Belize - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Belize
Formation 1981 / 1981
Population 300,000 / 34 people per sq mile (13 people per sq km)
Total area 8867 sq. miles (22,966 sq. km)
Languages English Creole, Spanish, English*, Mayan, Garifuna (Carib)
Religions Roman Catholic 62%, Other 16%, Anglican 12%, Methodist 6%, Mennonite 4%
Ethnic mix Mestizo 49%, Creole 25%, Maya 11%, Garifuna 6%, Other 6%, Asian Indian 3%
Government Parliamentary system
Currency Belizean dollar = 100 cents
Literacy rate 75%
Calorie consumption 2719 kilocalories
Between the 16th century B.C.E. and the 4th century C.E., the Mayan civilization flourished in what is now Belize. In the centuries that followed, that civilization declined due to drought, famine, and inept leadership. Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) was the first European to land there in 1502, but the Spanish thought the region unimportant and mostly ignored it. In the 1600s, English and Scottish pirates enjoyed the safety provided by Belize’s great reef but turned to logging when English lumberjacks arrived from Jamaica to establish a settlement on the banks of the Belize River.
In the 1700s Spain tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the British from Belize. Between September 3 and September 10, 1798, a series of battles, which became known collectively as the Battle of St. George’s Caye, were fought between the Spanish and the British around the islands and reefs off the Belizean coast. These momentous battles, in which the British defeated the Spanish, are celebrated as a national holiday in Belize. In 1862 while the United States, embroiled in its own civil war, was too preoccupied to enforce the Monroe Doctrine (which had declared the Western Hemisphere off-limits to further colonization), Belize was officially made a British colony.
During the course of the 20th century several constitutional changes were implemented to expand representative government in the territory. The British granted full-fledged internal self-government to Belize in January 1964. However, the government of Guatemala claimed that Belize was rightfully a Guatemalan territory, and territorial disputes between the United Kingdom and Guatemala delayed Belize’s independence.
In June 1973 the official name of the territory was changed from British Honduras to Belize. At long last in September 1981, the United Kingdom agreed to grant complete independence to Belize, even though Guatemala refused to drop its claim and recognize Belize as a nation until 1992.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Located on the Caribbean Sea, Belize is south of Mexico and east and north of Guatemala in Central America. Along the coast, mangrove swamps and cays (pronounced “keys”) give way to hills and mountains in the interior. Most of the country is heavily forested with various hardwoods. The highest point is Victoria Peak, 3,681 feet. Belize’s barrier reef, at 180 miles in length, is the longest in the Western Hemisphere.
The climate of Belize is subtropical, with high humidity, especially along the coast, that averages 83 percent. Many days, however, cooling breezes off the Gulf of Mexico keep the humidity from feeling oppressive. The coastal area is exposed to southeast trade winds that have an uncanny consistency in July.
Temperatures in Belize range from 50°F to 95°F, with an annual mean of 79°F. The coolest months are usually November to January, while May to September are the warmest, averaging 81°F. Location is a big factor for temperature in Belize. Cayo to the west can be several degrees cooler than the temperature along the coast, and in the mountains the mean annual temperature is 72°F.
The weather patterns in Belize can be dramatically changed by two meteorological disturbances: northers and hurricanes. Northers are cold, wet air masses from the northeast, usually pushed south by large arctic air masses from November to February.
In Belize these northers bring heavy rains, choppy seas, and colder-than-normal temperatures. While northers may cause some discomfort, hurricanes are dangerous, violent storms frequent between June and October. Although Belize rarely experiences hurricanes, when they strike, they are devastating.
Tourism is the most lucrative industry in Belize. In spite of the expansionary monetary policies in place since 1998, Belize continues to be plagued by high rates of unemployment, a large trade deficit, and foreign debt. The high crime rate, as well as involvement in the South American drug and sex trades, are factors the country is trying to rein in. Nevertheless Belize is a transit and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of labor and sexual exploitation. Exact numbers of trafficking victims are unknown, particularly the number of transnational trafficking victims, given Belize’s long and porous borders.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Even though Belize’s population is relatively small, it is diverse, composed of several ethnocultural communities separated by language, culture, occupation, and residence: Mestizo, Creole, Garifuna, Mayan, Chinese, Syrian-Lebanese, East Indian, and Mennonite.
This diversity is evident in the various languages, religions, cuisines, styles of dress, and folklore. All have left their marks in one way or another, and the music of Belize especially reflects the traditions of the various ethnic groups.
The Maya, already in decline when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, left behind temple complexes aligned with the movements of heavenly bodies.
Lamanai, which means “submerged crocodile” in Mayan, has 60 large structures, a small temple, and a ball court. It was occupied as early as 1500 B.C.E., and was a major ceremonial center before other sites were built. Xunantunich, another major Mayan ceremonial center, was built on a hilltop near the Belize River but may have been abandoned around 900 C.E. after an earthquake. Its tallest remaining structure El Castillo rises 131 feet above the surrounding jungle.
Most of the Belizean festivals are religious in nature and express the cultural traditions of the Maya and Carib, the indigenous peoples. The celebrations of festivals, whether religious or musical, include participants from the various ethnic groups that inhabit Belize. For instance, punta rock—a modern musical interpretation of a Garifuna cultural dance—is performed by drummers and local artists during various festivals. The punta dance, in which women wear long dresses sewn from checkered material along with colored headdresses, is Belize’s most popular dance. Belizeans are also passionate about bicycle racing, kite flying, and horse racing, and these activities are featured during a number of festivals.
Belize is home to several cultures, and each has contributed to the national cuisine, from Creole rice and beans, Mestizo chimole, Mayan caldo, and Garifuna hudut to East Indian curries. Many of the local animals once used in indigenous dishes, for example, the hawksbill turtle and gibnut (similar to a guinea pig), or paca, are now protected species. The staple dish is rice and beans, a Creole dish. Belize beans and rice, also known as stewed beans and white rice, is much like rice and beans except that the beans and rice are cooked separately, and the rice is cooked in coconut milk. Another Creole staple is seré, which usually contains fish in a seasoned coconut sauce with okra and ground cassava (manioc) and cocoa.
Creole seré resembles hudut, a Garifuna recipe.
One kind of hudut is made with coconut milk and mashed plantain; another is more like a spicy fish stew. The “heat” will depend on whether habanero or the milder jalapeño peppers are used. Coconuts are plentiful in Belize, and every part is used, even the dried husk, which turns up in the country’s ornamental arts or as the starter for a barbecue fire. Its grated flesh is used in familiar recipes, such as coconut pies or tarts, and in local specialties like coconut crust (sweetened grated coconut baked in a folded flour crust), tablata (a mixture of grated coconut, thinly sliced ginger, sugar, and water, baked and cut into squares), or cut-o-brute, made with chunks of coconut rather than the grated flesh.
Dishes incorporated from the Mestizo culture include tacos, tamales, panadas, and meat pies.
A young man interested in courting, and possibly marrying, a young woman in Belize needs to obtain permission from the girl’s parents to visit her at her home, in the presence of all her family members. On the wedding day as the bride takes her last walk as a single woman on her way to the church, friends and townspeople wish her well by throwing gifts in her path and paying her compliments.