Belize, formerly British Honduras, is a country on the east coast of Central America. Belize borders Mexico to the north, Guatemala to the south and west, and the Caribbean Sea to the east. The mainland is about 290 km long and 110 km wide.
With an area of 22,800 square kilometers and a population of 368,310 (2015), Belize has the lowest population density in Central America. The country’s population growth rate of 1.87% per year (2015) is the second highest in the region and one of the highest in the Western Hemisphere.
The richness of terrestrial and marine species and the diversity of ecosystems in Belize make it an essential part of the globally important Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.
Belize has a diverse society with many cultures and languages reflecting its rich history. English is the official language of Belize, but more than half the population is multilingual.
Belize is considered a Central American and Caribbean nation with strong ties to the Latin American and Caribbean regions. It is a member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Central American Integration System (SICA), the only country to be a full member of all three regional organizations. Belize is a Commonwealth Kingdom with Queen Elizabeth II as monarch and head of state.
Belize is known for its September celebrations, its huge coral reefs and its Punta music.
Tourism in Belize
A combination of natural factors – the climate, the Belize Barrier Reef, more than 450 cays (islands) off the coast, excellent fishing, safe waters for boating, diving and snorkeling, numerous rivers for rafting and kayaking, various jungles and wildlife reserves for hiking, bird watching and helicopter tours, and numerous Mayan ruins – supports the thriving tourism and ecotourism industry. It also has the largest cave system in Central America.
Development costs are high, but the government of Belize has made tourism its second development priority after agriculture. In 2012, tourist arrivals total 917,869 (of which approximately 584,683 were from the United States) and tourism revenues exceeded $1.3 billion.
Geography of Belize
Belize is located on the Caribbean coast of northern Central America. It borders the Mexican state of Quintana Roo to the north, the Guatemalan department of Petén to the west along an undefined line known as the buffer zone, and the Guatemalan department of Izabal to the south. Belize and Guatemala have no defined borders due to the conflict described earlier, which includes over 100 islands in the Caribbean Sea. To the east, in the Caribbean Sea, the world’s second longest barrier reef borders much of the 386-kilometre-long, mostly marshy coastline. The country’s land area is 22,960 square kilometres (8,865 square miles), slightly larger than El Salvador, Israel, New Jersey or Wales. The many lagoons along the coast and in the northern interior reduce the country’s actual area to 21,400 square kilometers (8,263 square miles).
Belize has the shape of a rectangle stretching about 280 kilometers from north to south and about 100 kilometers from east to west, with a total land border length of 516 kilometers. The undulating courses of two rivers, the Hondo and the Sarstoon, largely determine the course of the country’s northern and southern borders. The western border does not follow any natural features and runs in a north-south direction through lowland forests and highland plateaus.
The northern part of Belize consists mainly of flat, marshy coastal plains that are heavily forested in places. The flora is very diverse considering the small geographical area. In the south is the low mountain range of the Maya Mountains. The highest point in Belize is Doyle’s Delight at 1,124 m (3,688 ft).
Belize’s rugged geography has also made the country’s coastline and jungle attractive to drug traffickers, who use it as a gateway to Mexico. In 2011, the United States placed Belize on the list of nations considered major drug producers or transit countries for narcotics.
Conservation of the environment and biodiversity
Belize is a country with a rich diversity of flora and fauna, due to its unique location between North and South America, and a wide range of climates and habitats for plants and animals. Belize’s low human population and its 22,970 square kilometres (8,867 square miles) of undeveloped land provide an ideal habitat for more than 5,000 plant species and hundreds of animal species, including armadillos, snakes and monkeys.
The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is a wildlife sanctuary in south-central Belize established to protect the forests, wildlife and watersheds of an area of about 400 km2 on the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains. The reserve was established in 1990 as the first wildlife sanctuary for the jaguar and is described by one author as the world’s first sanctuary for the jaguar.
Vegetation and flora
While over 60 % of Belize’s land area is covered by forest, about 20 % is covered by cultivated land (agriculture) and human settlements. Savannah, bush and wetlands make up the rest of Belize’s land cover. Important mangrove ecosystems are also present in the Belizean landscape. As part of the globally important Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, which stretches from southern Mexico to Panama, Belize’s biodiversity – both marine and terrestrial – is rich, with abundant flora and fauna.
Belize is also a leader in the protection of biodiversity and natural resources. According to the World Database of Protected Areas, 37% of Belize’s territory is under some form of formal protection, making it one of the most extensive terrestrial protected area systems in the Americas. In contrast, only 27% of Costa Rica’s territory is protected.
About 13.6% of Belize’s territorial waters, where the Belize Barrier Reef is located, are also protected. The Belize Barrier Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the second largest barrier reef in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
A remote sensing study conducted by the Aquatic Centre for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC) and NASA in collaboration with the Forestry Department and the Land Information Centre (LIC) of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MNRE) of the Government of Belize, published in August 2010, found that forest cover in Belize was about 62.7% at the beginning of 2010, down from 75.9% at the end of 1980. A similar study by Belize Tropical Forest Studies and Conservation International found similar trends in Belize’s forest cover. Both studies show that 0.6% of Belize’s forest cover is lost each year, resulting in the clearing of an average of 10,050 hectares (24,835 acres) per year. The USAID-supported ERVIR study, conducted by CATHALAC, NASA and MNRE, also showed that protected areas in Belize are highly effective in protecting the country’s forests. While only 6.4 percent of forests within legally designated protected areas were cleared between 1980 and 2010, more than a quarter of forests outside protected areas were lost.
As a country with relatively high forest cover and low deforestation rates, Belize has significant potential to participate in initiatives such as REDD. Significantly, the SERVIR study on deforestation in Belize was also recognized by the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), of which Belize is a member.
Geology, mineral potential and energy
Belize is known to have a number of economically important minerals, but none in sufficient quantity to warrant mining. These minerals include dolomite, barite (source of barium), bauxite (source of aluminum), cassiterite (source of tin) and gold. In 1990, limestone used for road construction was the only mineral resource mined for domestic use or export.
The development of the newly discovered oil in the town of Spanish Lookout in 2006 brought new opportunities and challenges to this developing country.
Belize Barrier Reef
The Belize Barrier Reef is a series of coral reefs located along the coast of Belize, about 300 meters offshore to the north and 40 kilometers to the south, within the country’s borders. The Belize Barrier Reef is a 300-kilometre long section of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System that stretches from Cancún at the northeastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, across the Riviera Maya to Honduras, making it one of the largest coral reef systems in the world.
It is the main tourist destination in Belize, popular for diving and snorkeling, and attracts almost half of the 260,000 visitors. It is also vital to the fishing industry. Charles Darwin described it in 1842 as “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies”.
The Belize Barrier Reef was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996 due to its fragility and natural habitats that are important for the conservation of biodiversity in situ.
The Belize Barrier Reef is home to a wide variety of plants and animals and is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world:
- 70 species of stony corals
- 36 species of soft corals
- 500 species of fish
- Hundreds of species of invertebrates
With 90% of the reef still unexplored, some estimate that only 10% of all species have been discovered.
Belize was the first country in the world to completely ban bottom trawling in December 2010. In December 2015, Belize banned offshore oil drilling within one kilometer of the barrier reef and its seven World Heritage Sites.
Despite these protective measures, the reef remains threatened by marine pollution and uncontrolled tourism, shipping and fishing. Other threats include hurricanes, as well as global warming and the resulting rise in ocean temperature, which leads to coral bleaching. Scientists say that more than 40% of Belize’s coral reef has been damaged since 1998.
The population of Belize in 2010 was 324,528. The total fertility rate for Belize in 2009 was 3.6 children per woman. The birth rate was 27.33 births per 1,000 population and the death rate was 5.8 deaths per 1,000 population.
The Maya are believed to have been present in Belize and the Yucatán region since the second millennium BC; however, much of the original Maya population of Belize was wiped out by conflicts between constantly warring tribes. Some died of disease after discovery by Europeans. Three Maya groups inhabit the country today: the Yucatec (who came from Yucatán, Mexico, to escape the cruel caste war of the 1840s), the Mopan (who are indigenous to Belize but were driven out to Guatemala by the British for looting settlements; they returned to Belize to escape slavery by the Guatemalans in the 19th century), and the Q. The Q’eqchi’ (who also fled slavery in Guatemala in the 19th century). The latter groups are mainly found in the Toledo district.
Creoles, also called Crioles, make up about 21% of the Belizean population and about 75% of the diaspora. They are the descendants of Bajmen slaveholders and slaves brought to Belize for the logging industry. These slaves were ultimately descendants of West and Central Africans (many were also descended from Miskito from Nicaragua) and native Africans who had spent very short periods in Jamaica and Bermuda. Bay Islanders and native Jamaicans arrived in the late 19th century, adding to these already diverse peoples, creating this ethnic group.
For all intents and purposes, Creole is an ethnic and linguistic designation. Some indigenous people, including blond and blue-eyed, may call themselves Creoles. The designation is racial rather than cultural and is evident in physical appearance.
Belizean Creole English or Kriol developed during the time of slavery and was historically only spoken by former slaves. However, it has become an integral part of Belizean identity, so that today it is spoken by about 45% of Belizeans. Belizean Creole is mainly derived from English. Its substrate languages are the Amerindian language Miskito and the various West African and Bantu languages brought to the country by slaves. Creoles are found throughout Belize, but especially in urban areas such as Belize City, coastal towns and villages, and the Belize River Valley.
The Garinagu (singular Garifuna), who make up about 4.5 per cent of the population, are a mixture of West and Central African, Arawak and Caribbean island descent. Although they are captives who were taken from their homeland, they have never been recorded as slaves. The two prevailing theories are that in 1635 they were either survivors of two recorded shipwrecks or that they took control of the ship on which they arrived.
Throughout history, they were mistakenly called Black Caribs. When the British took control of St. Vincent and the Grenadines after the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the French settlers and their Garinagu allies opposed them. The Garinagu finally surrendered to the British in 1796. The British separated the more African-looking Garifunas from the more indigenous-looking ones. 5,000 Garinagu were exiled from the Grenadian island of Baliceaux. However, only 2,500 of them survived the journey to Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras. The Garifuna language belongs to the Arawakan language family, but has a large number of words borrowed from Caribbean languages and English.
As Roatán was too small and barren to accommodate their population, the Garinagu asked the Spanish authorities in Honduras for permission to settle on the mainland. The Spanish used them as soldiers and they spread along the Caribbean coast of Central America. As early as 1802, the Garinagu settled in Seine Bight, Punta Gorda and Punta Negra, Belize, via Honduras. However, in Belize, 19 November 1832 is the officially recognised date as “Garifuna Settlement Day” in Dangriga.
According to a genetic study, their ancestry is on average 76% Sub-Saharan African, 20% Arawak/Island Carib and 4% European.
Mestizos are people of mixed Spanish and Mayan descent. They came to Belize in 1847 to escape the caste war that took place when thousands of Maya rose up against the state in Yucatán and massacred more than a third of the population. The remaining survivors fled across the border into British territory. Mestizos are found throughout Belize, but most live in the northern districts of Corozal and Orange Walk. Mestizos are the largest ethnic group in Belize and make up about half of the population. Mestizo towns are centred around a main square, and social life revolves around the Catholic church built on one side of the square. Spanish is the main language spoken by most mestizos and people of Spanish descent, but many are also fluent in English and Belizean Kriol. Because of the influences of both Kriol and English, many mestizos speak what is known as “cooking Spanish”. The mix of Latin American and Mayan dishes such as tamales, escabeche, chirmole, relleno and empanadas come from their Mexican side and corn tortillas were passed down from their Mayan side. The music comes mainly from the marimba, but they also play and sing with the guitar. Dances performed at village festivals include the pig’s head, zapateados, mestizada, paso doble and many others.
About 4% of the population are German-speaking Mennonite farmers and craftsmen. The vast majority are Russian Mennonites of German origin who settled in the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most Russian Mennonites live in Mennonite colonies such as Spanish Lookout, Shipyard, Little Belize and Blue Creek. These Mennonites speak Plautdietsch (a German dialect) in everyday life, but mainly use standard German for reading (the Bible) and writing. Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites came from Mexico mainly in the years after 1958. There are also some Old Order Mennonites who speak mainly Pennsylvania German and came from the United States and Canada in the late 1960s. They live mainly in Upper Barton Creek and its associated settlements. These Mennonites attracted people from a variety of Anabaptist backgrounds, forming a new community. They are very similar to, but different from, the Old Order Amish.
The remaining 5% of the population was a mixture of Indians, Chinese, whites from the United States and Canada, and many other foreign groups brought in to develop the country. During the 1860s, a large influx of East Indians who had spent a short time in Jamaica and American Civil War veterans from Louisiana and other southern states established Confederate colonies in British Honduras and introduced commercial sugar cane production to the colony, creating 11 settlements in the interior. In the 20th century, more Asian settlers arrived from mainland China, South Korea, India, Syria and Lebanon. Said Musa, the son of an immigrant from Palestine, was Prime Minister of Belize from 1998 to 2008. Immigrants from Central America and American and African expatriates have also begun to settle in the country.
Emigration, immigration and demographic change
Creoles and other ethnic groups migrate mainly to the United States, but also to the UK and other developed countries for better opportunities. According to the last US census, the number of Belizeans in the US is about 160,000 (of which 70,000 are legal residents and naturalised citizens), consisting mainly of Creoles and Garinagu.
Due to conflicts in neighbouring Central American countries, mestizos from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras fled to Belize in large numbers in the 1980s, significantly increasing this group. Both events have changed the demography of the nation over the last 30 years.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed in Belize. According to the 2010 census, 40.1% of Belizeans are Roman Catholic, 31.8% are Protestant (8.4% Pentecostal; 5.4% Adventist; 4.7% Anglican; 3.7% Mennonite; 3.6% Baptist; 2.9% Methodist; 2.8% Nazarene), 1.7% are Jehovah’s Witnesses, 10.3% profess other religions (Mayan religion, Garifuna, Obeah and Myalism as well as minorities of Mormons, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Bahá’ís, Rastafari and others) and 15.5% profess to be irreligious.
Once a predominantly Catholic country (Catholics made up 57% of the population in 1991, 49% in 2000), the proportion of Roman Catholics has declined in recent decades due to the growth of Protestant churches, other religions and non-religious people. The Greek Orthodox Church is present in Santa Elena.
The Association of Religion Data Archives estimates that in 2005 there were 7,776 Bahá’ís in Belize, representing 2.5% of the national population. According to their estimates, this is the highest proportion of Baha’is in any country. Their data also shows that the Baha’i Faith is the second most common religion in Belize, followed by Hinduism (2.0%) and Judaism (1.1%). Hinduism is followed by most Indian immigrants.
Muslims claim that there have been Muslims in Belize since the 16th century after they were brought from Africa as slaves, but there are no sources to support this claim. The current Muslim population was born in the 1980s. According to official statistics, the number of Muslims was 243 in 2000 and 577 in 2010, representing 0.16% of the population. One mosque is located at the Islamic Mission of Belize (IMB), also known as the Muslim Community of Belize. Another mosque, Masjid Al-Falah, was inaugurated in Belize City in 2008.
Belize has a small, largely private economy based mainly on the export of petroleum and crude oil, with agriculture, agro-industry and trade, with tourism and construction recently gaining importance. In 2007, oil production was 3,000 bbl/d (480 m3/d) and in 2006 oil exports were 1,960 bbl/d (312 m3/d). The country is also a producer of industrial minerals. In agriculture, as in colonial times, sugar is still the most important crop and accounts for almost half of exports, while the banana industry is the main employer.
Belize’s new government faces major challenges to economic stability. Immediate measures to improve tax collection have been promised, but a lack of progress on expenditure control could put pressure on the exchange rate. The tourism and construction sectors strengthened in early 1999, leading to a preliminary estimate of 4% growth. Infrastructure remains a major challenge to economic development; Belize has the most expensive electricity in the region. Trade is important and the main trading partners are the United States, Mexico, the European Union and Central America.
Belize has five commercial banks, the largest and oldest of which is Belize Bank. The other four banks are Heritage Bank, Atlantic Bank, FirstCaribbean International Bank and Scotiabank(Belize). A strong credit union complex began in the 1940s under the leadership of Marion M. Ganey, S.J., and is an ongoing resource for the betterment of people across economic and cultural boundaries.