Countries dozing off on heritage education and bio-cultural sustainable development planning
With a population about the size of Tobago’s, Belize, a former British colony might be said to be perhaps one of the least pressured countries of the region in terms of the intensity of competition for land space for development. Tobago can itself fit into Belize about 75 times; Jamaica, the largest of the English-speaking Caribbean islands, can fit twice, and Trinidad four times.
Last week’s bulldozing by a construction company of what was visibly a temple and part of a complex to turn the rubble into – of all things – gravel for a road (from the comments on the internet I am not the only aghast at the sheer idiocy of this) is testimony to some of the challenges for heritage preservation facing the region.
Proper land use planning with concurrent resourcing, execution and implementation may be one element of a solution, but without a focussed awareness building and formal and informal education that inject heritage consciousness from the cradle through adulthood, it is a tragedy that is certain to be repeated.
For instance, the Mayas are still described and treated in the past tense in much of our history and standard educational material – part of historic misrepresentations of all the civilisations that comprise our region – although very vibrant Mayan communities live across South/Central America and not unlike with other regional ethnic groups, function in active regional diasporas across the globe.
They were also in significant numbers in our heritage training sessions in Belize last year, eating, breathing, talking, exchanging ideas, reciting, playing music, dancing, living, as indeed it was a astounding to discover the numbers of Mayan building complexes that existed in this small land space, most of them heavily silted over through the millennia, overgrown with full fledged trees and overrun with wildlife.
A significant element of the tragedy of the bulldozing at the Noh Mul complex is that it was visible and known to exist, not like Altun Ha where allegedly it wasn’t and it when the blasting revealed the complex it was stopped. This is part of one of the documented temple complex in the Orange Walk district where there is a significant population of Mayan descent. It is not one of the hundreds of other architectural complexes across Belize and South/Central America that have been overgrown, covered over by silt and which now support huge forest and other ecosystems and so indistinguishable from the natural landscape. That in itself might provide an excuse to a bulldozer purportedly innocently quarrying what is believed to be a hill, but only in the absence of proper environmental assessment, which is a mandatory requirement for any development project.
The site of the hundreds of temple complexes across Belize which nature has reclaimed and camouflaged over millennia is enough of an experience to make one want to kneel down and worship the inherent nobility of the people who in their times created this, as much as nature’s resilience and restorative capacity if undisturbed.
As I discovered on a visit last year, Belize is an awesome example of the sheer magnitude of the Mayan civilisation from the numbers of still standing temples, many indiscernible as with centuries of overgrowth they appear as innocent hillocks that support dense forest ecosystems. And while the ruins might point to the historical past tense, the vivacity of the people I met and the friends I made is testimony to a vibrant living heritage.
I could not have asked for a better induction than to have expert guides in Drs Nigel Encalada and Allan Moore of the Belize Institute of Technology, who are part of the National Institute of Culture and History of Belize, on a one day cross-country drive to the Mayan mountains.
It whet my appetite that before I left I made time to explore three more sites with local Mayan guides at Altun Ha, Lamanai and Xuantunich – who incidentally took pride and the time to put into context the deliberately distorted and misrepresented for hype the end of calendar/doomsday story. In fact, these sites have been only partly unearthed of the hundreds of other complexes.
To some degree, Belize has legal and institutional mechanisms: an Act, laws, oversight institutions which may be challenged by shortage of human resource and other capacity, but those are also largely reactive mechanisms, as important as they are, to net culprits after the fact of a bulldoze, for example, rather than sustainable pre-emptive mechanisms which are where the focus should be.What could have stopped the company from issuing the order or the guy himself driving the bulldozer to halt and think twice?
If we cannot build consciousness and recognise the value these elements of our heritage, hold to the sense of self and esteem that could prevent the next trigger happy youngster from bulldozing his own life – value beyond commercial value, beyond the next access road and the next high rise and the next exploration for an oil well – which incidentally is another impending threat to Belize where recent interests in exploitation for petroleum can become the next international heritage disaster story.
The bulldozer mentality will stay with us unless mechanisms are built into our budgeting and physical and mental spatial development planning, as in all other development plans so we present and project that physical, social and educational planning not separate silos and never the twain shall meet, but as a seamless and essentially integrated system that depend on and support each other.
Is that being taken into account in the current land use planning for sustainable development currently being undertaken in Trinidad and Tobago and other parts of the region? Where are the efforts to factor and integrate sustainable heritage consciousness into all of this, other than the flag waving mentality? Where are the plans to factor in heritage in the planning for sustainable development and the strategic educational interventions into that process that move beyond a few Kodak advertising moments?
Lost, surely in the cliched excuse about the jostle for space for industry and agriculture and shelter in the name of development.
Development does not have to be at the expense of heritage or vice versa. There are enough successful models of this that can make us confident that we can find the right balance between feeding ourselves, living with all the modern comforts that one may desire and at the same time showing respect and pride in the legacy and inheritances that are ours.
The alternative is the next regional bulldozer story – while Belize becomes a footnote, as McLoed house in South Trinidad already has – this is the potential fate of other sites in the region; like the Banwari and other related sites in Trinidad; or the Pitons in St Lucia or the maroon and other distinctive heritage of Jamaica’s majestic Blue Mountains and others across the region can soon become. Sustainable development requires sustainable planning and sustainable education and awareness activities.
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So masmen are enflamed. Again. Over prize money. Again. Are at loggerheads with the powers that be. Again.
It’s the continuing saga of bacchanalia.
Unless we weed out the endemic systems of dependency on which the celebrations were founded; and the governance system recast itself as mechanism that has the will to act; to revamp and develop adequate systems and structures and institutions that nurture and support artists and creators in ways that make them self-reliant, and that make the Carnival and other Festival Arts into the viable and sustainable creative industrial sector they can be, the recurring impasse over prizes, prize structure and prize money for pan, mas, calypso, soca, chutney, stickfighting, Hosay, Divali, Phagwa, Pichakarie, and everything in between would remain the never-ending story.
Somewhere in there is also the recurringly invisible cultural policy in state of perpetual draft over the last 50 odd years of so – yes, 50 years – and each time it resurfaces merely replicates the dependency syndrome!
Is it any wonder that we cannot see our way, despite the rich amalgam of talent and creativity we exhibit in our daily lives. Shortsightedness continues to doggers.
Where are the well-thought-out budgets that look beyond just the annual seven day wonder to an Industry? That takes into full account the contributions and the value – social, economic, political and other value included – of the cultural sector so budgetary focus can match that contribution, not reflect tokenism.
Where is the vision for building proper supportive trade and commercial structures and mechanisms?
Where are the mechaniims and facilities and facilitation for those more meaningful forms of compensation as insurance, pensions, support grants, support training and services that would build and strengthen the sector so ever so regularly we would not have to hear of how another of our artists is close to the breadline?
And where is the will by those in the sector – policy and decision makers, the corporate sector, and practitioners alike, to make it happen?
Are we really serious. Who’s fooling whom?
These are some of the endemic systematic changes and modes for institutional reform in a culture of transformation that discussions on constitutional reform should also take into account – how to redress the kind of institutional malaise that are inhibiting progress and meaningful development and effectively restructure public institutions, their relationships with the state and the state’s relationships to the civic mechanisms that they ought to sustain.
Trinidad and Tobago would be missing a crucial opportunity for diversifying the national economy if Government’s 2010-2011 Budget does not contain the necessary provisions to propel the arts and cultural sector from dependency to self-sustainability.
Arts and culture is a billion dollar industry elsewhere. It is the kind of returns from museums, from performances abroad, from sales and downloads of a range of cultural products in a world hungry for new entertainment on the one hand; and on the other, from fulfilling the cravings for new reflections of self and identity that our multiculturalism can provide. It has the potential to help individuals and communities to sustainable livelihoods. However, the structures and systems and investments necessary that can help us take advantage of this are sorely lacking.
The potential is not only our music, song, dance, drama, literature but outside-the-box industries of fashion and cuisine. We are sitting on a multi-million dollar revenue earner in literary tourism, but there are as yet no real facilities by which we can capture this international interest. Digitisation of access to these is also crucial. It is the duty of Government to create the environment to enabling and facilitate this; to promote public-private sector partnerships with individuals and groups in the sector, and to ensure that no one group or groups of organisations have the monopoly of access to these facilities.
At a time when the world is rapidly moving towards forms of energy other than petroleum, it is ridiculous to consider further incentives and tax reductions to the oil sector, when efforts should be concentrated at making that sector compensate for the imbalances it has created, and developing those sectors that have longer-term and more sustainable potential, particularly those related to the arts and culture sector. Europe and North America are trying to ‘buy up’ as much world cultures as possible, we seem all-too-willing to sellout our cultural assets and not even to the highest bidder– just look at the Economic Partnership Agreement between the European Union and CARIFORUM.
The 2010-11 Budget should present clear measures to provide effective tax and other incentives to the creative sector for the development of talents, products, communities along with a short, medium and long term vision that gives culture its rightful place at the centre of national development, not just piecemeal and tokenism. That would also include revising the mainstream (preschool/primary to tertiary level) education curriculum, teacher training, and education materials to reflect and enhance appreciation for local arts and multiculturalism, along with intelligently utilising the new arts megastructures to effectively cultivate and provide opportunities for creative enterprise and activities easily accessible to the masses. With this should come review of all ‘national’ competitions to lift the standards and quality of products being awarded by state and private sector funds, while helping to facilitate development of audiences, readers and participants. Where is our National Arts Council that is equipped and resourced to pull together and make holistic and effective the work of the National Carnival Commission, National Archives, National Trust, National Libraries and Museums for instance?
The spin offs are not only tangible economic benefits, but other social spinoffs – reduced crime, poverty, stress on social services and the intangibles of civic ownership, and national pride.