Our Community - San Pedro (part II)

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 14, No. 40            November 18, 2004

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The first settlers were squatters and had not been charged rent until the Blake/Alamilla/ Parham family had come into possession of the Caye. On several occasions, they petitioned the Governor to render whatever assistance he could. Through very short correspondence, the Governor responded that because the land was privately owned there was nothing that he could do. This continued until Belize became self-governing in 1964 and the People's United Party came to their assistance by purchasing land, having it surveyed and issuing lots to the settlers.

    Prior to the 1920's, lobsters were considered "trash fish," more likely to be swept off the dock than harvested. The waters were "infested" with them, and annoyingly got caught in the fishermen's nets. A few years later, the spiny lobsters were being herded like cattle onto the beaches, the clear waters turned red with the herd. By the 1950s, the "trash fish" were the base of the island's economy. The arrival of the freezer vessel Betty Jean marked the introduction of the island to the market. No money was paid to the islanders until the lobsters were sold, and once a shipment of 4,000 pounds was never paid for.

    20-30 foot boats carried the men to the lobster grounds, which began to encompass Turneffe Atolls, Lighthouse Reef, and the Blue Hole as the closer grounds became fished out. This required longer trips, and the method of catch became skin diving to catch lobsters in the deeper waters. Skin diving is now the hallmark method of the San Pedrano lobster fisherman.

    An attempt to eliminate the middleman was behind the rise of the co-operatives in the 1950's and 1960's. Hard bargaining and the last minute help of an American freezer company saved the day when the two major buyers attempted to bust the co-operative in 1960. One company, Del Caribe, announced they would pay a penny a pound. The fishermen, stuck with a huge opening day harvest, thus with their backs to the wall, had to boycott both buyers. Butcher Scott held the lobsters in his cold storage long enough for the negotiations to occur. By late 1960, the co-operative was able to sell the 4,000 pounds held in storage. They did better and better each year.

    Attempts to organize a co-operative in San Pedro began in late 1961. Every fisherman was contacted, but many were skeptical. Twenty men finally agreed to join, and letters were filed to begin the process of legality. Finally, in March of 1963, the San Pedro co-operative was registered under the name Caribeña Producers Co-operative Society Limited. Some had to use their homes and property as collateral. The Caribbean Queen Company agreed to purchase and export the lobsters under the co-operative's quota. The co-operative received lobsters from the members on the beach in front of the village. After learning from this initial arrangement, the co-operative attempted to get a freezer plant on the island. When this fell through, the co-operative decided to stop selling to Caribbean and begin to deal with a company headed by Apolonio Alamilla.

    Through 1964, the co-operative exported through local agents. This kept the price down, and the market was a dollar and four cents a pound, despite rising prices in the US. These years also brought the beginnings of the export of conch and scale fish as well, providing an alternate product for the fishermen of Ambergris Caye to sell. Since lobster was now a commodity for fishermen, a four-month lobster season was also mandated.

    In 1964, negotiations for a freezer plant were finally completed. This plant allowed annual production to hit 179,132 pounds in 1965. The record high of 184,000 pounds was in 1984. The co-operative and its 217 members were then the backbone of the community, which nearly put a halt to coconut farming and work in the bush.

    A growing scarcity of product and the growth of tourism have resulted in a decline in the membership of the co-operative today. Production in 1992-1993 was an annual low of 18,000 pounds. Today, tourism is the economic heavy. Beginning with the Holiday Hotel, started by the Grief family in November of 1965 and built with a foundation of ground conch shells, began attracting the tourism, which is the basis of the economy now. In 1967, The Paradise Hotel opened, and by 1970, The Coral Beach Hotel had established the first dive shop. Tourist accommodations started popping up all over the place, and some local folks converted rooms or build small guesthouses on their land. Visitors remember this personalized atmosphere and laid-back style. It became a trademark for San Pedro.

    More and more fishermen began to add to their income by serving as fishing or diving guides for tourists. Guiding came naturally to them, as it involved things that are important to their way of life - fishing, snorkeling, sailing. As fishing declined, tourism increased.

    In 1984, San Pedro officially went from being a village to a town. Victoria House was built, and the airstrip began getting a little more business. The tourist industry began to grow faster.

    Today the island's prosperity is dependent on tourism. Innumerable job opportunities created by tourism and related activities have attracted people from throughout Belize and new immigrants from Central America mix with the island population. Although official figures reflect a population of about 10,000, it can be estimated that close to 12,000 people reside on the island, half of who are new arrivals.

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