It was American essayist, lecturer, and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson who once stated that ‘The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.’ These words ring true today as a cacao farmer in Southern Belize struggles to work his plantation in the tradition of his Maya ancestors. He doesn’t make much money, but the freedom that he gets from being able to eat and drink from his trees is priceless.
They say cacao is the food of the gods. For Mayans it was their gold. It was used as currency. When Columbus first appeared in the Americas, the Mayans met him with cocoa seed.
At the age of thirteen, Eladio Pop started working on his land. Everybody was free to take a piece of the community land and to use it for farming. He located a spot and has stuck to it all this time.
When the community decided to divide the reservation into individual lots, the custom of communal labor began to disappear. However some farmers still call on each other for help when it’s time to plant.
Nowadays a farmer can claim title to his land only after many years of paying a monthly lease to the government. Of course some cannot afford to pay the lease and fall into debt. This places them at risk of losing their land. Because wealthy foreigners are interested in purchasing land from the government, many farmers have lost ownership of what was culturally theirs.
The government sees the reservation as uninhabited vacant land and willingly sells it off to foreign investors, completely ignoring the thousands of people who have lived and worked there for generations. The Mayas aren’t asking for more land, they are only asking that the land they live on not be sold from under them. Mayas occupied Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras centuries before any other culture appeared on the scene. And their lives are intimately connected to the land. Without their land, they will cease to exist as an indigenous people.
Even though the Mayas are considered to be among the poorest groups in Belize, they are quick to explain that they might not have a lot of cash, but they are rich in lands.
The Mayas in Toledo are fighting to avoid a disaster such as has happened in other countries, where some millionaire buys the land and the farmers then end up working for him almost for free.
Eladio Plop has fifteen children. His wife gave birth to their first child when she was only fourteen years old. His firstborn son has decided not to follow in those footsteps because children are costly to raise. He has decided to only have one son. His dream is for his son to become a lawyer or doctor, not a cacao farmer. Like him, many of the younger generation are choosing to step away from their traditions.