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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 6 (1999)

The Making of Belize: Globalization in the Margins. By Anne Sutherland. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 1998, 224 pp.

 

Reviewed by Laurie Kroshus Medina, Department of Anthropology, Michigan State University.

This book asserts that Belize leapt from it status as a British colony to become a 'postmodern' nation, without passing through 'modernity.' According to its back cover, The Making of Belize challenges "theories of globalization that paint marginal areas as losers in the world economy" by exploring how the small country of Belize is being made - or remade - in a globalized, deterritorialized world that rewards social and cultural creativity.

The text consists of three major sections, in addition to a preface and conclusion. The preface presents a history of the author's involvement in Belize, through her mother's marriage to a Belizean. Part one, "An Ethnographic History," provides a brief overview of Belizean colonial history and reviews and updates the author's previous book on a small island off the Belizean coast, focusing on family organization and relationships. Part two, "A Nation in the Making," contains chapters on Belizean ethnic diversity and nation-building efforts, the rise of tourism, and liaisons between women tourists and Belizean Rastafarians. A major premise of Part Two is that globalization and postmodernism have led to ethnic primordialism in Belize. Part three, "Globalization in the Margins," includes chapters on the impact of international environmentalism on Belize, drug trafficking, the contemporary Belizean economy, and the globalization of communications. It is the chapter on the impact of environmentalism in Belize that raises issues most closely related to political ecology.

One of the key assertions of The Making of Belize is that, as a result of globalization, Belize has been transformed from a colony into a 'postmodern' nation without passing through the stage of modernity or developing a "modern economy based on industrial mass production of goods" (p. 3). The book falls short in its goal of demonstrating the dynamics of such a transition, because this transformation is not sufficiently contextualized either theoretically or in relation to the contemporary political-economy of globalization. None of these states or "stages" - colonialism, modernism, and postmodernism - are clearly defined or differentiated from one another, and no clear explanation is provided about how or why Belize might have moved from one state to another, why it might have "skipped" a stage in the expected sequence, or why such a sequence might have been expected. Sutherland's presentation of Belizean political-economic history stops with the colonial period. She does not explore the political economy of contemporary Belize and its insertion into the global economy. The author briefly defines globalization as "the forces of integration and communication that increasingly lead to a smaller world, as well as the forces of disintegration and fragmentation that increasingly produce more conflict and human misery" (p. 5); however, these 'forces' are not elaborated, with the exception of the media.

Sutherland describes the Belizean economy as "barely nascent"(p. 9) with "no industry" (p. 3). She asserts that Belize has traditionally followed a development strategy of import substitution, a strategy that aims to replace imported goods with locally-produced goods. In fact, the dominant development strategy in Belize has been export-oriented. (Indeed, Sutherland uses the banana industry, which produces bananas for export to Europe, as an example of import substitution.) The banana industry is part of the agro-export sector (along with industries producing sugar and frozen concentrate orange and grapefruit juice), which served as the centerpiece of Belizean development efforts for decades. Belize has been positioned in the global order for centuries as a producer for external markets: this was a matter of official colonial policy, and it has been the official development policy imposed by the IMF and development lenders during recent decades. Attention to the political-economic pressures which generated this development orientation over recent decades would have provided the background for an analysis of the conditions under which Belize is being positioned in the context of globalization at present; in turn, the provision of such context would have enabled a more thorough discussion of the tourism and environmental initiatives that Sutherland raises.

A lack of ethnographic depth also limits the book's efforts to examine recent transformations in Belize. For example, regarding the impact of environmentalism on Belize, Sutherland argues that the evangelizing Christian missionaries of the past have been replaced by "new missionaries," environmentalists and their NGOs, who "have obtained 40 percent of the landmass in Belize and reserved it for animals, fish, and Mayan archaeological sites" (p. 120). She asks, "For whom are all the reserves in Belize? Are they are being established for Belizeans, for the good of the natural environment..., for the resort owners, for the tourists, for the drug dealers who need remote, unpopulated areas - for whom? The old adage 'follow the money' came to mind" (p. 135). In asking who benefits from the reserves, Sutherland raises an important and timely question. However, she provides no data to begin to answer it: her study did not "follow the money." By not seeking to answer her question about who benefits, Sutherland failed to discover or engage the complex relations and negotiations that are determining who benefits from the reserves. These negotiations involve a range of participants from within and beyond Belize: international environmentalist organizations, the World Bank, the UN, transnational investors, the Belizean state, Belizean tourism operators and organizations, Belizean environmentalist and development NGOs, and Belizean communities and their shifting internal factions. In her account, Sutherland accords agency only to environmentalist NGOs. Her presentation would have benefited from attention to the strategizing going on across multiple global-local connections, as "local" actors of all classes and "global" forces with divergent agendas compete to control resources and revenues.

An example will illustrate this point. Sutherland discusses the creation of a jaguar reserve in southern Belize, pointing out that several Mayan families were forced to move out of the area which became the reserve. These families were relocated to the village of Maya Center, which sits at the entrance to the jaguar reserve. Sutherland concludes, "Today these same Maya sit forlornly on the edge of the park, where they were moved, selling trinkets to tourists" (p. 119). Her casting of the environmentalist forces who pushed for the establishment of the reserve as winners, and the Maya villagers as losers oversimplifies both the process of creating the reserve and its outcomes. Attention to the ways the relocated families and their co-villagers in Maya Center have adapted to the reserve's creation, and how the Maya themselves see their role as "trinket sellers" would have provided the data for a more nuanced understanding of the reserve's impacts.

For example, research conducted by other scholars in this village reveals a complex set of circumstances, concerns, and perceived opportunities. Lindberg et. al (1996) document villagers' support for tourism and conservation, which together have increased the incomes of many households in the village. This increase in incomes has been partly a consequence of sales by a Maya Center women's group which produces Mayan crafts for sale, providing new opportunities for women to earn cash incomes and raising new possibilities for the organization of gender relations. Maya Center has become a model for other rural communities who have begun to seek ways to augment their own incomes by working to establish reserves which might allow them to attract their "own" tourists. Members of community-based organizations from rural villages across Belize have traveled to Maya Center to meet with members of the women's group, seeking advice and information which may assist them in launching similar efforts in their own villages. Some of these organizations have themselves sought funding and assistance from national and international environmentalist NGOs or the World Bank's Global Environmental Facility. At the same time, villagers in Maya Center do not see the reserve and their involvement with tourism as an unmitigated success. Villagers struggle with the government, environmental NGOs, and larger-scale lodge owners and tour operators to increase their control over land, resources, and tourism in their area. They also struggle among themselves over distribution of the opportunities and costs associated with tourism and conservation. Attention to these diverse relationships and conflicts would have generated a more complex and illuminating analysis of the confrontation between environmentalist NGOs and rural Belizean villagers.

In the conclusion, Sutherland argues against predictions that the forces of globalization will divide the world into "a few winners and many losers," suggesting that "the very margins of the global world system may become the areas of most creative cultural activity...It just might be that the work of the imagination is best undertaken in the margins, on the borders of a global system where the freedom to experiment is greater" (p. 185). While this may or may not be true, this book provides no argument as to how such creative "imagining" might be linked to either "winning" or "losing" in a global economy; it shifts from material concerns to mass communication and imaginings without relating them to each other. The Making of Belize presents broad generalizations without providing data from specific cases to demonstrate its assertions. As a result, it oversimplifies complex relationships and negotiations, providing little evidence of Belizeans' creative experimentation, as they respond to the problems and possibilities presented by participation in a global economy.

Reference Cited:

Lindberg, Kreg, Jeremy Enriquez, and Keith Sproule.

1996. Ecotourism Questioned: Case Studies from Belize. Annals of Tourism Research 23(3):543-562.