Selling Swamps and Paradise: The Fluid Imaginary of a Belizean Waterscape

  • Selling Swamps and Paradise: The Fluid Imaginary of a Belizean Waterscape

Presentation by Siobhan K. McCollum at the 1st Belize National Research Conference, March 2018.




Four days after returning home from ethnographic fieldwork, I received a text from a friend of a friend in the coastal village where I completed my research. It read “My mother wants to sell you her land.” The offer was familiar, as people frequently mistook me for a wealthy tourist looking to buy a piece of paradise. These offers are part of the long history of foreign land ownership that shapes Belize’s economy and society. When measured against the forestry-based land monopoly established in the hinterland by early European settlers, and the dominance of American landownership in the twentieth century, the foreign frenzy for buying small parcels of waterfront land is a recent phenomenon. Prior to the increased development of tourism in the 1990s, the sandy shorelines of the south were largely perceived by outsiders as marginal spaces in a swampy colonial backwater. Beaches and wetlands were imagined as peripheral, unproductive and diseased landscapes, thus when the first wave of Garifuna migrants arrived in modern Belize, the southern beaches were unclaimed and available for settlement. Here, I consider how the beach shifted from a miasma-laden edge in the margins of the colony to a rapidly developing destination for tropical paradise tourism, amenity-based migration and real estate investment. Through participant observation and archival work, I trace how social marginalization and exclusionary land policies pushed the Garifuna to the coastal fringe, and how changing imaginaries transformed their isolated fishing community into a paradise in the center of an international real estate market.




Key words: Garifuna communities, coast land, Southern Belize, land

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