Many urban adults have fond memories of childhoods in rural areas or at least spending idyllic vacations with rural relatives. It was great fun to sit and tell stories in the evenings by the light of lamps; even taking turns with the hand pump to fill the water barrel was amusing; fruit picked straight from the backyard and fish caught in the river tasted better than supermarket fare. As adults we sometimes want to go back to that simpler time we remember and take vacations that mimic the best aspects of this simplicity. However, life for rural residents is often difficult with limited opportunities, long hours of hard manual work and lack of leisure activities. Rural folk want electricity, potable water and modern sewerage systems and they need expanded job opportunities. This can create some tension between those who want everything to remain unchanged and those clamouring for change.
Many people remember when San Pedro was a small fishing village with no electricity or water system and not a single instance of motorized transport; some may even remember the summer scout camping trips. Others will recall the picturesque village of Placencia with its narrow foot paths and laid back ambience. The development of these two locations into prime tourism destinations was initiated largely by foreign visitors who were initially attracted by the lack of development they found. Some took advantage of the low cost of prime real estate, relocated to Belize and gradually changed the face of their adopted home. The local folk were at first amazed that these “crazy” foreigners were willing to buy their properties for what seemed to them at the time to be greatly inflated prices and cashed in on the bonanza. Unfortunately, their children and grandchildren are now largely locked out of their ancestral lands whose prices are far above their reach. The large scale developments that have occurred since then have been financed by foreign investment and much of the benefit therefore remains outside of the hands of the original residents.
Although Governments welcome foreign investment as the only proven method of bringing greater development they are also mindful of the need to ensure that the benefits are as evenly distributed as possible. It would be remiss in its duty if it allowed the voices of those who have already gained so much to prevent developments that would bring prosperity to those who have so far gained little. Some of the same voices raised against Harvest Caye were also against the new pier that has just been opened in Placencia and that promises more opportunities to local entrepreneurs. Even if it is true that Harvest Caye would negatively affect established resorts in Placencia (and this is by no means certain) this has to be balanced against the more widespread benefits it could bring to the area. Had Belize stopped all development in San Pedro and Placencia after the first 10 resorts opened those resorts would have prospered but there would be no space for the thousands of Belizean entrepreneurs who now work in these locations. The residents of Placencia have a right to decide that the village will not entertain parties of cruise visitors if that is the decision of the majority of residents but a vocal minority cannot decide policy for the whole Southern part of the country.
It is true that development is destructive in the sense that existing jobs are destroyed while new ones form. The invention of the mechanical spinning wheel destroyed the livelihoods of manual spinners; the development of the automobile put horse and carriage makers out of business and the computer and the internet have changed the way that we do business. The correct response is not to try to shut down change but to manage it to minimize disruption and assist those who are negatively affected. Regulations and environmental safeguards are imperative to ensure that carrying capacity of various sites is not exceeded; training and retraining for the different opportunities must be considered well in advance so that there are qualified local people to fill the new job openings; existing resorts must be invited to be a part of the planning (but not to hold veto power!).
Hopefully, we have learned something from history. The memorandum of understanding with NCL already has safeguards and more can be included in the final contract to ensure that the benefits of development are spread widely. Any agreement on Stake Bank must follow similar lines if it is to succeed. Change is never easy but our choice is not to stop it, for that is impossible, but to manage it as prudently as possible.The Guardian