Recently the issue of pollution in the New River has seemingly resulted in a surge in environmental concern among people. It is commendable that people are showing such an interest in the state of the environment, and one hopes that such interest will be sustained and not sporadic. I would like to offer the following observations and suggestions. The New River issue has generated much commentary, much of it criticism, sometimes to the extreme, of the Department of the Environment (DoE). While I am all for the public being vigilant and holding all government agencies accountable, I would suggest to the Belizean public that it is not enough to be an earnest environmentalist. We must be intelligent, earnest environmentalists. What do I mean?
In Belize, all political power resides at the ministerial, more so at the cabinet, and ultimately at the prime-ministerial levels. Let us not pretend that the different departments/agencies in Belize have actual power to set and change policies and practices. These agencies/departments have technical experts who function as best they can within the constraints in Belize – financial, technical, infrastructural, and most importantly political.
Lambasting, for example, the DoE by accusing them of “not doing their jobs” and comments of the sort, fails at understanding, or perhaps acknowledging, the power dynamics in Belize. The DoE has competent staff that can make recommendations on best environmental practices “till kingdom come” but it is the political bosses (area rep, minister, cabinet, PM) that have the ability/power to implement such recommendations. Does anyone really believe that DoE has not tried to have the different actors who influence the health of the New River change their practices? However, we all know that in Belize any attempts by the technical departments/agencies to have businesses, developers, towns, etc. change their practices, improve the way they do business, and so on, can be quashed by having the area rep, minister, or cabinet intervene. That is the nature of Belize. That is the way business is done. Let us not pretend otherwise. It should not be. It is a shame. But it is.
If we as a society, as a country, want to change the way things are done in Belize; if we want to hold businesses and people accountable so they follow the recommended policies that are good for the country (for example, obey environmental regulations), then we must do so in a way that is actually effective. Simply demonizing departments means we are letting the real power brokers, our elected politicians, off the hook. It is interesting that often the loudest shouts condemning government departments come from people who themselves do not follow the regulation of those departments and simply grease the political wheel to enable them to infringe them. It is important that the average person understand that this is the underlying root of many of our problems. The recent New River issue, like many others, shows how quickly those with political agendas or for whom “environmentalism” is really a business can hijack the conversation down an unproductive path.
All this means that we have to be smart, accept our responsibilities, and understand the power we hold. If we continue electing people who simply perpetuate the corrupt system in Belize; if we participate in this system of patronage that ultimately is skewed to favour the wealthy and connected; then, we are failing to understand how we can make changes happen. Focusing on the technical workers who often toil under difficult conditions and are constrained by the political and moneyed class is ineffective and unproductive. Belizeans should demand actual, concrete plans from those seeking votes. What specific plans do they have to address the myriad of problems we have (environmental, economic, infrastructural, etc)? We should hold them accountable if they do not follow through. Vote with your purse and feet if any business engages in bad practices (business, environmental, etc.).
Elections should not be popularity contests. They should be contests of ideas, where the meritorious with the best plans should win. Never forget that “the fish rots from the head.” When we come to understand that we hold the power, then positive change shall come to Belize.