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Background on Belize and the Toledo Region

Belize, formerly British Honduras, is a small, officially English-speaking country in Central America. Of its 358,000 people, most are of mixed African, Native American, or European descent.(1) Over ten percent are Mayan, most of whom live in the southern Toledo region.(2) The quality of life in Belize pales in comparison to that of the United States. Annual per capita income in Belize is less than one-sixth the U.S. average, and infant mortality is almost three times as high.(1) Moreover, these national indicators hide wide regional disparities.

Toledo is Belize’s southernmost region—at once its most lush and pristine as well as its poorest and least developed. The majority of Belize’s Mayan population lives in the Toledo district. Fifty percent of Toledo’s population is indigent compared to 16 percent across Belize as a whole. This means that half of Toledo’s citizens do not have enough money to satisfy basic food daily needs in order to maintain a healthy existence. Worse, indigence reaches 60 percent in Toledo’s rural areas.(3) Not surprisingly, Toledo has the highest rate of malnourished children in the country; 42 percent of Toledo’s children have stunted growth compared to 19 percent nationally.(4) Only 38 percent of Toledo’s children have had the necessary immunizations versus 63 percent nationally.(4) Adult literacy is also lower at 69 percent in Toledo versus 80 percent countrywide. Thirty-five percent of Toledo’s Kekchi Mayan adult population is illiterate.(2)

The region has been plagued by chronic poverty for several reasons. Most notable is the lack of education and infrastructure systems comparable to those in other regions of the country. This remote region of dense jungle and heavy rains has few paved roads, meaning that Toledo’s citizens are fairly isolated physically and have less access to markets for their agricultural products. Toledo’s citizens are also isolated technologically; only 15 percent of households have computers and only three percent have internet access.(2)

An acute lack of services and modern comforts compounds the misery of poverty in Toledo. A large proportion of Toledo’s population still relies on kerosene and lives in thatched-roofed huts, while most other Belizeans use electricity and live in concrete homes. Over 56 percent of Toledo’s families still cook over wood fires (compared to 18 percent nationally), increasing the risk of respiratory and other illnesses.(4) Fifty percent of Toledo’s residents use pit latrines, while the majority of those in other regions have flush toilets.(4) Malaria is also widespread. Moreover, a large number of the political refugees who fled to Belize from other Central American countries in the late 20th century settled in Toledo, putting even greater pressure on substandard education, health, water, and sanitation services.

Over 61 percent of Toledo’s 30,000 citizens are Mayan, and this percentage is much higher in the region’s rural areas.(2) Traditional Mayan ways set most of Toledo apart culturally from the rest of Belize. Many of Toledo’s rural citizens speak either Kekchi Mayan or Mopan Mayan at home. Less than half (48%) of Toledo’s residents above age three speak English well enough to hold a conversation.(2) Lack of bilingual education means Mayan children are behind from their first day of kindergarten, while lack of fluent English limits later educational and economic activities.

Moreover, the centuries-old Mayan lifestyle is increasingly rubbing up against the global economy, with possibly disastrous consequences for this already disenfranchised group. Small-scale agriculture centered on corn and rice forms the basis of the rural Toledo economy. Increasingly, though, men and women work on plantations producing crops for export. While cash incomes bring opportunity, they also bring trouble. Alcohol abuse among men, often leading to abuse of and malnourishment of women and children, is becoming more prevalent. Further, traditional communal land tenancy patterns give Mayans as a whole an insecure footing in the face of impending economic development and the government’s temptation to sell or lease traditional Mayan lands to foreign logging companies. Twenty-five percent of the Toledo households report that their land holdings are part of the communal reservation system.(2) Recently discovered oil reserves in Belize further threaten Mayan land security.

1) Population Reference Bureau; World Population Data Sheet; 2014 (website)

2) Statistical Institute of Belize; Main Results of the 2010 Population and Housing Censuses; May 2011

3) Ministry of Economic Development, 2009 Country Poverty Assessment; August 2010

4) Statistical Institute of Belize and UNICEF, Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey; 2011

 Background on Belize

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