Group learns about community culture and hope for a better future
by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service
PLACENCIA, Belize — There’s a tiny peninsula off the southeastern coast of Belize where tourism is catching hold. As you travel the coastal roads, you will notice new development including high-priced homes and hotels. In between the development, is the small community of Seine Bight, a village aiming to grow as well, with a difference. Unlike the developed areas to the north and south of this village, the residents of Seine Bight are hoping to keep local ownership of the land.
The Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP) has taken its volunteers and staff to the region to visit with community projects the ministry has funded over the years. Its first meeting was with movers and shakers in Seine Bight.
“This was a project that looked at how to help the village become a viable economic piece of tourism and you have to start somewhere,” said Lisa Leverette, chair of SDOP’s international committee. “The leaders of Seine Bight decided to position this village visually and bring folks along and help people respond to the challenges.”
Those challenges include efforts by outside developers to take ownership of the land.
“You can still meander on the beach in this community and find that very few lots are owned by foreigners or developers. The sand is white gold, and some of our people are not aware of the value of that land. You may sell a piece of land for $10,000, when in reality, every square foot is valued at a couple of thousand dollars,” said Leonard Williams, a community manager. “Realtors are running through this peninsula like crazy, and the value of the property is rising.”
Williams said property that sold for $45,000 more than 20 years ago, is now worth over $400,000.
Cynthia Ellis-Topsey is President of the National Garifuna Council of Belize. The Garifuna are descendants of Carib Indians and Africans deported from Saint Vincent by the British to the Gulf of Honduras in 1798 and live in communities on the south coast. Many believe Garifuna came as slaves, but Ellis-Topsey says that’s not the case and that Garifuna people should protect the land in which they live.
“We need to get back to being able to say no. We are seeing an extravagant, expansive development and exploitation of the physical resources of the land,” said Ellis-Topsey. “Garifuna are indigenous people, we have a relationship with the world. Anyone who assaults the earth like that, using machinery to dig and destroy the earth, we don’t lament and we must learn for ourselves how to deal with these forces.”
Tradition and family are important aspects of this population.
“The power of Garifuna people is our sense of who we are. This is not taught to us in any school,” said Ellis-Topsey. “The United Nations declared Garifuna as a masterpiece culture for the world. I grew up learning who I am, not by lecture, but listening to our elders.”
Justo Augustine is chair of the village and works with a team of leaders, including Ellis-Topsey, to make Seine Bight attractive to tourists.
“Sein Bight is a small village in the center of the peninsula. We are a poor people, yet, we began to understand the need to clean up our community because everything passes through here,” he said. “Everyone has found the peninsula to be an attractive tourist destination. Now, there are high-rise buildings and resorts in development, but our people are not benefitting from it.”
With SDOP support, Augustine says Seine Bight is seeing better days.
“What we are seeing now is a change in the mindset of residents. We are seeing people take pride in their property and in the community,” said Augustine. “I noticed a man just raking the grass off of the side of the road recently, simply showing pride for his community. We need to capture what is passing through here.”
Committee member Karen Brown, from Baltimore, Maryland, says she was glad to learn more about the Garifuna culture, but sad to hear the “same institutional systems of race and class.”
“But the good thing is to hear about the hope and resilience of the people and to see the young people here and learn about the transformation that is taking place. It was quite touching,” she said.
“It is amazing the amount of networking, a small SDOP grant has been able to produce within this community,” said Pat Osoinach, committee member. “The outreach that the people of Seine Bight have made is staggering.”
Sharon Ware of Columbus, Ohio, calls Seine Bight an excellent model in how social change can be made.
“It’s not a silver bullet. It demands not only relationship building, but also thinking strategically about how they can follow quality processes,” she said. “We can talk about what happens tomorrow, but we also need to talk about what happens in stages over the next five, 10, or 15 years.”
SDOP staff and volunteers are spending the week visiting villages and sponsored projects in Belize. More than $260,000 in grant funding has been provided to help community groups like Sein Bight.
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