A FRUIT DISTRIBUTOR WORKS TO PRESERVE AN ANCIENT MAYAN RUIN
BY TERE FIGUERAS NEGRETE
When Brooks Tropicals began work on a new headquarters for its papaya-growing operation in Belize, executives for the produce distributor in Homestead never imagined the project would thrust them into unfamiliar terrain: archaeology.
Soon after the groundbreaking on the site of the new corporate offices in December, construction crews unearthed what looked like the foundation of a long-buried building -- and halted work for about two months to allow Brooks Tropicals to work with Belizean officials to excavate the site, located in the northernmost district of Corazal.
Government archaeologists soon discovered a cluster of ancient Mayan structures and the remains of three people buried in the traditional Mayan fashion, all believed to be between 1,500 and 1,800 years old.
Brooks Tropicals now plans to incorporate some of the artifacts in an exhibit within the office complex, and incorporate one of the excavated structures -- believed to be a home built for a relatively well-to-do Mayan family -- into a community park on the Brooks property.
''It's a way for them to see how their ancestors lived,'' said Mary Ostlund, spokeswoman for Brooks Tropicals, which employs 1,200 in Belize. The new building will serve as headquarters for the 1,700 acres of papaya groves, which Brooks Tropicals leases from local farmers. The site will include the grove operation offices and packing facilities for Brooks Tropicals, which bills itself as the largest papayaimporter in North America. Brooks Tropicals has been marketing papayas from Belize since 1988, and began growing the fruit in 1993.
The fruit is shipped to facilities in Homestead, where the company was founded in 1928. Brooks Tropicals also grows star fruit and avocadoes in Florida, as well as importing and distributing tropical fruits and vegetables from other growers.
The human remains have been turned over to the the Institute of Archaeology. The excavation revealed the remains of a man and a woman buried in a crypt. Archaeologists have uncovered four rooms and ornate pottery. Two other structures have been partially excavated, but their original purposes are still unknown.
A third crypt, holding the remains of a man, was found just outside the home.
Belizean law requires businesses to tread carefully when dealing with archaeological finds. Failing to allow archaeologists to survey sites -- and properly excavate any findings, whether deemed important or not -- can lead to hefty fines or prompt officials to shut down projects.
Some disputes have ended only after prolonged legal battles, said Jaime Awe, director of Belize's Institute of Archaeology, a branch of the National Institute of Culture and History.
''I wish more developers were as willing to work with us as Brooks,'' said Awe. 'Some look at us and say, `Oh no, here come the archaeologists.' ''
FOOTING THE BILL
Brooks Tropicals has footed the bill for the initial excavation, roughly $10,000, said Awe.
Ostlund said the company is financially committed to the project, including the construction of the community park and excavation of other possible Mayan ruins in the area. The headquarters should be completed by February. The community park will be finished by the end of next year, said Ostlund.
The Belizean countryside is dotted with countless similar sites. The ancient Mayans numbered more than a million in 600 AD, said Awe. The current population of Belize is around 300,000.
''We have more prehistoric buildings than modern ones,'' he said.
But preserving Mayan history in Belize, a former British colony that became an independent country in 1981, has been difficult.
`BITTERNESS IN BELIZE'
''The best known sites were all looted early on. There is a lot of bitterness in Belize,'' said Victor Bulmer-Thomas, professor emeritus at London University and a visiting professor at the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University. ``When it was a British colony the rules over what you could take favored foreign museums. And in the last 20 or 30 years, it's been straightforward looting and selling on the black market.''
The excavation on the Brooks Tropicals site has already had a ripple effect in the area.
Government archaeologists working on the site were able to persuade nearby crews working on a road between the Belizean and Mexican border to temporarily halt work, giving them enough time to salvage what they could.
''Cooperating is a win-win,'' he said. ``It helps preserve our heritage, and fosters incredibly good relations between companies and communities -- that you're not just here to make a quick buck.''