How Colonialism Underdeveloped Belize
olonialism created a pattern of underdevelopment in Belize. This pattern of relying only on forestry instead of developing the land created poverty and hardship for the workers and their families.
In the early 20th century, the forest industry revived for a short time. Mahogany and a new product, chicle, became the main export items. The United States began to import chicle, a gum taken from the sapodilla tree, to make chewing gum.
From1929 until 1940 the economy of the United States collapsed. We call this the Great Depression. This caused the price of timber to fall. Later on, with the development of a chemical substitute for chicle, forestry declined again. Belize still did not have a good road system, loggers had to go farther and farther to find unused forests, and forestry continued to be managed badly. The Belize Estate and Produce Company started the first sawmill in Belize in 1933, but forestry still declined. Even as late as the 1950's foresters had not learned to care for the land and manage the industry by replanting the forests.
All this time, however, mahogany remained the major export. Cedar and chicle were the next most important. Together these forest products made up 97 per cent of the forest production and 82 per cent of the total exports in 1935. Production costs continued to get higher, but the demand was low and prices went down.
The mahogany workers suffered the most. For example, in 1913 and 1914, 1,717 workers were paid an average of $12.64 a month. In the next season, 1914-15, only 714 workers were hired, at an average monthly wage of $8.21. Employment was insecure and seasonal. When mahogany was in demand and the prices were high more people were hired. When the industry was doing badly, the workers were paid less or lost their jobs. After the Great Depression, the forest industry never recovered.
The mahogany landowners kept their power over the land until the middle of the 20th century. From 1859 the B.E.C. owned half of the best private land in Belize while a handful of others owned most of the other half. At the end of World War II, the distribution of land was almost the same as it had been at the end of the 19th century.
After the war many of the landowners sold their lands to the owners of other large estates. Most of these new owners were from the United States of America. Instead of using the land, they sold it again at a profit.
Even though the land was being bought and sold ownership remained in the hands of a few. A study as late as 1971 showed that 3 per cent of the landowners held 95 per cent of the land, and 91 per cent of the landowners held only 1 per cent in small plots. This study also showed that over 90 per cent of the freehold land in the country was owned by foreigners, and most of the land was not being used.
There were some attempts at commercial agriculture in the early 20th century. All failed in the period before World War II.
Since 1883, bananas were exported in small but increasing amounts. In 1911 the industry looked so promising that the United Fruit Company from the United States of America bought the Middlesex Estate in the Stann Creek District. A railway from the valley to a pier near Dangriga was built for the transportation of bananas. But plant disease, poor production methods and marketing problems were major obstacles to the success of the project. By the 1930's production stopped.
The Krammer Estates grew coffee and cocoa. Tropical Oil Products experimented with cohune. There was also an Empire Starch Products Company. None of them survived for very long.
The colonial government started small land settlements in the 1930's. This was mostly to relieve the unemployment in Belize Town. Settlers were given poor lands, no secure land titles, and no help with producing or marketing their crops. After the 1931 hurricane, $200,000 of Hurricane Loan money was set aside for agricultural settlement, but in reality less than $70,000 was spent on agriculture. Instead most of the money was used to help the B.E.C.
Apart from the small citrus industry in Stann Creek, and the small sugar industry in Corozal, the only cultivation was the subsistence farming of Maya, Garifuna, East Indian, and a few Creole farmers. This was done on small plots and most of the farmers had to work in other occupations to earn extra money.
Agriculture could not succeed without infrastructure for transporting or marketing the produce. But the colonial government had built few roads or other means of transportation. The government was not interested in developing agriculture and did not help farmers learn more about how to cultivate and expand their plots. Because of these circumstances, the suppression of agriculture continued into the 20th century.
When the economy does not improve, other aspects of life - social, political, cultural and educational - do not improve.
Belize was a society divided by race and class. Racism developed in Belize when the first Africans were brought here as slaves. We saw in Chapter 6 how the colonialists used the principle of divide and rule to keep the different peoples of Belize apart.
People were also divided by their religion, by where they lived, by occupation, by colour and by class. Divisions between people also occurred because communications were bad throughout the colony. It was very difficult to travel from one place to another and there was little contact between cultures or ways of life. Each group was encouraged to hate and fear the others, to feel as if they were better than every other group. They were taught to respect and identify with white leaders, the merchants and landowners who controlled the economy.
Those who accepted these ideas were rewarded. They could get better jobs, invitations to the Government House, or mentions on the King's Honours List. A civil service job would often get them noticed and provide these benefits.
Education was not a high priority for the colonial administration. In any case, British and later United States missionaries had already stepped in to run primary and secondary schools throughout the colony. The educational system, however, remained colonial. Students were taught how to be good British subjects. They learned more about Britain and Europe than about the Caribbean or the Americas, and even less about their own country Belize, the Caribbean or the Americas. They were encouraged to memorize facts rather than think for themselves.
Lack of opportunities also created divisions. The economy was based on mahogany export and most men became mahogany workers. The people were not encouraged to farm or start their own businesses. The best paid jobs were held by, the white and light-skinned Creole elite.
In this stagnant and unjust society, the small farmer, the worker and the unemployed were those who suffered most. And it was this working class who challenged and eventually changed the system.