quaint, they are just poor! They haven't figured out a way to make money yet, the new medium of exchange.

Back to Main Belize Development Trust Page

Maintained by Ray Auxillou, Silvia Pinzon, MLS, and Marty Casado. Please email with suggestions or additions for this Electronic Library of Belize.