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A First Look at Sir Barry Bowen's Place in Modern Belize History

by Lan Sluder of

Sir Barry Bowen, 64, a seventh-generation Belizean, the country's most prominent entrepreneur and one of Belize's wealthiest men, a former Senator and financier of the People's United Party, died Friday, February 26, 2010, in the crash of a private airplane he was piloting.

The accident occurred about 5:30 p.m. on approach to the 3000-foot airstrip at San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, the resort island off the coast of Belize where Sir Barry had a home.

Four other people in the modified Cessna 206 with turbine Rolls-Royce engine also died in the crash: Michael Casey and Jill Casey, both teachers at Gallon Jug Community School on the Gallon Jug Estate, the Bowen property in northwestern Belize, and their two young children, 2 1/2-year-old Makayla and 5-month-old Bryce. The Caseys, from Albany, NY, had been teachers at Gallon Jug for nine years.

The cause of the crash is as yet unknown, although observers noted that there had been high winds earlier during the day. At least one eye witness reported that the Bowen Cessna appeared to come in low. The fixed landing gear or possibly a wing of the Cessna is believed to have clipped a barge pole. The aircraft then lost a wing and came to rest in a swampy area on the back side of the island. Reportedly an autopsy showed that Sir Bowen did not have a heart attack; Cessna and Rolls-Royce investigators are looking at possible mechanical malfunctions.

Sir Barry had been a licensed pilot for 43 years and almost daily flew his plane from Belize City, where his companies were based, to San Pedro. He formerly was a director of Belize's first national airline, Belize Airways Limited, established in 1976.

The Bowen business interests in Belize are extensive. They include Bowen and Bowen, Ltd., founded by Barry Bowen's father, Eric Bowen, which became the exclusive Belize bottler for Coca-Cola soft drinks and Crystal bottled water; Belize Brewing Company, which brews Belikin, Lighthouse and Belikin Supreme lager beers, Belikin stout and, under license, Guinness stout, and almost completely dominates the beer market in Belize; Belize Aquaculture Ltd., a large shrimp farm near Placencia in Stann Creek District; Gallon Jug Estate, a 130,000-acre tract in Orange Walk District that includes Chan Chich Lodge, a world-renowned jungle lodge, and Gallon Jug Agro-Industries, a 3,000-acre experimental farm that produces organic coffees (the only commercial coffee production in Belize), cacao and cattle; and Belize Estate Co., the Ford auto and truck dealership in Belize City.

Over the years, Barry Bowen had many other business interests, including an import business, a bakery, a quarry and aggregates business and a cargo business. He always invested in Belize, not taking his money outside of his native land.

Sir Barry, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2008 and was Honorary General Consul to Belize for the Kingdom of Norway, is survived by his wife, Dixie Summerscales Bowen, six children, several grandchildren and other family members.

A state funeral took place March 2 at St. John's Cathedral in Belize City. Sir Barry was interred next to his mother in Cayo.

A Central Figure in Belize's Modern History

Barry Bowen not only was the most prominent and best-known businessman in Belize, whose products touched nearly every Belizean and every visitor to Belize, but he also was a central figure in the political and economic history of modern Belize and a key link to the British Honduras past.

Although only 64, Bowen's career connected in some way to nearly every major development in the history of Belize. He owned the most storied (and also at times the most hated) business enterprise in the country's history, Belize Estate and Produce Company; he was a pioneer in the two industries that now dominate commerce in Belize, agriculture and tourism; he was a supporter, leader and major financier of the most powerful political party in the country, the People's United Party; and he proved himself one of the toughest and most capable entrepreneurs in modern Belize, using a combination of savvy marketing, hardball tactics and government connections to make Belikin beer and Coca-Cola soft drinks his personal cash cows.

Bowen could trace his roots in Belize back to the middle of the 18th century, when the first Bowen, from England, disembarked from a British ship and joined the ragtag band of Baymen at an encampment at the mouth of the Belize River. Over the decades, the Bowen family in British Honduras counted among its member a number of notables, including a physician and several successful business people and merchants.

Belize Estate and Produce Company

Barry Bowen's father, Eric Bowen, was not considered a particularly wealthy man, at least not in terms of cash flow, but as a "white Belizean" established in the British colony since before the days of the St. George's Caye battle with the Spanish, and with large real estate holdings, he had considerable social status. The family lived on the Southern Foreshore in Belize City. In the 1930s Eric started a lemonade factory, Bowen and Bowen, which eventually under his son, Barry, would become the highly profitable bottler of Coca-Cola and other soft drinks and beverages.

Eric Bowen was the last colonial owner of the Belize Estate and Produce Company. Belize Estate dates back at least to 1859, when the British Honduras Company, formed in England, bought James Hyde & Co., which owned large amounts of land in British Honduras. In 1875, the company changed its name to Belize Estate and Produce. Eventually Belize Estate and Produce Company owned over a million acres of land in Belize, about one-fifth of the entire country.

Belize Estate primarily was involved in the lumber business, cutting, sawing and exporting huge numbers of mahogany and other tropical hardwood trees. It was in many ways a typical colonial enterprise, exploiting the forests, exporting the colony's valuable assets and not investing in proper forest management programs. At one point the company, and its Scots, English and German managers, owned or controlled about one-half of all the private land in Belize. During the late 19th century through the mid-20th century, it was the most important economic and political force in Belize.

The Belize Estate and Produce Company was not known for its progressive labor relations. Historians say it treated its workers on the mahogany plantations almost like slaves, although slavery had been abolished in British Honduras in 1838.

As long as the world mahogany market remained strong, Belize Estate remained a powerful force in little Belize. However, by the turn of the 20th century the mahogany business was in decline, and if Belize prospered it was more from shipping and the trans-shipping of goods from Britain and the U.S. to other parts of Central America than from lumber.

In the aftermath of the devastating 1931 hurricane that killed as many as 3,000 people around Belize City, and with the Great Depression dragging down economic life in the British colony and further limiting lumber exports, Belize Estate began a period of decline.

In 1936, Robert Turton, a Creole millionaire who made his fortune from exporting chicle, defeated the expat manager of Belize Estate, C.H. Brown, in the first elections for colonial Legislative Council seats. Brown's defeat marked the beginning of the end of the domination of British enterprises in Belize and the beginning of the rise of Creole entrepreneurs with their commercial connections in the United States.

The depression years of the 1930s are considered the crucible of modern Belize. It was a time when workers organized in labor unions and fought against the power of old-line colonial leadership and of the Belize Estate and Produce Company. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, the labor unions, Belize nationalists and the Creole middle class in Belize City collaborated to form the People's United Party, which swept elections in 1954. With George Price at the helm, the PUP won all Belize elections until 1984, the first national election after Belize independence in 1981. The United Democratic Party, under Manuel Esquivel, won in 1984, but the PUP returned to power in 1989.

Belikin's Heady Brew

In 1978, just before independence, Barry Bowen bought Bowen and Bowen from his father. Bowen moved quickly to develop and exploit the opportunities he saw in the backwater of Belize. He developed the Coca-Cola franchise and turned Belikin, first brewed in the late 1960s, into the national drink of Belize.

Until Belikin came along, Belizeans mostly drank imported Heineken and Guinness stout. With a local beer now available, the PUP raised taxes on imports, and most Belizeans turned to Belikin.

However, in the early 1970s, a challenger to Belikin came along. Two brothers, Arturo and Orlando Matus, whose ancestors came to Belize as refugees from the Caste War in the Yucatán, started Charger beer. Belizeans seemed to think that Charger tasted better than Belikin.

The Matus brothers and Charger did well for a while, but then, as the story goes, Bowen and Bowen started buying up the empty Charger bottles. In Belize at that time all glass containers were imported into the country, at considerable cost. So bottling companies used only returnable bottles and paid for their return. Bowen paid a premium for the bottles and stored them in a warehouse. This eventually broke Charger because the company had to keep importing expensive bottles. The bank foreclosed on the company's loans, and Charger went out of business, leaving Belikin as the only beer in Belize.

While parts of this story may be apocryphal, and a similar story is told about how Bowen put the Pepsi distributor out of business, it is undoubtedly true that Barry Bowen and his managers were skilled beer marketers and operators. They created a nationwide distribution system of wholesale outlets and delivery trucks and barges that got beer to every bar and store in the nation. They advertised freely, became actively involved in community programs and developed popular merchandising efforts like the Belikin calendar, which annually features the most beautiful women of Belize.

Today, thanks in part to the virtual monopoly status granted by the Belize government to Bowen Brewing, Belikin controls nearly all of the beer market in Belize. The popular beers of neighboring Guatemala and Mexico cannot be imported into Belize, and only limited U.S. and foreign beers can be brought into the country. Although under recently imposed CARICOM rules beers such as Jamaica's Red Stripe and Heineken brewed in St. Kitts must be allowed into the Belize market, they are making little headway against the solidly entrenched Belikin and related Bowen brands.

The Minute Maid Problem

In the mid-1980s, Bowen was involved in an even more controversial, and potentially profitable, deal. Although some of the details are shaded in history, Bowen purchased or otherwise controlled nearly 700,000 acres of land in Orange Walk District, a heritage of the Belize Estate and Produce Company that Bowen bought from Billy Belote. Bowen reportedly planned to cut the remaining timber in the Orange Walk tracts as fuel for a wood-burning electric power station. However, Bowen ran into problems, and to avoid foreclosure he entered a purchase agreement with Coca-Cola Foods and a partnership of Houston investor-oilman Paul Howell and banker-developer Walter Mischer.

Malcolm Barnebey, a former U.S. ambassador to Belize, worked as a consultant to Howell and Mischer. The two investors, through Barnebey, reportedly paid US$6 million for some 100,000 acres and a 60% option on an additional 550,000 acres. This appeared to be a bargain price of under US$15 an acre. About 30% of the parcel went to Houston-based Coca-Cola Foods, which planned to grow oranges on at least 25,000 acres for its Minute Maid orange juice brand. This was a hedge, in frost-free Belize, against losses of citrus trees due to periodic cold weather in Florida (Minute Maid had suffered severely in the winter of 1983). Mischer and Howell got 30 percent of the land, and Bowen retained 40%.

Unfortunately for Coca-Coca and the entrepreneurs, international conservationists got wind of the plan to clear large areas of tropical forest. They threatened protests and boycotts of Coca-Cola. A loose coalition of conservationists, including the U.S. national Audubon Society, the Massachusetts and Belize Audubon societies, New York Zoological Society, Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and World Resources Institute, joined together to fight the land development deal.

Coca-Cola backed down, put plans for citrus growing in Belize on hold, and Coke donated a large tract of the land for a nature reserve. Barry Bowen divested himself of another large tract. Combined, the land became Programme for Belize's Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, consisting of 260,000 acres, the largest private nature reserve in Belize.

A Force in Aquaculture and an Innovator in Agriculture

Barry Bowen was an early adapter of advanced aquaculture technology. Bowen established Belize Aquaculture Ltd. in 1996. In 1997, he built a shrimp breeding center and pilot farm on the 14,000-acre Blair Atholl Estate in Stann Creek District. After demonstrating that Pacific white leg shrimp could be farmed successfully, using a technique called bio-floc shrimp farming, which encourages bacteria-dominated rather than algae-dominated shrimp ponds, he expanded production and by 2001 was producing over one million pounds of shrimp annually, and to 5 million pounds in 2004. Today, Belize Aquaculture has the capability of producing 18 million pounds of shrimp annually. Belize Aquaculture was the first commercial bio-floc shrimp farm in the world. The company claims that its technologies greatly reduce the impact on the environment, with zero water exchange, no net loss of mangroves and no salt water intrusion into fresh water aquifers. However, some environmentalists dispute that claim. BAL also built a state-of-the-art processing plant capable of handling 60,000 pounds of shrimp in an eight-hour shift.

While in aquaculture, Bowen went for volume, in agriculture he looked more toward innovation on a fairly small scale. On his 3,000-acre experimental farm at Gallon Jug, he imported high-quality Arabica coffee plants from Guatemala and began the first commercial coffee growing operation in Belize, using organic methods. The best Arabica coffees grow at elevations of 3,500 to 5,000 feet, so Belize is not ideal for coffee production, but Gallon Jug Estate coffees have proved popular, at least in a limited way.

Bowen also worked to develop a better type of beef for Belize. He crossbred local cattle with British Herefords, by artificial insemination, to produce tastier, less tough steak and hamburgers. The positive results can be enjoyed at the Riverside Tavern, a popular Bowen family restaurant in Belize City, which arguably serves the best hamburgers in Belize.

Gallon Jug also farms cacao.

Pioneer in Upscale Tourism

Tourism, along with agriculture, are the largest industries in Belize. Barry Bowen seemingly never believed in the great potential in mass tourism that some others saw, preferring instead to invest in industries such as aquaculture. Although he owned valuable seafront property on Ambergris Caye, Belize's number one tourist destination, he didn't open a resort there.

However, he did develop a pioneering upscale jungle lodge, Chan Chich Lodge, on Gallon Jug Estate lands. Built literally on top of a Maya plaza, the lodge has only 12 thatch-roof caba�as, plus a two-bedroom villa. Americans Tom and Josie Harding supervised the construction of the lodge, which opened in 1988, and stayed on as managers until 2001. Ben and Amanda Dodge currently manage the lodge. (Amanda Dodge is the sister of Jill Casey, who was killed in the crash.) Chan Chich Lodge is widely considered among the top few jungle lodges in Central America, and one of the best in the world.

Bowen also was a director and investor in Belize Airways Limited, Belize's first national airline. It was established in 1976 and began service in 1977. The airline for a time had a fleet of Boeing 720Bs, a version of the 707 that seated 112, and linked the old Stanley International Airport with Miami and San Salvador.

Controversies, Contradictions and Contributions

Barry Bowen's life was not without its controversies and contradictions.

Although he actively supported many conservation causes, and was a friend and supporter of the Belize Zoo and its director Sharon Matolo, he was an advocate of the construction of the Chalillo Dam, which Matolo strongly opposed due to destruction of habitat for the Scarlet Macaw and other birds and animals. Bowen said that Gallon Jug has the healthiest population of wildlife in Belize and that there is "no wildlife in the Chalillo area that is of any more significance."

Bowen also was criticized by some, including some travel writers, for building his jungle lodge on a Maya site. Lord Smoking Shell, an ancient Mayan chief, will roll over in his grave, wrote one. For his part, Bowen said the location of the lodge protected the site from looters.

Although Bowen claimed his shrimp farm operations were designed to protect the environment, some conservationists in Placencia believed that Belize Aquaculture polluted the Placencia Lagoon. Bowen wrote several feisty articles in The Belize Times and other newspapers arguing his perspective and putting down conservationists, such as Placencia resident Mary Toy, who opposed him. He wrote, "I am very proud of what I have contributed to the protection of our environment. I apologize to no one for having made good investments and I enjoy the appreciation shown to me by the many people and organizations that I help on a constant basis."

Known for his generous charitable contributions, Bowen once donated US$50,000 to the construction of the Lion's Club clinic in San Pedro. Through his efforts and loan guarantees the bridge to North Ambergris finally was built.

Bowen and the woman who would become his wife, Dixie Summerscales, established the Island Academy, a private primary school in San Pedro. Dixie became director of the school.

The two first met in 1980 in San Pedro. It was the second marriage for both.

While praised for doing good, Bowen also was vigorously attacked for his monopolistic control of the beer business in Belize. A long-time PUP supporter, he reportedly helped finance the party, and some political observers believed that legislation giving Belize Brewing its monopoly was in payment for Bowen's support.

Prime Minister Said Musa appointed him to the Belize Senate in 1998, and Bowen served until he resigned in 2005. His resignation was, in part, it is believed, due to his opposition to higher excise taxes on beer imposed by the PUP.

In 2008, Bowen joined with the Belize Landowners Association in bringing an action against the government involving the proposed amendment to Section Seventeen of the Belize Constitution that, he claimed, would in effect take away from private landowners guarantees of the protection from deprivation of property, a right to compensation and a right to access the courts, especially as regards petroleum and mineral rights. Ironically, it has recently been noted that Gallon Jug lands are a likely area for oil exploration.

None Like Him Again

Admired or distrusted, envied or loved, Sir Barry Bowen was a one of a kind. He made his mark on nearly every major event in his lifetime. Bold and full of life, ambitious and willing to take a risk, a man of vision and large plans, he was a multi-millionaire who achieved things. There will be none like him again in Belize.

--By Lan Sluder,

Joined: Sep 2002
Posts: 1,054
It is a small world. Billy Belote is from Dublin, GA (where I was born) and a relative of my family on my grandmother's side. I remember when Billy bought that land. Billy's half-brother Warren Fraser and my uncle Cavata Currie went down to visit as potential investors. I would have never put it together had it not been for this post.

Last edited by KathyA; 03/22/10 09:02 PM.

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