I did meet with Belize’s Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries today. (He’s also the area representative for Toledo district.)
I had just about dismissed the whole thing as the made-up story of a delusional old man (he’d be neither the first nor the last such person I’ve met), but he turned up this morning with the guy himself! (I will never, EVER doubt my improbability field again.) I was totally not expecting this visit, and in fact was sitting quietly at the breakfast table carving myself a new set of double-pointed bamboo knitting needles when they arrived. One does not normally receive high government officials covered in wood shavings, but life is full of new and novel experiences. (Besides which, he was in shorts and a T-shirt anyway, so it wasn’t exactly a formal meeting.)
It was interesting hearing what he had to say on tourism and development in Belize–he’s certainly well aware of the issues w/r/t tourism in the Toledo district. One interesting thing he said was about the villages. Yesterday, while touring the cacao plantations, Greg had mentioned that the government was issuing land grants of 30 acres to anyone who applied. I had wondered why they were doing a homestead act, but it turns out to be an environmental issue. The indigenous people are doing tremendous damage to the environment using traditional slash-and-burn practices (yesterday’s devastation being an example), and it’s estimated that they’re burning 5 acres a DAY in Toledo District. When a given plot of land is exhausted, they move on to the next one (which is traditional for slash and burn). The government is trying to get the villagers to stop their nomadic (and very destructive) lifestyle, and towards that end is offering each of them ownership of 30 acres. The hope is that they’ll stay put on that land, and not move on to burn more.
They’re also doing projects to help them grow beans and rice. I asked why not cacao, since it’s so profitable, and he said it’s because of the organic farming requirements–it requires a lot of compost to keep the land fertile, and the farmers haven’t been willing to apply the compost. (Greg, the cacao guy, brings them sacks of compost in his pickup, but they still have to haul it all the way to the field–which may be a long way–and spread it.) So after a few years, the soil is no longer fertile, and then they run into trouble with disease etc. They’re working on convincing the farmers that organic farming is much more than “don’t add chemicals”.
Anyway, the net of the conversation was that Chet’s ideas were too grandiose (which was obvious to me as a project manager), he needed to start smaller, BUT if he was able to come up with funding, the minister of agriculture etc. would ask the prime minister to match the funding. Which is a great opportunity, of course. I told Chet that if he put together a really solid project proposal, with a mission statement and precise detail on exactly what he planned to do, what budget he proposed, and so on, I’d see what I could do about getting him funded. (He claims only to need a small amount of money, about $30K–I think the actual bill would be much more, frankly.)
I’d guess that the odds of my actually receiving a good, solid proposal are probably about 2% (Chet is not the most organized person in the world), but stranger things have been known to happen, and I think his ideas vis-a-vis cultural and environmental preservation would be great to implement. I’m not getting any further involved until I get a solid proposal, though–if they can’t get their act together enough to write a good proposal, there’s no way they’ll be able to implement it once funded. So that’s my test; we’ll see what happens.
I’m boarding an express bus to Belize City in about half an hour; it takes about four hours to get there, so I’ll arrive about 7pm. Tomorrow I’ll do a day trip up to Crooked Tree for the Cashew Festival–which I expect to be interesting–and then I’ll head south to Hopkins (a little town near Dangriga), and spend a couple days diving. After that, I’ve been advised to go to San Ignacio (in Western Belize) and play around a couple of days–there are horseback tours into the jungle, a major Inca ruin, and several wildlife preserves to visit.
By the way, as you may have guessed from earlier hints, I’ve started my latest travel shawl. It will be an orange, brown, and gold striped silk shawl, which I intend to call “Tiger Lily”. And started on hand-carved bamboo needles, too. 🙂