The nation of Belize is located on the Caribbean side of northern Central America. It 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 present name is thought to be derived from the indigenous Maya word ‘belix’, which translates as ‘muddy water’ and accurately describes the Belize River.
The north of the country consists mainly of flat swampy coastal plains that include heavy forests. In the south is the low range of Maya mountains. The Caribbean coast is lined by a very extensive coral reef and includes about 450 islets or cays. Belize is the only Central American country without a Pacific coast. The total area is 22,965 sq km.
The country now known as Belize was originally a key part of the ancient Maya civilization, which began expanding around 1000 BC and flourished until about 900 AD. Maya influence extended from Mexico to present day El Salvador. The territory in Belize was the home of the earliest Maya settlements: it supported an estimated population of 1 to 2 million Maya and large cities like Xunantunich, Caracol, and Lamanai. Belize was also an important trading centre for the entire Maya area. Some major trading centres were Moho Caye, Santa Rita, Ambergris Caye and Wild Cane Caye. Other civic centres in Belize include Altun Ha, Lubaantun and El Pilar.
With the advent of Spanish rule in the 1500s Belize became part of the viceroyalty of New Spain (Guatemala), but did not attract major Spanish interest. The first settlers to Belize were a collection of English traders, buccaneers, and pirates who used the Bay of Honduras as a base from which to smuggle goods and attack Spanish gold bearing cargo fleets and territories.
Beginning in the 1630s, their activities increasingly turned to the harvesting of logwood for export, which led to the growth of a permanent colony out of their small initial settlements at Belize Town and St George’s Caye.
England and Spain competed for the Atlantic side of Central America throughout the1700s, with the Spanish being unable to dislodge the British. Ever-increasing numbers of British settlers arrived in Belize. Besides cutting logwood and mahogany, they grew indigo, sugar and bananas. All of these required a large labour force and so enslaved Africans were brought in, either captured from the Spanish or purchased in Jamaica. By 1745 Africans accounted for about three-quarters of the population of Belize.
England increasingly replaced Spain as the dominant regional colonial power. However, in the Convention of London in 1786, Britain was forced to relinquish the Miskito Coast and the Bay Islands but was allowed to continue harvesting timber and operating the lucrative forced labour plantations in Belize.
During the 1800s the Belize economy grew substantially, with trading operations extending along the coast to Nicaragua. Belize became the principal port of foreign trade in Central America and helped to extend British influence as far south as Panama.
Slavery was abolished in 1833 and thereafter East Indian indentured workers began arriving to replace the former slaves on the plantations.
In 1836, after Central America independence from Spain, Britain continued to push its claims to the Caribbean and in 1862 Belize officially became the British colony of British Honduras.
Central American independence
Meanwhile in neighbouring Guatemala, post-independence civil wars and dictatorships were causing growing turmoil. Guatemala declared itself a sovereign republic in 1847 and its increased focus on the production of export crops like coffee prompted large scale reallocation of land that led to an exodus of dispossessed indigenous and mestizo people. Some moved into Belize and began cultivating small farms in the north.
The election in 1873 of Guatemala’s first liberal dictator Justino Rufino Barrios heightened the trend of depriving indigenous groups of communal land. In the area of foreign relations he renewed the territorial conflict by challenging the claim of Britain to sovereignty over Belize (then still called British Honduras).
Belize was made an independent crown colony in 1884 and administered from Britain until the mid-20th century. Constitutional reforms were instituted in 1954 resulting in a new constitution. However moves towards independence were hampered by the long standing territorial claim by neighbouring Guatemala.
British Honduras became a self-governing colony in January 1964 and was renamed Belize in June 1973.
The country gained full independence in September 1981, with Guatemala withholding recognition and British troops remaining on hand for protection against the neighbouring threat.
In the first national elections in 1984, Prime Minister George Price of the United Party, who had led the country to independence, was replaced by Manuel Esquivel.
Price returned to power in the elections of September 1989 and began negotiating a settlement with Guatemala. Two years later, in 1991, it formally recognized Belize. However, on regaining office in 1993, Esquivel nullified the pact, arguing that too many concessions had been made in order to gain Guatemala’s recognition.
The agreement, which would have resolved the 130-year-old conflict, was suspended and as of August 2013, the border dispute with Guatemala still remains an unresolved issue.
Main languages: English (official), English Creole, Spanish, Mayan (Q’eqchi’, Mopan and Yucatec), Garífuna
Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic, Anglican and Methodist), Mayan religions (largely hidden)
Main minority groups: Maya 20,000 (10.6%), Garífuna (Garinagu) 13,200 (6.1%), Mennonites 6,000 (4.1%) Source: CIA, 2000.
Belize is the most culturally diverse nation in Central America and considers itself to be both Caribbean and Central American.
This is a reflection of its history as a British colony that developed in a Spanish-dominated region and has difficult border relations with neighbouring Guatemala to this day. Until 1991, Guatemala maintained a constitutional claim on the country.
Belize has the smallest population of all the non-island sovereign states in the Americas. The majority of the population is of mixed ethic origin being either English Creoles or Spanish Mestizos. Other groups include indigenous Maya, Garifuna, Europeans (English, Dutch/German and Spanish), Chinese, East Indians, and a number of, Lebanese, West Africans, Koreans, Central Americans, and expatriate Americans.
English-speaking Afro-Belizean Creoles are mainly of mixed African and British descent. The British were early settlers and traders and African people were brought to the country to provide forced labour in various regional ventures beginning in the mid-seventeenth century. Creoles live primarily in the coastal region and are the dominant group in most social and political institutions. Two thirds of the Creole population lives in Belize City.
Spanish-speaking Mestizos are mostly the mixed descendants of indigenous Maya and early Spanish colonizers. They form the largest portion of the population.
The Mestizo population originally arrived in Belize in the mid-1800s to escape the turmoil of La Guerra de Castas (War of the Castes) in the Yucatan and were joined by others fleeing an oppressive regime in the Peten. Mestizos are found everywhere in the country but mostly live in the northern lowlands of Corozal and Orange Walk and in the western district of Cayo. Mestizos introduced agriculture to a society that at the time was largely based on the extraction of timber for British buyers.
The Mestizo population grew significantly during the 1980s due to a continuing flow of refugees, economic migrants and seasonal farm workers from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Maya are the country’s indigenous population. They are the direct descendants of the original indigenous inhabitants of the Yucatan peninsula. Though a large proportion of the population suffered death or displacement as a result of colonization, during the nineteenth century their numbers were augmented by the exodus caused by the expropriation of lands in Guatemala to establish agricultural export enterprises. Today there are three Maya groups in Belize, namely Yucatec, Mopan, and Q’eqchi’ Maya.
Yucatec originated from Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and arrived in Belize in the mid-nineteenth century as refugees from the Guerra de Castes (Caste War). They now reside in the Corozal, Orange Walk, and Cayo Districts. Today the Yucatec Maya are primarily English and Spanish speakers.
Mopan Maya, moved to Belize in 1886 from the Peten region of Guatemala to escape taxation and forced labour, Mopan Maya settlements are in Toledo District and there are also other villages in the Cayo District.
Q’eqchi’ Maya arrived in Belize in the 1870s in order to escape enslavement by German coffee growers in Verapaz Guatemala. They settled in the lowland areas along rivers and streams and established small isolated villages throughout Toledo district. Because of their isolation, the Kekchi have remained the country’s poorest and most neglected minority.
Belize’s Maya people are mainly subsistence farmers. Maya people have experienced continued encroachment on their lands by non-indigenous settlers and large-scale logging and petroleum enterprises which threaten their traditional territories and way of life.
Although Mopan and Q’eqchi’ historically have been characterized under the general term Maya, recently some leaders have began to assert that they should be re-identified as Masenal (‘common people’).
Garifuna are an Afro-indigenous group resulting from the inter-marriage of African maroons and indigenous Kalinago (Carib-Arawak) on the Caribbean island of St Vincent. Garifuna were exiled to the Honduras Bay Islands in 1796 by the British and one group subsequently moved on to Belize in 1803. As a result of successful advocacy by Garifuna activists, 19 November is a now national holiday in Belize to commemorate the arrival of the Garifuna to Belize.
Garifuna have their own language and culture and are located predominantly in the southern towns of Punta Gorda and Dangriga, as well as in the villages of Seine Bight, Hopkins, Georgetown, and Barranco. Some Garifuna also reside in Belize City and Belmopan.
East Indians of Belize are the descendants of indentured labourers who began to arrive in the country after 1838 to fill the labour gap caused by the abolition of slavery. They initially came to work on the sugar plantations and over the years were joined by other East Indian immigrants. East Indians are distributed across a wide area in many villages and towns, primarily in the Corozal and Toledo Districts and are relatively well integrated into the Belizean population.
People of Chinese origin first began to arrive in Belize just before World War II to escape the Japanese invasion of China. More recently, many Taiwanese have also established homes and businesses as part of an economic citizenship program offered by the government of Belize. Chinese people are mainly involved in commerce and have established distinct communities.
Mennonites are mostly farmers of Dutch/German descent who began moving to Belize in 1958 from Canada and Mexico. Mennonites, who have a distinctive faith-based culture and clothing style, established six communities in the Orange Walk and Cayo Districts In addition to large productive farms, the group has been allowed to establish their own exclusive schools, churches, and financial institutions in their community. They specialize in agriculture, poultry and furniture production.
Belize is a parliamentary democracy and a member of the Commonwealth. The leading political parties are the People’s United Party (1950) and the United Democratic Party (1974).
The head of state is the British monarch, represented locally by a governor-general. Executive power is exercised by a cabinet of ministers, led by the prime minister. The two-chamber National Assembly consists of a 12-person appointed Senate and a 29-member elected House of Representatives.
Tourism is the mainstay of the economy. Only a small fraction of the arable land is under cultivation. Sugar is the chief crop and accounts for nearly half of exports. The banana industry is the country’s largest employer, with citrus production also becoming a major industry. Recent discoveries of petroleum deposits in the Cayo District and possible deposits in the Toledo District have greatly increased the country’s industrial potential.
English is the official language and Belize’s literacy rate of more than 90 per cent is one of the highest in Latin America.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Updated: September 2013
Sarstoon-Temash Institute for Indigenous Management
81 Main Street, Punta Gorda Town
P.O. Box 127
Toledo District, Belize, C.A.
Society for the Promotion of Education and Research (SPEAR)
SPEAR 5638 Gentle Avenue P.O. Box 1766
City Belize City, Belize
Phone (501) 223-1668
Fax (501) 223-2367
U Kuxtal Masewal Tzecnah (Maya Institute of Belize)
Mennonite World Conference
Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches
Tel: + 1 204 669 6575
Swiss Mennonite Cultural and Historical Association
Sources and further reading
Barry, T. and Vernon, D., Inside Belize, Albuquerque, N. Mex., Resource Center Press, 1995.
Government of Belize www.belize.gov.bz
LANIC: Belize. “retrieved 8 May 2007, http://lanic.utexas.edu/la/ca/belize/
Report To The Committee On The Elimination Of Racial Discrimination Submitted By States Parties- Eleventh periodic report of States parties Addendum Guatemala; March 2005 Distr. CERD/C/469/Add.1 6 May 2005.
Basso, Ellen B. ed. Carib-speaking Indians: culture, society and language. Contributors: Nelly Arvelo-Jiménez and others. Tucson, The Univ. of Arizona Press, 1977
Falla, Ricardo. What Lies Ahead for the Xicaques, Kunas, Garífunas and Mayas? November 2002. retrieved 8 May 2007, http://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/1624
Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy (IPLP) Program at the University of Arizona. Retrieved 9 May 2007, http://www.law.arizona.edu/depts/iplp/
“Across the Americas, Indigenous Peoples Make Themselves Heard.”, Los Angeles Times, October 19, 2003 Date accessed: 11/06/2003, http://www.latimes.com/
Psacharopoulos, George and Harry Anthony Patrinos. Indigenous People and Poverty in Latin America. Washington, D.C. The World Bank. 1994.
Restall Matthew The Maya World: Yucatec Culture and Society, 1550-1850. Stanford: Stanford University Press.1997
World Bank. ‘Implementation of Operational Directive 4.20 on Indigenous Peoples. An Independent Desk Review. Background Paper 1 retrieved 9 May 2007, http://www.worldbank.org/oed/indigenouspeople/docs/IP1.pdf
Cayetano, Sebastian R. Garífuna History, Language & Culture of Belize, Central America & The Caribbean, pp.22. S & F Cayetano: Belize, 1997.
Ewens, D., ‘Belize’, in MRG (ed.), No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today, London, Minority Rights Publications, 1995; and in MRG (ed.) Afro-Central Americans, London, MRG report, 1996.
González, Nancie. Sojourners of the Caribbean: Ethnogenesis and Ethnohistory of the Garífuna, University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago, 1988.
Idiáquez, José. El culto a los ancestros en la cosmovisión de los Garífunas de Honduras. Instituto Histórico Centroamericano, Managua, Nicaragua, 1994.
Melendez, Armando Crisanto and Auyujuru Savaranga. Adeija Sisira Gererum Aguburigu Gariganu: ‘El enojo de las sonajas; palabras del ancestro, ‘ Graficentro Editores: Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 1997.
Sawatzky, Harry Leonard – They Sought a Country: Mennonite Colonization in Mexico, with an Appendix on Mennonite Colonization in British Honduras. (Berkeley and London: U of California P) 1971.
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