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Country profile - Belize


Situated on the Caribbean coast of Central America between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize is geographically small but extremely diverse. One fifth of the total land area of the country is protected as nature reserves with dense rainforest providing refuge to an exotic variety of wildlife, including the tapir, the black orchid and the keel-billed toucan - all national symbols of Belize. In addition, the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, a major attraction for the growing number of tourists to Belize, lies (at its closest point) only one kilometre off shore.

An exotic mix

Belize was once the centre of the Mayan Empire (which stretched through Guatemala and southern Mexico) that flourished from 1500 BC until about AD 900. Direct descendants of the Maya still live in Belize, mostly in the southern districts, amongst an eclectic mix of newcomers. The Mestizo (from Spanish and Yucatan Mayan descent) constitute almost half of the population. Resident in the northern districts of Corozall and Orange Walk, Mestizo smallholders mostly practise subsistence farming (maize, beans and pepper), and also grow sugarcane. Refined sugar is one of the country's main exports. Creoles, those of African heritage, live mostly in urban areas and are the next largest ethnic group in Belize; whilst the Garifuna - an intermingling of African people with Carib and Arawak Indians - practise traditional fishing and agriculture in the southern region of Belize.

The most conspicuous newcomers are the Mennonites, who relocated to Belize in 1959 from America and Mexico in search of a life free of religious persecution and the pressures of modern society. Widely respected by other Belizeans for their disciplined work ethic, the Mennonites have transformed wilderness into highly productive farmland and dairies, which provide a significant contribution to the economy.

Mayan ruins at Xunantunich, Belize
Mayan ruins at Xunantunich, Belize

Belize remains one of the least densely populated countries in the Americas, despite the recent influx of immigrants from its Central American neighbours. The population is currently less than 300,000 people, with more than 30 per cent living in the former capital, Belize City. It is estimated, however, that as many Belizeans live outside the country, in the US for instance, providing vital remittances for family members remaining at home.

Agriculture - backbone of the economy

Despite the growing tourism industry in Belize, agriculture continues to provide over 70 per cent of the country's total foreign exchange earnings, and employs almost a third of the total labour force. About half of the land used for agriculture is under pasture, with the remainder planted to a variety of permanent and annual crops. The traditional system of milpa (shifting cultivation) involves the annual clearing of new land for crop production but, with increasing land pressure, the practice is no longer sustainable and a greater number of farmers make permanent use of cleared land.

Sugar, citrus (mainly orange and grapefruit) and banana plantations have traditionally dominated export production in Belize. More recently, however, there has been a shift to non-traditional exports including papaya, hot peppers, fresh fruit to the US and organic cacao, produced by the Toledo Cacao Growers' Association and used in Green and Black's fairtrade chocolate, Maya Gold. Inland fish and shrimp culture are also rapidly increasing. With threats to the sugar and banana industries (sugar currently accounts for 60 per cent of agricultural exports), as a result of changes in EU preferences, further diversification will be vital if Belize is to maintain its proportion of foreign exchange from agricultural exports.

One such initiative has been to expand soybean production in order to reduce the US$12 million cost of imported animal feed and cooking oil. An oil extraction facility has almost been completed in the north, which will require an acreage of 8,000 acres to run at full capacity. It is estimated that a total of 25,000 acres of soybean would be needed to meet national demand for soybean products. To help expand production, the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI) in Belize is assisting in research to improve seed quality and small-scale production within the country.

Conservation and climate change

The coastal locale of Belize City has long meant that its residents have been at the mercy of tropical storms. In 1961 the devastation caused by hurricane Hattie forced a relocation of the capital 70 kilometres inland to Belmopan. Concern over the increasing frequency of tropical storms and the potential impact of climate change in the Caribbean region has also led to the establishment of the Caribbean Community Centre for Climate Change. The Centre, which will co-ordinate the region's efforts to better inform its policies and to manage and adapt to climate change, was recently officially opened in Belmopan.

Eco-tourism is a growing industry for Belize (see also Establishing the balance: Eco-tourism and farming) and helps to support conservation initiatives such as the Programme for Belize. One of its flagship activities has been The Rio Bravo Conservation and Management area, which has become a national example of sustained forestry development and conservation. Since 1992, the Programme has promoted low-impact tourism, regulated timber harvesting (particularly for mahogany and cedar), and funded on-going ecological research.

Conservation is also at the heart of a reforestation project in central Belize. Reforestation efforts in The Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, one of the oldest geological areas in Central America, are targeted at replacing 90 per cent of the pine trees that are currently dead or dying due to attack from the Southern Pine Bark Beetle (Dendroctomus frontalis). Initiated in 2002, the reforestation is one of the world's largest carbon sequestration projects and it is estimated that over 24 million tonnes of CO2 will be sequestered during 50 years of re-growth in the forest.

Economic concerns

Whilst the Government can be commended for its support for conservation initiatives and climate change mitigation, there are concerns over the country's economic policies. The economy has grown (3.5 per cent in 2004), but much of the increased revenue has been poorly spent. Since President Musa took office in 1998, public debt has increased from 41 to 93 per cent of GDP, much of it borrowed at commercial rates. Belize, although more politically stable than many of its Caribbean neighbours, is amongst the top ten heavily indebted emerging-economy governments. With trade privileges for bananas to end in 2006 and sugar in 2009, the Government will have to do much more to convince its voters if Musa is to survive beyond the next presidential elections in 2008.

Statistical information
  • Country: Belize
  • Capital: Belmopan
  • Area: 22,966 sq km
  • Population: 279,457 (July 2005 est.)
  • Languages:English (official), Spanish, Mayan, Garifuna (Carib), Creole
  • People: 49% Mestizo, 25% Creole, 11% Maya, 6% Garífuna
  • Life expectancy: male: 65.02 years; female: 70.08 years (2005 est.)
  • GDP: purchasing power parity - $1.778 billion (2004 est.)
  • GDP per capita: purchasing power parity - $6,500 (2004 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 17.7%; industry: 15%; services: 67.3% (2003 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 2.85%, permanent crops: 1.71%, other: 95.44% (2001)
  • Major industries: Sugar, bananas, fish products, garment production, food processing, timber, tourism, construction
  • Agricultural products: bananas, cocoa, citrus, sugar; fish, cultured shrimp; lumber
  • Natural resources: arable land potential, timber, fish, hydropower
  • Major export partners: US 36.8%, UK 28.5%, Thailand 3.6% (2004)

Date published: September 2005


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