Many Belizeans are at a loss when we try to identify what it means to be from here. Some countries are manufacturing titans, others are known for their architectural wonders, and Belize, well, to me Belize has always been a country of people in touch with the green, people that perceive the natural world’s majesty and tend to its prosperity.
This was a truth I understood from a young age growing up on the coast outside Belize City where mangroves were our playground and retreat. My cousin and I would spend hours during the weekends and summers traversing across their roots, hoping to spot something as otherworldly as the mangroves, which resided somehow on both land and water with roots that looked ready to get up and move.
Now I live on the opposite end of the country on the border of a forest reserve where I regularly ride around on my bike taking photos of trees in the area. I sometimes struggle to get their entirety in the frame as one branch twists left and shoots straight up to breach the canopy, resisting my attempts. Despite the difficulty, I try anyway, remembering with horror images of longstanding old-growth forests here and elsewhere razed for one reason or another, sometimes with no record of what stood where only stumps remained.
My partner calls trees our ancestors, so I photograph them to commemorate their long lives, and how they model resilience, flexibility, and commitment. Last week I found a large guava limb in the middle of a street near a village cemetery, marvelling at how many families it has shaded as they mourned loved ones. It reminded me of all the instances in which I felt cared for by the natural world.
The times my thirst was quenched by a clear river during a hike, the honeysuckle flowers and mangoes we’d snack on while playing, or the ceiba tree that lent me shade in the midday sun, hoping for a bus when I was lost in Toledo.
Now, consider that every Belizean has had their own encounters with the green where they were nourished and protected. Then consider how over the generations we’ve accumulated libraries’ worth of knowledge about the trees that share their medicine, how to read a river before a flood, and the best time to plant papaya. That is our inheritance, and given our generations of devotion to this education, who we remain.
Those with limited imagination see greater value in overly manicured tourism spaces with only palm trees and hedgerows, emptied of much that makes Belize what it is. They want to recreate a tourism experience no different than any other place, limiting opportunities for the excitement that genuine encounters with nature provide. Making the decision to come here becomes less about what’s unique to this land and its people and almost exclusively about the best bargain, a game that never ends well for the players.
People visit Belize because they believe in our ecological stewardship, our commitment to conserving the natural world. Not everyone wants to see the whole world, but everyone wants to see what the world whole can look like. When I saw that tree at the village cemetery, the community had built the road around it. They’d seen the ancient tree as something worth preserving, not an obstacle to discard on the way to progress.
In a moment when much of the world hurtles towards a globalized sameness, Belize has the opportunity to lead others in how we interact with the natural world, and how we develop humanity’s wellbeing with it. Belizeans have an opportunity to embrace what this place could have always been, a place where humans thrive alongside a vibrant natural world. Now a trip to a place like that, well, that would be a trip worth making just to behold.