‘We want people to be aware of exactly how precious our heritage is’

Dean Barrow

Belize is one of the Commonwealth’s 13 member countries in the Americas. Prime Minister Dean Barrow stops off to talk to Global about archaeology, trade and the environment during an official visit to the UK.

UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

Dean Barrow is halfway through a dizzying whirlwind of appointments with businessmen and dignitaries – including the Queen, Prince Charles and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague – when he meets Global in Kensington, west London.

Belize’s Prime Minister is on an official visit to the UK, which has seen him dashing all over the capital. “It’s been perfectly enjoyable, actually,” he says of his trip. “And the weather gods have been kind.”

Barrow is Belize’s first black Prime Minister. He led the United Democratic Party to victory in 2008 and is a year into his second term as the country’s premier. After studying law and international relations at the University of Miami, Barrow was called to the Belize bar, working as a barrister until his election to the House of Representatives in 1984.

With a population under 400,000 Belize is comparable to one of the UK’s medium-sized cities, but has the privilege of being one of the most sparsely populated countries in Central America – rainforest still covers 60 per cent of the country, which borders Mexico and Guatemala.

It also has a rich archaeological heritage. Belize found itself in the international headlines in May when one of the country’s largest Mayan pyramids, estimated to be 2,300 years old, was bulldozed by a construction company looking for rock to use as building material.

“That particular one was on private property and, unfortunately, one gathers that excavation had been going on for a while. So it is hard to say what else may have been bulldozed. Of course, it outraged the entire country and I could do without the bad press we got,” Barrow says with a wry smile. “The perpetrators are, of course, going to be charged. The laws may need updating, though. I believe the maximum penalty is a fine of $10,000, although there can be jail time.

“How easy is it to protect remote archaeological sites from attacks like this?

“There’s an educational process. We want people to be aware of exactly how precious our heritage is. But there will always be those who want to make money from it. We’ve signed agreements with Mexico and Guatemala that see them agreeing to stop sales of Mayan relics. The Archaeology Department in Belize is relatively small – we’ve got hundreds of these Mayan sites, some of which haven’t even been excavated yet.”

Compared to larger countries, Belize’s ministers are small in number and have broader responsibilities. Before he became party leader, Barrow held various ministerial roles and came to be known as the “minister of everything”. He is currently the minister of finance and economic planning, as well as being PM.

In person, Barrow comes across as down to earth and approachable. He is not accompanied by the large entourage you might expect of a prime minister – it’s just him and the High Commissioner when Global meets him.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of heading up a small country?

“Well, the clamour for progress and improvement gets quite personal because it is a small country, so people are more or less able to stop you on the street and let you have a mouthful if things aren’t going well. And things are never going as well as they could be! So politics is very very personal in Belize and there’s a sense of immediacy about what one does in government.

“Generally the fact that we’re a small country does mean that, in the world of big power politics, we have to fight hard to get a fair shake in terms of trading relations. On the plus side, while there are problems, relatively speaking, they’re on a small canvas. There are not teeming millions to look after. All the social problems – education, healthcare and poverty – are that much more manageable.”

Commonwealth membership is, therefore, important to Belize.

“As a small country, it’s nice to belong to a club of 50-odd members. Going to a CHOGM [Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting] a couple of years ago, I was quite pleased to see how clubbable it was. So it’s important to know that there’s a significant enough institution globally that you can belong to where you can feel that your voice counts for something, but it’s not so big that you get lost in the crowd.”

Barrow will soon be heading to 2013’s CHOGM in Sri Lanka. He’s hoping that the environment will be high on the agenda. Belize’s agriculture has been predicted to be vulnerable to climate change, which could have a big impact on the economy – the sector currently provides some 71 per cent of the country’s total foreign exchange earnings, and gives employment to almost a third of the labour force.

“In Belize, we look for the Commonwealth to play more of a leadership role in matters such as climate change. At the last CHOGM I went to in Trinidad, the Brits and Australians were very very gung ho about funds to deal with mitigation and the need for the world to reduce its carbon emissions. They were concerned that small island states and other vulnerable nations should get funds to deal with protecting areas that are below sea level.”

The Commonwealth has also been invaluable, says Barrow, in giving Belize diplomatic support over its territorial integrity. Guatemala has claimed on and off since 1940 that all, or part, of Belize’s territory is Guatemalan and there have been some border skirmishes in recent years. The Organization of American States (OAS) has attempted to mediate on the dispute, with an agreement reached that each country is to have a domestic referendum on referring the matter to the International Court of Justice. The referendum was due to take place in October, but Guatemala has now reneged on the date.

“I think they’ve had an earful from the international community and from the OAS and so they are talking about fixing another date, possibly in the first quarter or so of next year,” says Barrow. “But there’s a willingness on the part of the Guatamalans to work to ensure that flash points on the border are handled diplomatically, so that they don’t flare up and cause real real trouble.”

Even closer to home, the Belize government is locked in a dispute with environmentalists who want to see offshore oil exploration banned to protect the coral reef off the country’s coast. Belize has the world’s second largest barrier reef, once named as one of Jacques Cousteau’s top ten scuba diving sites. A coalition of environmental groups, alarmed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, gathered enough signatures to trigger a national referendum in Belize on offshore drilling in 2011. However, the government wriggled out of holding a referendum, citing technical problems with the petition, so the groups carried out their own unofficial referendum, which saw overwhelming support for halting the drilling.

This year, the environmental groups Oceana, Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action and the Belize Coalition to Save our National Heritage went to the Supreme Court to challenge offshore drilling contracts issued by the government, which resulted in the judge criticising actions by the Ministry of Energy, Science & Technology and Public Utilities. There are also oil reserves under parts of the rainforest, which, if exploited, will have human rights implications for the indigenous villages close by.

However, oil production in Belize is important to the economy, so it is hard for the government to ignore new opportunities for drilling. It’s difficult to find a balance between economic and environmental considerations when it comes to oil exploitation, Barrow admits.

“It’s difficult and sometimes the two seem irreconcilable but you’ve got to find a happy medium. I think it’s less problematic onshore than offshore. There’s been a huge campaign to get the government to agree to ban any offshore drilling. We’re not prepared to go that far, certainly not at the moment. But we do see where there needs to be exclusion zones, if you will. And the closer in you are to the reefs, the more obvious it is that you shouldn’t be working in these exclusion zones. We still need a lot of technical help on this, but we’re quite determined that there ought to be a regime put in place that will see that certain areas are off limits.”

Two priorities for the government at the moment are education and attracting foreign investment. One in ten children don’t even complete primary school, according to 2009 figures.

“Education is a huge priority for us,” says Barrow. “It’s 26 per cent of the national budget and takes up the bulk of social government spending. We’re trying to make education accessible, giving subsidies to first and second formers, improving teacher training, reviewing the curriculum and trying to jiggle the formula for how we finance schools.”

His UK visit has included a trip to Tate and Lyle’s sugar refinery on the Thames in London. “That was very good, very impressive. We were lucky because a ship with Belize sugar had just arrived, so I was able to see Belize sugar being unloaded. They took me to see pyramids of sugar piled up to the ceiling and they were able to distinguish Belize sugar from Brazilian sugar.”

He also attended a lunch in the City of London to meet investors who may be interested in working with Belize. The Belizean economy grew by 5.3 per cent during 2012, a big improvement on the 1.9 per cent recorded for 2011. Barrow is hoping to see it expand by three to four per cent this year.

“We want to double the export market,” he says. “Tourism is also growing in leaps and bounds and we make a fair bit from oil extraction – production is increasing. There’s been another find, but we still need to do all the appraisal work.”

His meeting with the royals is still to come in this whistle-stop tour. Will he be discussing anything in particular?

“With the Queen it’s always a privilege and an honour,” he says. “She’s head of the Commonwealth and Queen of Belize – we’re still very much a monarchy. It’s a de rigeuer kind of visit and one that I quite look forward to.”

With that, Barrow leaves to take a rare night off in his busy schedule.

Interview by Katie Silvester


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