The first industry of Belize, the history books say, was piracy. Way back in the 1600s, pirates established a base at the mouth of the Belize River, and from that safe haven they sailed out to sea to raid Spanish ships and take the plunder those vessels flying the “red and gold” had robbed from areas farther south in the Americas.
The next great industry for Belize was logwood, which was prized for dyes to color clothing. Logwood lost its luster after synthetic dyes were developed, and that industry died naturally. Belize had the finest quality mahogany in the world and that soon became the mainstay of the Belizean economy.
For a couple hundred years Belize’s economy depended on mahogany, with a little support from chicle. Incredibly, Belize did not replant the priceless mahogany and other forest woods it harvested, and by the early 1900s exports of forest products had begun to dwindle.
In the first part of the 1900s banana became king in the Caribbean and Central America, and Belize invested in the crop, but the industry was wiped out by a disease in the 1920s. Belize struggled to survive during the two world wars and the world depression in 1929, and after the devaluation of the Belize dollar in 1949.
In the 1960s, Belize’s leaders turned the country’s focus away from forestry, and into agriculture. Sugar soon became the country’s dominant export, followed by citrus products. Marine products became an export earner with the organization of fishing cooperatives. Beginning in the 1970s, Belize invested to revive its banana industry. In the 1980s, Belize began making investments in tourism and farmed shrimps.
Our agricultural industries led the way in Belize through the last quarter of the 1900s and well into the present century, until the ravages of diseases, and depressed prices for our agricultural products on the world markets, sent most of these industries into a downward spiral.
At this time the banana industry is just about the only one in agriculture that is holding its head above water. Banana production is fragile because the banana is susceptible to strong winds and cold weather, but it has a quick bounce back because it only takes one year for a sucker to produce a mature bunch of bananas.
Citrus is going through the worst of times, and it is all to do with a disease called “citrus greening” which was first detected in the industry around 2009. Citrus greening has just about halved the production of citrus fruits since, and all the forecasts say it will take some years before the industry is healthy again. In the meantime, while the industry waits for young groves to come into production, and for researchers to develop programs, and plants that are tolerant to greening, this industry is dependent on loans and the resilience of farmers who have weathered big storms before.
Farmed shrimp actually rose to become a top export earner for the country, but the industry has been down a number of years now. It is unfortunate that when the Prime Minister said in his New Year’s Day address that “shrimp began its rebound, leading a third quarter marine exports increase of 43.6%”, he wasn’t contemplating one of our fabulous years, 2004, when fisheries exports were valued at Bz$106.8 million, with lobster contributing $15.1 million, conch $5.2 million, and farmed shrimp $84.3 million (according to an FAO report drawn from Belize Fisheries Department data).
The 2017 Central Bank report said farmed shrimp was down for the fourth consecutive year, plummeting by “26.6% to 1.1 mn pounds, as farmers reduced production further, while struggling to control the EMS bacterial disease. Receipts declined by 28.2% to $9.9mn…” But, any increase is a light in the dark, and we all know the inspiration that can be drawn from a lit candle after nightfall. Hopefully it’s not just a firefly passing through. Shrimp producers and shrimp workers, like those in the citrus industry, have endured too many long days and nights because of serious diseases.
Sugar remains the top export earner in agriculture ($148.1 million in 2017 (Central Bank)), but the industry isn’t earning enough for most farmers to make a profit. The volume of sugar produced has increased, with Santander production added, but improvements in processing and harvesting have not translated to more pay per ton of sugarcane produced for farmers because of very depressed prices for our product. At this time our farmers are just holding on, hoping that things will turn around.
Government hasn’t stopped investing in agriculture, but what is clear is that we are in need of an infusion of new ideas. The sugar factory is investing in the production of “plantation white sugar” for the Caribbean market, and citrus and shrimp are talking about survival. Belize is stuck in the primary production phase, with little to no investment in light manufacturing/processing for export and to increase shelf life of our products for consumption at home. It is argued in some quarters that we are constrained by a too small population, but there are quarters which see opportunity if there was serious government support for their initiatives/innovation.
With all the old staples down, Belize is chugging along on receipts from tourism, new jobs in BPO, and borrowing.
In the 1980s, the industry that Hon. George Price had denied (okay, not encouraged), began its journey to the top. Tourism has grown almost every year, and 2017 was regular fare, with the Central Bank informing of “increases of 9.1% and 0.9% in overnight and cruise ship visitors” which “lifted net travel receipts up by 10.8% to $752.4mn.” That’s a fantastic figure, but it is difficult to figure out how much tourism actually contributes to national coffers.
The Central Bank report for 2017 says “Net outflows from the primary income account rose by 40.3% to $310.8mn, mostly as a result of increased profit repatriation by foreign-owned entities in the tourism, electricity and banking industries.” Much of our eggs are in this tourism basket, but we really don’t know how much it contributes to our economy because the bulk of its earnings don’t circulate in our country.
A new employer, BPO (business process outsourcing), has contributed greatly to ease the pressure in the labor market. It can be said that without BPO, there would be riots in Belize. Mr. Mike Singh, a CEO in the Ministry of Trade, talking about BPOs in a BELTRAIDE report, said BPOs started from one center in 2005 and had expanded to 18 centers employing over 2,200 agents with projections to employ “3,000 agents by 2015.”
A July 2018 report, Belize in the Offshore Services Global Value Chain, by Vivian Couto and Karina Fernandez-Stark (prepared for Duke Global Value Chains Center), said information gathered from BELTRAIDE showed that there were 21 BPO centers employing 2,764 agents in 2016. It is possible that BPO has plateaued, but absorbing 3,000 workers is considerable.
The only other big player in Belize’s economy at this time is borrowing, and the bulk of it is going toward road infrastructure. The “works” will employ many people. This is good. But two of the roads are questionable.
A lot of investment has gone into improving the highway between the Philip Goldson Airport and Belize City, and no one complains about that, but there is a lot of head-scratching over the decision to make a link road from the airport to Mile 8 on the George Price Highway. Government has not yet explained the need for that road.
The road to Caracol has raised eyebrows to maximum stretching point. Originally, the government had mentioned that it was borrowing BZ$80 million for works on this road, but in his New Year’s Day address the Prime Minister announced that thanks to Kuwait and OFID, the road to Caracol is fully funded “to the tune of almost 90 million US dollars.”
Belizeans have asked questions about these investments. The Prime Minister said, in his New Year’s Day address, that he didn’t “quite understand how building out the country’s critical infrastructure is not an investment in people.” A number of people don’t consider those two roads to be “critical infrastructure.”
What some of us don’t quite understand is why the borrowing isn’t being done to invest in building small factories to can our excess/waste farm and marine produce, make breakfast cereals, and produce garments. We want to know why there are no investments to produce ethanol for fuel. Those are also investments in people.