Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute and its implications for conservation

Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute and its implications for conservation

  • Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute and its implications for conservation

by Arlenie Perez, Chuang Chin-Ta and Farok Afero 


History of the Belizean Territory


Belize, a small English-speaking nation in Central America, formerly known as British Honduras, was first inhabited by the Mayas who still live in different parts of the country today. They were the native inhabitants of southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and northern Honduras. The Spanish,  who colonized  most  of Central  and South  America  since the 14th   century, claimed Belize, as granted to them by the Pope (Leader of the Catholic Church). However, they never settled in Belizean territory as they failed to permanently subdue the Mayas. On the sea, the Belize barrier reef allowed British pirates to hide and rob Spanish ships while they were on their way out of South America. In 1670 however, the Treaty of Madrid ended piracy and the British settled to cut logwood but then switched to mahogany. Logwood was used to supply the dye industry in Europe in colonial days. Mahogany is a hard precious wood used to make furniture the latter required them to move farther inland to import more Africans as slaves.


At this point however, the Spanish still maintained a claimed over Belizean territory and attacked the British settlers on different occasions. Yet, in 1763 and 1783, the Spanish granted rights to the British to cut and export logwood from the Rio Hondo River to the Belize River though the Treaty of Versailles  and up to the Sibun River in 1786 (Figure  1). However, “they were not allowed to build forts, to govern themselves, to engage in agriculture, or to do any work other than woodcutting. In addition, this Treaty gave the Spanish the right to inspect the settlement” , which they did between 1787 and 1796, but the outbreak of war in Europe ended those inspections. Consequently,  while still acknowledging  Spain’s claim of sovereignty over Belizean territory,  the British  settlers  established  “de  facto”  sovereignty  at  the  beginning  of  the  19th century and extended the limits set by the 1786 agreement. The Spanish attacks continued until 1798 which marked the last attack, as the British won what is known today as the Battle of St. George’s Caye. By the 1820s, when various countries in Latin American became independent from Spain, the 4,000 British settlers in Belize had penetrated as far as the Sarstoon River.


The Guatemalan claim and negotiations


In  1839,  after  the  United  Provinces  of  Central  America  was  dissolved,  Guatemala  claimed sovereignty over Belize as an “inheritance” from Spain, a claim rejected by the British because neither Spain nor any Central American entity had ever occupied Belizean territory. The United Provinces of Central America was a union of Central American countries that had been colonized by Spain. In 1840, Britain declared that “the law of England shall be the law of the Colony of British Honduras.” However, not until 1862 did they officially declare Belize to be a British colony. In 1859, Britain and Guatemala signed a treaty, which, from the British point of view, defined the current boundaries between Belize and Guatemala. From the Guatemalan point of view, it was a treaty of cession where Guatemala gave up right to the land. For it to take effect, Britain had to help build a cart road to improve communications between Guatemala and the Atlantic Coast. This road was never built and Guatemala claimed the treaty was broken. In the years that followed, Britain  offered  cash  settlement  and  proposed  alternatives  such  as  a  railway  link,  but  no agreement was ever finalized.


In 1933, the two countries placed concrete monuments to mark the boundary line, as defined by the 1859 Treaty between British Honduras and the Republic of Guatemala. In 1940, Guatemala declared the 1859 treaty void. In 1945, the new Guatemalan constitution declared Belize to be part of Guatemalan territory and threatened to invade Belize. Similar threats occurred in 1972, 1975 and 1977, each time an increased British military presence prevented the invasions. By the 1950s however, Belize’s population had increased to 60,000. This consisted of the indigenous Maya, the British, the Africans, and their descendants, successive waves of migration had added Indian, Garifuna, Mestizo, West Indian, and other residents—a new people now called Belizeans who wanted independence. The Independence movement grew rapidly and by 1961, following the U.N. Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, Britain agreed that Belize could proceed to independence whenever it so desired. The Guatemalan claim, however, prevented this from happening.


In 1962, Belizean representatives along with a British delegation initiated direct negotiations with Guatemala and in 1963, Britain agreed to a new self-government constitution for Belize. Subsequently, Guatemala broke off diplomatic relations with Britain until 1985. For reasons not clearly established, in 1973, the country’s name was officially changed to Belize. The 1975 UN General Assembly resolution affirming Belize’s right to independence with all its territory was rejected by Guatemala. Belize continued to seek support from other countries which it gained by 1980 when 139 countries voted in favor, with seven abstentions and none against. Guatemala refused to vote. Belize gained independence in 1981.


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How to Cite:


Perez, A., Chin-Ta, C., & Afero, F. (2009). Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute and its implications for conservation. Tropical Conservation Science.  Retrieved 1, 2, from

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