Frontline World

BELIZE - The Exile's Song, January 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Exile's Song"

Music of the Garifuna

Follow the beat

Land, People, Economy

Background, the Garifuna Diaspora, Punta Rock




Images of  landscapes, people and culture in Belize
Facts & Stats

• General
• Land
• People
• The Garifuna
• Economy


Belize borders the Caribbean Sea, between Guatemala and Mexico. Slightly smaller than Massachusetts, its population is estimated to be 250,000 -- the lowest population density in Central America.

The capital of Belize is Belmopan, built after Belize City was ravaged by a hurricane in 1961. The former capital, Belize City, remains the nation's commercial center and largest town.

Belize, formerly called British Honduras, declared its independence from the British Crown in 1981, and joined the British Commonwealth.

Belize's head of government is prime minister Said Musa of the People's United Party, which maintains strong majorities in the 29-member House of Representatives and the eight-member Senate. Musa is the third prime minister in the nation's short history.

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Almost all of Belize is covered with forest -- it is home to more than 220 tree and 350 bird species.

The world's second-largest barrier reef lies off the coast of Belize.

Belize is the site of thousands of ceremonial caves and ruins of the ancient cities of the Maya.

More than one-third of Belize's land is under some form of protected area status, making it the country with the greatest proportion of protected land in the hemisphere.

Belize has a growing ecotourism industry, and in 2001, more than 195,000 people visited the country.

Belize has been able to preserve its environment better than neighboring countries, but it still struggles with industrial waste, over-fishing of certain species, increasing deforestation, and outbreaks of diseases such as malaria and cholera.

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Nearly half of Belizeans identify as mestizo, that is, as having mixed ancestry, in their case, Spanish and Mayan. About one-third identify as Creole, descendants of African slaves originally brought to Belize from various parts of West Africa to work in the logging industry.

The Garifuna (pronounced gah-REE-foo-nah), also known as Black Caribs and Garinagu, make up about 6 percent of Belize's population.

Belize's other ethnic groups include East Indians who came to work in the sugar cane fields in the 1800s; Chinese who arrived before World War II to escape the Japanese invasion of China; and Mennonites, descendants of Europeans who came to Belize in 1950s seeking religious freedom.

English is Belize's official language. Spanish, Mayan (which has more than 10 dialects) and the Garifuna language are also spoken.

The literacy rate among Belizeans 15 years and older is 94 percent.

One-third of Belizeans live below the poverty line, most in the southern rural districts of Toledo and Cayo.

The unemployment rate for women is more than twice that for men (21 percent versus 10 percent).

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The Garifuna

The Garifuna are descendants of West African slaves who are believed to have shipwrecked on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, where they mixed with Carib and Arawak Indians to create one of the most unique black cultures in the Americas.

British troops colonized St. Vincent in 1797. After a two-year war, the English forced most of the remaining 2,000 Garifuna into exile, onto the island of Roatan off the coast of Honduras. The island had no water and little arable land, so the Garifuna eventually headed for the mainland of Central America, settling in fishing villages along the coast.

Some Garifuna in Belize date their arrival back to November 19, 1832, commemorated annually as Garifuna Settlement Day.

Today, an estimated 11,500 Garifuna live in Belize and along the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Estimates of the total Garifuna population worldwide vary from 100,000 to 450,000.

The Garifuna have steadily migrated to the United States over the last five decades. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Miami are all home to many Garifuna immigrants.

The Garifuna culture is threatened, according to the United Nations, which in 2001 proclaimed it to be among the "masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity." The native Garifuna language is only taught in one Belizean village, and virtually no documentation of it exists. Migration, discrimination, and lack of government and financial support are other factors that threaten the culture's survival.

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Belize's currency is the Belizean dollar, or the BZD.

Belize's service industry -- including trade and tourism -- has accounted for the largest share of the gross national product since the early 1980s.

Today, more than half of Belize's work force is employed in service jobs.

Sugar is Belize's main source of export revenue. Bananas and citrus fruits also are major exports. The United States is Belize's main trading partner.

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The CIA 2003 World Factbook; World Bank Group; The JANUS Foundation; World Resources Institute; The Nature Conservancy; United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; Peter Eltringham, The Rough Guide to Belize (Rough Guides 2001); Belize Community Service Alliance; and Belize Trade and Investment Development Service.