Beautiful and Corrupt

A couple of weeks ago I went to a retirement party for a friend of mine.  The woman who sat next to me was friendly and funny, and the conversation immediately turned into, what do you do for a living?   I told her that I’m a writer and mentioned How to Cook a Tapir:  A Memoir of Belize.   “I’d like to go there,” she said, “but I keep hearing how corrupt it is.  Is that right?”

What remains of the temple at Nohmul: nothing except the top of an archway.  (Photo by CNN)

What remains of the temple at Nohmul: nothing except the top of an archway. (Photo by CNN)

She was a nice woman, so I gave her a truthful answer.  “Yes, it’s corrupt,” I said.  “Beautiful but corrupt.”

I was thinking about the deliberate destruction of the ancient Maya city of Noh Mul in Orange Walk District, located in northern Belize.

The story broke last year, on May 13, 2013 in the Huffington Post:  “A construction company has essentially destroyed one of Belize’s largest Mayan pyramids with backhoes and bulldozers to extract crushed rock for a road-building project, authorities announced on Monday.”

A day or two later, CNN ran an account on-line:  “A Mayan pyramid that has stood for 2,300 years in Belize has been reduced to rubble, apparently to make fill for roads.”  The article quoted Jaime Awe, director of the Institute of Archaeology in Belize, who called the destruction ‘“one of the worse set of blows I have felt philosophically and professionally.’”

News.nationalgeographic.com also ran the story:  “A construction company in Belize has been scooping stone out of the major pyramid at the site of Nohmul (meaning Big Mound), one of only 15 ancient Maya sites important enough to be noted on the National Geographic World Atlas.”

The BBC on-line ran the story too:  “Head of the Belizean Institute of Archaeology Jaime Awe said the Noh Mul temple was levelled [sic] by a road-building company seeking gravel for road filler.”  The author of the article noted that “The Maya complex lies on private land but under Belizean law, any pre-Hispanic ruins come under government protection.”

Dr. John Morris, also of the Institute of Archaeology, stated that the perpetrators had to have been aware of what they were doing.  “It is incredible that someone would actually have the gall to destroy this building out here,” he told local TV Channel News 7.  “There is absolutely no way that they would not know that these are Maya mounds.”  Added Morris, “This is one of the worst [examples of destruction] that I have seen in my entire 25 years of archaeology in Belize. We can’t salvage what has happened out here—it is an incredible display of ignorance.”

Believe it or not, it gets worse.  According to the same BBC account, the destruction of “irreplaceable Maya sites has happened before.”  American archaeologist Professor Normand Hammond noted that ‘“Bulldozing Maya mounds for road fill is an endemic problem in Belize.”’  According to CNN, the pyramid “stood about 65 feet tall and was built around 250 B.C. with hand-cut limestone bricks.”  The limestone is “quality material” that is “prized by contractors,” and for that reason is often “used to upgrade local roads,” charged local opposition legislator John Briceno on CTV3 News in Belize.

When the archaeologists were interviewed, they said they planned to “ask police to take action against both the landowner and contractor.”  The deliberate destruction of ancient Maya cites carries a ten-year prison term or a $10,000 fine.

On May 15, CNN ran another story about the site.  Reporter Brad Lendon noted that “the local chapter of the Belize Tourism Industry Association alleged in a statement that local government officials have been complicit in the destruction of ancient sites like Noh Mul.  ‘“Noh Mul had been one of the ancient monuments with the greatest tourism development potential in northern Belize,’ the Association said. ‘Unfortunately, such progress has been severely hampered due to the ignorance and greed of certain individuals.’”  Other sources were not shy about identifying those individuals—politicians who hold office under the current Prime Minister, Dean Barrow.  Even though the country has three Maya-speaking ethnic groups, Yucatec, Kekchi, and Mopan, the Maya are not, and never have been, represented in the Belizean government.  But they have their defenders.  ‘“More sites have been destroyed in Orange Walk by the Ministry of Works and others for road fill material than in any other part of the country,’ the Belize Tourism Industry Association said it was told by an unnamed senior government official.”

Has the construction company responsible been identified?  Yes.  The foreman and three of the workers operating heavy equipment that day have all been publicly identified, as was the owner of the property.  Has anyone been charged?  No.  And that’s as of right now—almost a year after the pyramid was destroyed.  No one in Dean Barrow’s government, including the Ministry of Works or anyone who works for him—has been charged.  Is that how the Belize government “protects” the country’s irreplaceable ancient Maya ruins?  If you would like to tell the Prime Minister that this is a tragedy of international proportions (he doesn’t seem to realize that), e-mail or phone Dean Barrow and tell him so:  PrimeMinister@belize.gov.bz 501-822-2886.

Is Belize corrupt?  Yes.  And, unfortunately, beautiful as well.

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Better Than Genocide

Here are a couple of stories about Belize City that aren’t in my book.

Chronologically, the country now known as Belize was “discovered” by Spanish explorers, settled by English pirates, loggers, and farmers.  But none of them were the country’s first inhabitants.  That honor goes to the indigenous people of Belize—the Maya, whose vast stone monuments dot the landscape like gold nuggets among the stones of a riverbed.

Better Than Genocide (Photo by Joan Fry)

Lubaantun, one of the many Maya ruins in Belize.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

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Looting Their Own Past

Archaeologists working on newly-discovered sites tend to be very evasive about their exact whereabouts.  Here they have discovered something new—something the rest of the world has never seen—but if they brag about it, they risk losing it.  The biggest danger to any new archaeological find is usually local people—in this case the modern Maya themselves—who know somebody, who in turn knows somebody in the black market, who knows somebody willing to buy Maya artifacts.  There may be more ancient Maya artifacts illegally owned by private collectors than there are in museums.  Belize itself owns very few artifacts found in its country.

Looted Tomb

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