The Gentrification of Belize

In Lifestyle, News by Brianna Juliet Lambey

Belize is the home of my ancestors, the place where our culture was founded and fostered. Belizeans, particularly Garifuna Belizeans, who have spent generations on their land are being pushed off their land by foreigners looking for a new vacation home. The ancestral land is now being filled with high-end resorts, pickleball courts, and bars paid for with foreign money. Both my parents are Garifuna people who immigrated to the Occupied Turtle Island (the United States) from the southern coastal towns of Belize. The first time I saw glimpses of my parent’s home country was on an episode of House Hunters International when a white couple was looking for a beachfront home to move to after they retired. The land of my ancestors is being sold to the highest bidder. I didn’t know it at the time, but this episode of House Hunters was a sign of gentrification, another consequence of European colonialism.

The Origins of the Black Caribb:

Garifuna is the main ethnic/cultural group of pan-Afrikan Belizeans. Garifuna culture is thought to have originated in the Caribbean when ships carrying enslaved people landed on the coastal areas of countries like Honduras, St. Vincent, and Belize. Many Garifuna people fled enslavement brought on by oppressive British colonialism in Honduras and settled along the southern coastal parts of Belize. Since then the Garifuna people have largely made up the population of the southern coastal towns like Hopkins, Dangriga, and Punta Gorda.

The Displacement of the Garifuna People

During the period of British colonialism in Belize the southern coastal towns which have been historically predominantly inhabited by the Garifuna people went largely untouched by Europeans. However in recent years as Belize has become more of a tourist destination the beachfront properties and land, particularly in the town of Hopkins, are largely being purchased by white Americans and Europeans. A study conducted by three Belizean scholars found that “75% or more of coastal land has[ve] been purchased by foreigners.” The per capita income of residents in developed countries is roughly “eight or more times that of Belize,” which allows for a “greater disposable income and ability to pay” for the coastal land. The difference in disposable income allows foreigners from developed countries to “drive up prices of Belize land to levels far above what most Belizeans can afford” which shuts the native people of Belize out of the market for land (Cayetano).

The gentrification of Belize has largely gone unnoticed, but with every new purchase of beachfront property, the native people of Belize are being pushed farther inland, and away from the land that has been theirs since they escaped oppression. Gentrification is the new form of European colonialism, the process involves foreigners coming to a country and exploiting the country’s resources for economic gain at the expense of the native people who have spent generations on the land.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines gentrification as “a process in which a poor area (as of a city) experiences an influx of middle-class or wealthy people who renovate and rebuild homes and businesses and which often results in an increase in property values and the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.” Similarly the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines colonialism as “the practice of extending and maintaining a nation’s political and economic control over another people or area.” In the case of Belize where the country’s economy is largely dependent on tourism, beachfront properties are incredibly valuable. The town of Hopkins which was formerly known for having one of largest Garifuna populations is now known for its various resorts, tourist attractions, and its growing number of foreign residents. Even Bill Gates purchased land to build a beachfront compound off the coast of Hopkins. By controlling Belize’s land market foreigners are able to control a large portion of the country’s economy which often grants political power within the country.

Webster’s dictionary definition of colonialism and gentrification can be easily applied to Belize, as middle-class to wealthy foreigners are seizing economic, and potentially political control, through the country’s land market at the expense of displacing the native residents from their land. When I visited Hopkins the coast largely resembled areas in Los Angeles with large gated beach houses, restaurants, and (in comparison to other parts of Belize) very few pan-Afrikan people. This starkly contrasts with other southern coastal towns in Belize which have very few white people, and have more businesses that cater to the locals rather than the tourists. The Garifuna culture that has generationally inhabited the Belize land is being pushed out with the native residents. An example of the cultural displacement occurring in the town of Hopkins is the Jankunu tradition.

Given the origins of the Garifuna, the culture is largely influenced by the different Afrikan cultures across the diaspora. Garifuna culture has adopted its own traditions and style, with influences from different Afrikan cultures, such as the Jankunu (roughly pronounced John Canoe). Jankunu is a dance that served the original purpose of mocking the white slave owners during colonialism, but has now become a staple of Garifuna culture and is performed every holiday. Traditionally the Jankunu perform their dance in front of local households in exchange for roughly twenty Belize dollars (ten US dollars), however, in recent years places like Hopkins are now charging around four hundred Belize dollars (two hundred US dollars) to watch the dancers perform. By drastically raising the price many of the natives may no longer be able to afford to experience the cultural tradition of seeing the Jankunu dancers perform. Meanwhile, the resorts in the area hire the Jankunu to perform for their guests, so they can get a glimpse into the Garifuna culture which comes at the expense of the native people.

It’s sad to see some of the last few places on this earth that have largely gone untouched by European colonialism and imperialism become gentrified. The Garifuna people spent years escaping the oppression and colonialism brought on by European forces, but years later colonialism has returned under the guise of capitalism.

A potential solution to the cultural and physical displacement of the country’s native people is to follow in the footsteps of Mexico which previously “banned foreigners entirely from directly owning land.” Although this approach may appear drastic it would help preserve the garifuna culture and presence on their native land. It seems more drastic to allow the garifuna people to be displaced from their land, and replaced by foreigners due to wealth disparities. By prohibiting foreigners from directly owning land the garifuna people can continue to occupy and own their ancestral land.