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.