NEITHER OIL NOR WATER-By Therese Belisle Nweke

wateroilIn AMANDALA’S editorial of 15 May, 2015, “THE OIL OR WATER …” the position advocated was that tourism (water) should be the preferred alternative to the oil industry. Beyond any doubt, the Barrow administration of Belize is determined to fully pursue the fossil fuel route in its avowed aim to develop Belize. However, there is a caveat to this “Drill, we will” approach. It is a known axiom that nations which rely on natural resources alone to develop their economy not only come to grief, but eventually end up in a bad way. The following should be carefully noted:


  1. Nations with an abundance of natural resources, particularly non-renewable ones like oil, gas and minerals, tend to have less economic growth and develop at a slower pace than those with very little or none. While Africa is the world’s most mineral endowed continent, it is also the poorest!


  1. Oil wealth invariably creates a crony capitalist culture and a rentier economy, in which a tiny, powerful elite flourishes at the expense of the development and human rights of the majority. This is true in Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Latin America, but also in the Middle East, where although the Saudi and Qatari rulers in many ways have bettered their people’s lives materially, democratic institutions are either weak or in abeyance.


  1. The sudden flow of petro-dollars make many oil rich nations to neglect or ignore non-oil sectors, such as agriculture and manufacturing, which are relatively less competitive.


  1. Environmental degradation and the pollution of land, rivers, the sea and the air through oil spills, gas flaring, hydraulic mining, leaked chemicals, dredging and deforestation are the norm, rather than the exception. Random examples of these are the 2010 oil spill by BP in the Gulf of Mexico, Exxon Mobil in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, with a record of 7,000 oil spills between 1970 and 2000, with more counting still, Texaco’s drilling in Ecuador’s rain forest which severely polluted that country’s stretch of the Amazon river (the damages sought were up to $27 billion), and in Papua New Guinea; where it will take more than 300 years to clean up billions of waste dumped in the Ok Tedi River by a mining company which closed shop three years ago.


  1. The rise of illegitimate entities which take control of land, sell mining rights, oil blocks, crude oil, diamonds, timber, etc., to international companies and foreign players. The natural resources of these resource rich nations are smuggled and sold by criminal gangs, duplicitous politicians, and government officials. This facilitates a tiny, rapacious elite to acquire enormous assets and political or military clout at the detriment of the nation, resulting in civil war or other types of armed conflict within and across borders.


  1. Oil is a commodity that is exposed to global market swings, and revenues rise and fall at will. The fall in oil prices from $110 a barrel in May 2014 to the current $65 is emblematic. This is equally true of other natural resources and primary products such as gold, platinum, bauxite, uranium and tantalum, as well as sugar, bananas, cocoa, cotton and timber.


  1. The role of transnational companies which, because of weak governments, inadequate laws and ineffective enforcement mechanisms, exploit local resources and labour, engage in opaque accounting practices and “cook the books” to pay as little taxes as possible, stultify the growth of local business, create monopolies, and manipulate naive politicians and other selfish vested interests to implement transnational goals.


  1. The hierarchical system in international trade is stacked heavily against nations with natural resources, as the economies of developing countries are cynically exploited for short term gain by the key actors in the international trade market.


  1. Global institutions like the World Bank, the IMF, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) are complicit when they inhibit nations whose resources consist mainly of primary products from acting proactively in the international trade market.


  1. The impending decline of fossil fuels as the world intensifies its goal to acquire clean energy.


Recently, the oil minister of Saudi Arabia, Ali al Naimi, proclaimed that solar power will benefit the Saudi economy far more than fossil fuels. He also predicted that within the next two and a half decades the world will no longer need fossil fuels. This is remarkable coming from a nation which is the world’s largest oil producer, with foreign cash reserves amounting to $697 billion. It is equally remarkable that global investment in renewable energy jumped 16 per cent in 2014, with solar obtaining more than 50 per cent of total funding for the first time, driven by an 80 per cent decline in manufacturing costs for solar in the last six years. What is also relevant is that unlike oil, which encourages the growth of a parasitic elite, renewables, as is the case in Germany, work best when communally owned.


AMANDALA, in preferring tourism (water) to oil, seemed to settle for a type of tourism which emphasizes environmental protection; in other words, eco-tourism. This, however, has its own caveat. In a series of interviews I had in the early 1970s with George Price for my thesis, I realized that his contempt of the tourism route for Belize relied less on an idealized concept of his maternal Mayan heritage, that is: “a protective vision of Belize’s land and sea”, than a rational, material and even non-conformist belief at the time of the tourist industry. On the rostrum, at the PUP political meetings I used to attend in the 1960s, Mr. Price clearly enunciated this in his slogan: “We don’t want to become a nation of WAITERS”! He equally promised us then:” Ham and egg and every child a bed”! George Price was obviously out of step with the times, because Caribbean nations such as the Bahamas, Jamaica, Barbados, Bermuda, and Cuba (before Castro) had all swallowed the tourism pill. Love or loathe him, Price was right then, as he would be now, if he were still around.


International tourism, whether mass, standard commercial, or eco, is controlled by large international companies. Tourism in Belize is dominated by foreign developers and their agents; and the few “indigenous” Belizeans who think they are part of this narrative are mere pawns on a giant chess-board. The tourist industry is highly competitive and relies heavily on efficient, streamlined services and customer satisfaction. Eco-tourism is the type of tourism in which people visit fragile and relatively undisturbed natural locations, and is supposed to be small-scale with low impact. When properly managed it ought to build environmental awareness, pay for conservation measures such as biological diversity and ecosystem protection, respect local culture and empower host communities. In most cases, this is observed in the breach, as it is difficult for tourism to be both ecologically sustainable, as well as culturally and socially responsible.


Most research indicate that the more popular an eco-tourism destination is the higher the rate of destruction to the environment. Despite so called government protection, many forests which tourists visit still lose thousands of hectares annually to logging companies (legal and illegal), slash and burn agriculture, trophy and exotic pet hunters, with local fauna harvested for economic gain. We find that the rhino is hunted, poached, and killed in Southern Africa and Asia for just its horns, which in Asia, particularly among the Chinese, is a billion dollar industry because of the horns supposed medicinal properties. Today, the rhino, which has been around for 40 million years, is facing extinction, despite NGO and government remedial measures to stem this.


The environment is one of the major victims of tourism, as factories churn out the daily needs of the industry  – aviation fuel, car, bus and boat fuels, whether diesel or petrol, which are part of the industry’s constant travel requirements. Neither should we ignore the flights by air, which release tons of greenhouse gases to further pollute the atmosphere. Cruise ships add little real value to any host nation’s economy, for besides their short and restricted stays they wreak immense and unquantifiable damage to the environment. The oceans, coral reefs, marine life and pristine coastal waters through which they traverse are seriously affected and polluted due to their dumping solid waste, sewage sludge, bilge water (contains oil and grease), graywater (contains laundry, kitchen and bath water) ballast water (various kinds of discharged water), incinerator ash, and other types of harmful waste that their treatment systems cannot neutralize.


And, while tourism does generate income via taxes to the government, much of it goes to the foreign developers and their agents, and is eventually lost in capital flight. Nor is the hoped for expansion of the economy real, as tourism is easily subject to shocks in the international system, and changes in the host countries. Note the following: Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia, terrorism in Tunisia and Kenya, political upheaval in Egypt, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, at different points in time.


The price of land and related products escalates due to pressure and speculation, with ordinary citizens unable to afford either. And, that is why San Pedro, Caye Caulker, Placencia, Hopkins, most of the nicest locations in Corozal and Cayo, and soon enough Punta Gorda, are not owned by “indigenous” Belizeans; with the Chinese and Indians carving and sharing Belize City between them, with their huge architectural monstrosities and ghetto-looking, little shops the standard feature of our urban landscape. Again, we find resources like land, water, and electricity being diverted to tourist resorts to satisfy their needs at the expense of local people. The so called employment benefits from tourism remain a mirage, since most jobs exist at the lower and poorer end of the service sector in the form of drivers, guides, attendants, receptionists, security-men, cooks, cleaners, bartenders, bouncers, waiters and hangers-on.


The jury is still out on whether tourism, even in its eco form, contributes to the erosion of the traditions of the host countries, and subvert cultural mores and values. For even when local culture is displayed, it is often packaged to suit Western needs, hence the tendency to bastardise customs to fit Western expectations. There is thus a concomitant rise in prostitution, pimping, homosexuality, lesbianism, pedophilia, vulgar dressing, drug/alcohol abuse, drug trafficking, gambling, and an increase in HIV/AIDS and STDs. We have seen the latter in Haiti, the arrival of the gigolo culture in The Gambia, pedophilia and pimping in Thailand and the Philippines, and casino-style gambling in Aruba, Curacao, Macau, the Bahamas, South Africa’s Sun City and Puerto Rico. In other words, tourism encourages softness and breeds corruption, just as the oil industry does. This, clearly, does not make it a better alternative for Belize – or, as the old Kriol adage warns of “choosing between black dog and monkey”.


What then for Belize, if neither oil nor water? It is instructive to understand that wealth creation is not dependent on factors such as natural resources, land, and large populations and labour. Japan, South Korea, Switzerland and Singapore have neither natural resources and land, nor large populations, yet they are wealthy. These nations demonstrate that wealth is largely obtained and sustained by investing in manufacturing products that are imbued with value and insight, yet having a competitive edge not only in terms of content, but cost and specialization. The economies of these nations rely on the principle of economic complexity, and not on specializing in areas without much prospect for future development.


However, the prime force which reduces inequalities within and among nations and enable them to become successful as the ones indicated here, is the diffusion of knowledge and investment in training and skill. Therefore, when AMANDALA advised Dean Barrow to: “focus on educating and training the children of Belize by any means necessary”, it was advocating the type of strategy that a formerly poor China, and a tiny, colonial outpost, named Singapore, used, to catch up and compete with the world’s rich and powerful nations. Thomas Piketty in his authoritative work: CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY (Belknap, Harvard University Press, 2014), supports this, when he asserts that Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China are successful not because they benefited from large foreign investments – China still imposes controls on foreign capital investments – but because they themselves financed the necessary investments in physical capital and even more, in HUMAN CAPITAL (my emphasis). Piketty equally states:


“. . . The poor catch up with the rich to the extent that they achieve the same level of technological know-how, skill, and education, not by becoming the property of the wealthy. The diffusion of knowledge is not like manna from heaven: it is often hastened by international openness and trade (autarky does not encourage technological transfer). Above all, knowledge diffusion depends on a country’s ability to mobilize financing as well as institutions that encourage large-scale investment in education and training the population while guaranteeing a stable legal framework that various economic actors can reliably count on. It is therefore closely associated with the achievement of legitimate and efficient government . . .”

This, then, is the road, well travelled, that Belize should take – and not that of oil, or even water.

* Therese Belisle Nweke writes from Lagos, Nigeria


Editors note: 

Therese writes an excellent piece, however I take pause with her comparing homosexuality and lesbianism as negative lifestyle choices influenced by the West. Homosexuality is  not unique to humans, it is found throughout nature and have always existed in Belizean culture and human culture, throughout history, biblical times….AL