Belize Survivor, part 68

That morning in San Ignacio, Alexis met Betty, a young American woman who lived with her husband and two kids up the Mountain Pine Ridge Road, just south of the National Forest Reserve. Apparently, her family had been among the first in the new wave of gringos to arrive. Alexis had ducked into the shade at a vegetable stand where an overabundance of tomatoes was selling for twenty-five cents per pound, and the two women had struck up a conversation – if you could call it that. It was really more of a rant, Alexis thought. Apparently Betty was so happy to meet another white woman that she couldn’t wait to talk about every interesting thing she’d ever seen or learned about in Belize.

“…and we’re surrounded by high bush, so naturally we hear the howler monkeys at night. We farm our land and grow most of what we need since Len and I are strict vegetarians..."

She might be a vegetarian, Alexis thought, but she’s a walking controversy. Betty couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds, soaking wet. She drank Coca Cola constantly, chain-smoked cigarettes, abstained from meat, ate candy bars, and drank herb tea. It reminded her of the soybeans and Snicker bars on Gaskin's Farm. Or maybe she’s just a natural speed freak, Alexis thought.

“…because, you see, our house is on the edge of a valley made fertile by a year-round creek, and it’s critical that you have a dependable water source. Has anybody told you how bad the dry season was last year? A normal dry lasts for only about three months, whereas this one lasted almost eight. The cattle were dying. All the artesian springs, what the locals call ‘eyes of water’ or ojos de agua, had dried up; even the most reliable creeks virtually disappeared. Cattle skirted the fencing where it met the rivers and trampled other people's properties in search of a single blade of grass. It was the worst dry in anyone's memory. Terrible.” Betty paused to take a large swig from her Coke to light another cigarette, taking two long drags before she continued. “Sure, it's still hot in the dry season, but where we are in the mountains at least you get lots of shade and a good breeze. All the mud dries up, the kids can enjoy playing outside, and laundry on the line dries in about ten minutes. It’s also easier to visit friends, or go to one of the rivers up the Pine Ridge for an afternoon. Good swimming holes and waterfalls.

"Of course, here in town it gets miserable in the dry season. All the white limestone on the roads turns to a choking dust. It sifts through the screens and leaves a white film all over everything: floors, walls, furniture. Clean it off and it’s back in ten minutes. There are swarms of houseflies. The temperature goes into the mid-nineties, and in May it gets smoky too. That's because the milpaléros start to burn."

"The what?" Alexis asked. Her mind couldn’t keep up with the torrent of information.

"Milpaléros,” said Betty. “The people who work their mílpas – little plantations. You see, the local people are so poor that their only tools are a machete, a file, and a pack of matches. Early in the dry season they go out and clear-cut a big piece of high bush. Over the next three months the fallen bush dries out in the heat, even the huge tree trunks, and when the dry season is at its hottest towards the end of May, they wait for a stiff breeze and then set a match to the whole piece. With a good burn, the whole mílpa goes up at once, nice and clean, leaving a big open space of ash-covered ground. When the ashes cool, they plant the corn, and hopefully, the rain falls immediately afterwards. The ideal situation is for them to set fire when the first rain clouds are visible on the horizon. That way their crop gets a head start on the weeds. If all goes well, the corn is harvested by the end of the mauga season in August."

"So then the next year they already have a piece of cleared land, right?" said Alexis.

"Wrong. That's the problem,” Betty said, pleased to have an audience and the opportunity to elicit a little drama. “You see, the big trees aren't going to grow back. The only thing that happens is a
secondary growth of weeds they call wamill. They can't deal with it just using a machete; weeds are too soft to chop. What the locals need is a tractor, which they don't have. Or herbicides, which they can't afford."

Horrified, she began to get the big picture. "So, you mean they..."

"Yep. They cut down a whole new piece of virgin high bush every year. When you figure that every single milpaléro does this every year, you have a country whose forest is rapidly disappearing."

"That's terrible!” Alexis exclaimed. “Can't it be stopped?"

"The Mayas have been doing it for thousands of years. And the politicians want them to do it; they consider it progress. The practice of ‘slash and burn’ is not going to stop in a couple of decades just
because a few gringos tell them it's a bad idea."

"But in a couple of decades the forest will be gone!" Alexis protested.

"You know that and I know that, but the locals can't see the big picture. One of the best things we can do as Americans is to educate them before they screw up their own country. At least the population here in the west is still pretty low, but if the refugees from Guatemala keep entering the country illegally, the problem will get a whole lot worse." She paused for a moment. "But that's the dry. You want to know about the wet season?"

Alexis was shaken. "I don't know," she said nervously. "Do I?"