By Wellington C. Ramos
Stann Creek District possesses two ports, which are Commerce Bight Port in Dangriga town, the deepest in the country of Belize, and Big Creek Port in Mango Creek village 40 miles away from Dangriga on the Southern Highway. The Commerce Bight Port was built by the British in the 1900s to ship bananas from the farms in Stann Creek Valley overseas.
Born in Dangriga Town, the cultural capital of Belize, Wellington Ramos has BAs in Political Science and History from Hunter College, NY, and an MA in Urban Studies from Long Island University. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science and History
After the Panama disease destroyed the banana industries in Belize and other countries in Central America, the farmers started to plant oranges. The citrus industries used the Commerce Bight Port to ship all their products overseas up until the government decided to lease it to Ports of Belize Ltd in 2002 under the management of Luke Espat.
In the 1960s, the government of Belize made a deal with two American companies, namely, Brown and Root and Hercules to process pine resin from the pine trees in the Mango Creek village area. They were shipping the lumber and all their products through Big Creek, while citrus from the Stann Creek Valley was being shipped through Commerce Bight Port.
These companies attracted many people to the village of Mango Creek to seek employment. A neighbouring village was constructed to accommodate additional people called Independence. Due to a dispute between the government of Belize and these two companies, the companies pulled out of Belize and the village went dormant.
Years after, the farmers decided to plant bananas, which is now a booming industry in the Big Creek area. The banana farming is so huge that most of the villages in the surrounding area are engaged in this industry. The Garifuna people from Dangriga, Hopkins, Seine Bight and George Town were never given the opportunity to participate in this industry. This is despite the fact that they have been planting bananas, which is one of their main foods, since their arrival to Belize in 1801 from Roatan, Honduras.
The Garifuna and Maya people, who are the two largest ethnic groups in the southern part of Belize, have always been neglected when it comes to economic opportunities that are available in our country.
After the Commerce Bight Port was closed in Dangriga when the People’s United Party was the government of Belize in 2002, the citrus and oil industries are now shipping their products through the Big Creek Port in Mango Creek village. This has led to the loss of many jobs for the male residents of Dangriga town.
When the UDP was campaigning to become the new government of Belize in 2008, they told the Dangriga people that if they were to elect them back into office, they would reopen the port to give them jobs. Well, it is now nine years since they were elected and the port is still closed. The people of Dangriga voted for Arthur Roches in 2008 as their UDP representative and nothing happened. Then out of anger voted for Anthony Ramos in 2012, the PUP representative, and nothing happened.
The Belize UDP government made an announcement in 2013 that they have taken back the port from Ports of Belize Ltd, the company that had the lease to it, but still nothing has happened at the port.
When I look at the future of Dangriga town, it will become a city soon. A road can be built from Commerce Bight Port in Dangriga to Hopkins village, which is very close. This will make it easier for the people from Hopkins and Sittee River Village to come straight to Dangriga instead of going through the Southern Highway, which is a lot more miles.
Another plan that is needed is to build a road from the six mile junction where the Southern Highway and the Hummingbird Highway meets straight to Commerce Bight Port. This will avoid the oil, citrus and cargo vehicles from going through Dangriga town with their cargo and hazardous goods that can endanger the citizens of the town.
The last general election in the country of Belize was held in 2015 and the Dangriga people voted for the UDP candidate Frank Pawpa Mena and are still waiting for some action with the port. He has until the year 2020 before his term expires and we will wait to see if there will be any progress in reopening Commerce Bight Port.
When Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) from Florida was proposing to establish a site on Harvest Cay in Stann Creek District, Joseph Guerrero, other Garifuna activists and myself asked the company and government representatives how the Commerce Bight Port will fit into their plan and how the people of Dangriga will benefit from their project?
Our questions and concerns were never answered or addressed up to this day. The NCL project is now in full swing and our people in Dangriga Town are still waiting. Every day the Commerce Bight Port remains closed, it is a significant loss to the people and town of Dangriga. I now call on all my people from Dangriga town, to confront the government of Belize and demand from them to reopen this port so that our people can get some economic opportunities and jobs.
While we are waiting, Big Creek Port is fully operational and all the people in that area are getting the jobs. There is also a plan to open a second airport next to Placencia to make it easier for tourists who are interested in visiting that area and reaching their vacation homes.
The Belize City airport is closer to Dangriga town so a new airport in that area will not be of much benefit to them. The only two Garifuna villages in that area are Seine Bight and Georgetown. The way things are going now, these two villages will eventually be overpopulated by people from the United States, Guatemala and El Salvador. Hopkins, Seine Bight and Georgetown are all landlocked by neighbouring non-Garifuna villages.
We are only being fed unfulfilled promises over the years, like a bunch of kids, and we have accepted them for too long. Time for us to take a serious stand on these issues.