Belize, country in northeastern Central America that borders the Caribbean Sea. Belize is one of the smallest and least populated countries in Central America. It was ruled by Britain for almost two centuries and until 1973 was known as British Honduras. Belize became independent in 1981 and is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. Belize City is the country’s largest city and was the capital until 1972. After severe hurricanes damaged Belize City, which is on the coast, a new capital was built inland at Belmopan.
Belize is a land of great ethnic and cultural diversity. About half of the people are black or of mixed African and European ancestry. There are also large numbers of Maya Indians and mestizos—people of mixed European and Indian ancestry. Small groups of Europeans and Asians also live in Belize. English is the language most widely spoken in Belize.
The area now known as Belize was once part of the Maya civilization, which began to develop around 2000 bc and lasted to about ad 1550. The Maya Indians were skillful farmers and developed one of the most advanced civilizations of the period. They built many elaborate temples. Today, the ruins of Maya cities attract tourists to Belize, as do the country’s scenery, wildlife, and beaches.
|II||LAND AND RESOURCES|
Belize is bounded on the north and northwest by Mexico, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, and on the south and west by Guatemala. The country’s greatest length from north to south is about 280 km (about 175 mi) and its greatest breadth is about 100 km (65 mi). The total area of Belize is 22,965 sq km (8,867 sq mi). A large barrier reef lies about 30 km (20 mi) offshore. Within it are many low-lying islands, or cays.
The northern half of Belize is generally low and flat. Large areas of it are swampy. The southern half consists of a coastal plain that rises abruptly to inland hills and mountains. The Maya Mountains, the most notable feature of southern Belize, run parallel to the coast and rise to a maximum elevation of 1,120 m (3,675 ft) atop Victoria Peak. Tropical forests blanket much of the south, although commercial agriculture and logging have led to deforestation.
The principal streams are the Belize River; the Río Azul, which forms much of the boundary with Mexico; and the Sarstún River, which forms the southwestern boundary with Guatemala.
The climate of Belize is subtropical, moderated by sea breezes along the coast. The average annual temperature is about 26° C (about 79° F). Inland, however, summer temperatures can exceed 38°C (100°F). Humidity is high, especially along the coast.
The total annual rainfall increases from north to south and averages about 1,800 mm (about 71 in). A rainy season extends from May to December. The height of the rainy season is from June to October. Belize is located near one of the most active tropical storm areas of the Caribbean and periodically suffers severe damage from storms and hurricanes.
|B||Plants and Animals|
Forests cover about 72 percent of Belize. Deciduous trees are found in the north; tropical hardwood trees predominate in the south. Principal species include the commercially important mahogany, cedar, and rosewood, as well as pine, oak, and palms. Mangrove swamp vegetation is found along the coast.
Belize is rich in wildlife, including jaguar, deer, tapir, monkey, and kinkajou. Numerous species of birds inhabit the forests. Reptiles and amphibians include iguanas, crocodiles, and green tree frogs. Tropical fish swim in the coral reef off the coast. The country has a number of wildlife reserves, including the Cockscomb Jaguar Reserve.
Belize has abundant wildlife and forests, but the growth of the population and of tourism threaten wildlife habitats and have led to deforestation. The world’s second largest coral reef lies off the coast and supports many marine ecosystems. Pollution, tourism, and fishing have caused disturbances in these ecosystems. Fresh water is plentiful and most of the population in the north of the country has access to safe water supplies. However, water quality is a problem in the south, and the Belize government is engaged in initiatives to improve it.
The majority of the population of Belize is of mixed racial ancestry, reflecting a long history of immigration. Most Belizeans have at least some European ancestry: 44 percent are mestizos (people of mixed Native American and Spanish descent), 30 percent are Creoles (people of mixed African and English descent), and 7 percent are Garifuna (people of mixed African and Carib descent). Other groups include Native Americans, principally Carib and Maya, who live in the north and west of the country; people of European descent, mainly English and Spanish; and people of mixed Native American-European descent.
The population of Belize is 301,022 (2008 estimate). The overall density of 13 persons per sq km (34 per sq mi) is the lowest in Central America. Population is concentrated in a few principal urban centers, of which Belize City (population, 2004 estimate, 59,400) is the largest; it is also the principal port. Belmopan (12,300), a newly constructed city, supplanted Belize City as the official capital in 1972.
|A||Language and Religion|
English is the official language of Belize and is used in government and education. A dialect of English known as Belizean Creole is widely spoken throughout the country. Other languages spoken include Carib, Mayan, and Spanish. More than half the people are Roman Catholic, and many of the remainder are Protestant. The country’s mestizos, Maya, and Garifuna are predominately Roman Catholic. Many Creoles also practice Catholicism, but the majority of Creoles are Anglicans, Methodists, or other Protestants. Belize also has a small Mennonite population.
Education is compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 14. Attendance at primary schools was nearly universal in 2002–2003, but only 78 percent of children of secondary school age were enrolled in school. Higher education is available at colleges in Belize City and Corozal. The literacy rate of 93 percent is one of the highest in Latin America.
Belize is governed under a constitution that became effective at independence in 1981. Belize recognizes the British monarch as its own monarch and head of state, but the powers of the head of state are largely ceremonial. The monarch is represented by a governor-general who appoints a prime minister from the House of Representatives. The prime minister must have the support of a majority of the members of the House. Executive power is mainly exercised by a cabinet of ministers, led by the prime minister.
The bicameral National Assembly consists of a Senate of 8 members, appointed by the governor-general, and a House of Representatives of 29 elected members. The standard term in the National Assembly is five years, but a vote of “no confidence” in the prime minister can lead the governor-general to dissolve the Assembly.
The leading political parties are the People’s United Party (PUP), which was founded in 1950, and the United Democratic Party (UDP), founded in 1974. The PUP held power from 1961 to 1984. Since then control of the government has shifted between the PUP and the UDP.
Belize’s main economic resource is its farmable land, although only 3 percent of the total land area is actually under cultivation. Belize also has valuable forests, which originally drew British settlers to the land. Forestry was the major economic activity until agriculture surpassed it during the 1960s. Declining world prices for timber and depletion of forest resources forced the country to diversify its economy. Today, the fastest-growing sector of the economy is foreign tourism.
|A||Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing|
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing contributed 14 percent of Belize’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006. GDP is a measure of the value of all the goods and services a country produces. Sugarcane has traditionally been the country’s major crop, but today citrus fruits, especially oranges and grapefruit, compete with sugar in importance. These crops are grown on large plantations. Belize’s chief agricultural exports include sugar, citrus fruits, and bananas. Papayas and hot peppers are also grown for export. Rice, beans, and corn are grown for local consumption.
Plans to expand agricultural land and the forestry industry in Belize have run up against concerns about the environment. The country’s most valuable hardwood is mahogany. However, the supply of big leaf mahogany trees being harvested in tropical forests is rapidly dwindling, and environmental groups have voiced concerns about the species’ extinction.
Belize has abundant fishing resources offshore. The fishing industry grew in importance during the 1990s and today contributes significantly to the country’s export earnings. The chief seafood exports are shrimp and lobsters.
|B||Manufacturing and Mining|
The major manufacturing industries in Belize are food-processing and clothing. Food-processing plants produce sugar, orange and grapefruit juice concentrates, dried fruit, and hot-pepper sauces for export. Belize has some mineral resources, including gold and bauxite, but they are not being mined.
Many American tourists are drawn to Belize because it is an English-speaking country in Latin America with a stable government. Mayan ruins in the north of the country constitute a major tourist attraction. Other attractions are the rainforests, wildlife, and beaches along the Caribbean. Snorkeling, fishing, and scuba diving are popular in the coral reef that fringes the shoreline.
A road network of 2,872 km (1,785 mi) links the major urban centers in Belize, but some areas remain inaccessible, especially in the south. All-weather roads connect Belize City with Guatemala and Mexico. An international airport serves Belize City.
|E||Currency and Trade|
The unit of currency is the Belize dollar (2 Belize dollars equal U.S.$1; 2006 fixed rate).
Belize’s major trading partner is the United States. The United Kingdom is an important purchaser of the country’s exports. In 2003 exports earned $203 million, and imports cost $396 million. The government’s budget included $124 million in revenue and $140.6 million in expenditure in 1997.
Before the arrival of Europeans Belize was part of the territory of the Maya. In the late classic period of Maya civilization (before ad 1000), as many as 400,000 people may have lived in the area that is now Belize. Some lowland Maya still occupied the area when Europeans arrived in the 1500s. Spanish colonists tried to settle the inland areas of Belize, but they abandoned these efforts following Maya rebellion against Spanish authority.
|A||Buccaneers, Baymen, and Slaves|
English buccaneers first settled on the coast of Belize in 1638, seeking a sheltered region from which they could attack Spanish ships. The settlers turned to cutting logwood during the 1700s. The wood yielded a fixing agent for clothing dyes that was vital to the European woolen industry. The Spanish granted the British settlers the right to occupy the area and cut logwood in exchange for an end to piracy. Historical accounts from the early 1700s note that Africans were brought to the settlement from Jamaica to work as slaves and cut timber. As early as 1800 Africans outnumbered Europeans by about four to one. By then the settlement’s primary export had shifted from logwood to mahogany.
For fear of provoking Spanish attack, the British government did not initially recognize the settlement in Belize as a colony. It allowed the settlers to establish their own laws and forms of government. During this time a few wealthy settlers gained control of the local legislature, known as the Public Meeting, as well as of most of the settlement’s land and timber. The British first appointed a superintendent over the area in 1786.
The Spanish, who claimed sovereignty over the whole of Central America, tried often to gain control by force over Belize, but they were not successful. Spain’s last attack ended on September 10, 1798, when the people of Belize decisively defeated a Spanish fleet at the Battle of St. George’s Cay. The anniversary of the battle is now a national holiday in Belize.
In the early 1800s the British sought greater control over the settlers, threatening to suspend the Public Meeting unless it observed the government’s instructions to abolish slavery. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1838, but this did little to change working conditions for laborers in the Belize settlement. Because a small elite controlled the settlement’s land and commerce, former slaves had no choice but to continue to work in timber cutting.
|B||The Colony of British Honduras|
In 1836, after the emancipation of Central America from Spanish rule, the British claimed the right to administer the region. In 1862 Great Britain formally declared it a British colony, subordinate to Jamaica, and named it British Honduras. As a colony Belize began to attract British investors. Among the British firms that dominated the colony in the late 1800s was the Belize Estate and Produce Company, which eventually acquired half of all the privately held land in the colony. Belize Estate’s influence accounts in part for the colony’s reliance on the mahogany trade throughout the rest of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.
The Great Depression of the 1930s caused a near-collapse of the colonial economy as British demand for timber plummeted. The effects of widespread unemployment were worsened by a devastating hurricane that struck the colony in 1931. Perceptions of the government’s relief effort as inadequate were aggravated by its refusal to legalize labor unions or introduce a minimum wage. Demonstrations and riots in 1934 marked the beginning of an independence movement. In response, the government repealed criminal penalties for workers who broke their labor contracts and granted workers the right to join unions.
Economic conditions improved during World War II (1939-1945), when many Belizean men entered the armed forces or otherwise contributed labor to the war effort. Following the war the colony’s economy again stagnated. Britain’s decision to devalue the British Honduras dollar in 1949 worsened economic conditions and led to the creation of the People’s Committee, which demanded independence. The People’s Committee’s successor, the People’s United Party (PUP), sought constitutional reforms that would expand voting rights to all adults.
Constitutional reforms were initiated in 1954 and resulted in a new constitution ten years later. Britain granted British Honduras self-government in 1964, and the head of the PUP—independence leader George Price—became the colony’s prime minister. British Honduras was officially renamed Belize in 1973. Progress toward independence, however, was hampered by an old Guatemalan claim to sovereignty over the territory of Belize. When Belize finally attained full independence on September 21, 1981, Guatemala refused to recognize the new nation. About 1,500 British troops remained to protect Belize from the Guatemalan threat.
With Price at the helm, the PUP won all elections until 1984. In that election, first national election after independence, the PUP was defeated by the United Democratic Party (UDP), and UDP leader Manuel Esquivel replaced Price as prime minister. Price returned to power after elections in 1989. Guatemala’s president formally recognized Belize’s independence in 1992. The following year the United Kingdom announced that it would end its military involvement in Belize. All British soldiers were withdrawn in 1994, apart from a small contingent of troops who remained to train Belizean troops.
The UDP regained power in the 1993 national election, and Esquivel became prime minister for a second time. Soon afterward Esquivel announced the suspension of a pact reached with Guatemala during Price’s tenure, claiming Price had made too many concessions in order to gain Guatemalan recognition. The pact would have resolved a 130-year-old border dispute between the two countries. Border tensions continued into the early 2000s, although the two countries cooperated in other areas.
The PUP won a landslide victory in the 1998 national elections, and PUP leader Said Musa was sworn in as prime minister. In the 2003 elections the PUP maintained its majority, and Musa continued as prime minister. He pledged to improve conditions in the underdeveloped and largely inaccessible southern part of Belize.