Where has the time gone?? It’s just over a year ago that I arrived in Benque. I think the last blog I posted was when I moved into my own house after couple of months with my host family in Sucootz and it seems like just the other day.
It is really surprising how fast the first fourteen months have passed. Everyone says the second half goes even faster. I am not sure if that’s good or bad. Without being over dramatic about it, it simply has been an exciting and a busy year which has been fulfilling in every aspect. It definitely has not been a vacation for me, in fact, I think I am working as hard if not harder than I have in the States and without the support staff that I had in the States. I ventured into a new territory of tourism here and learned quickly how to pretend to be an “expert”. I have gotten the support from the Town’s Mayor, tourism professionals both at local and national levels and the community at large, which made my learning and being able to help a lot easier and meaningful. A lot has happened in the past year, but I will start with my assignment, the whole reason why I am here and then talk about other stuff in the future blogs. I will make sure this time it is not another year before I post the next one.
I am happy to say that with the community support a lot has been accomplished and a lot more is underway. When I came to Benque, Town already had two other volunteers, one from Peace Corps and the other from Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Roger German, the Peace Corps volunteer had almost completed his term and left shortly after I arrived. Kota Murakami, the JICA volunteer had just started his two-year service about ten months prior to my arrival. Roger, a journalist turned contractor, was a tall handsome “gringo”, charming, well spoken, guitar strumming, “matured” with life experiences, a mid-westerner that could almost walk on water and was an object of fantasy of every woman of all ages in Benque. Too bad for them, Tracy, another Peace Corps volunteer had him on her "corner". Kota is a friendly young architect who enjoys drinking Belikin (local beer), kinda “green” professionally and is taking full advantage out of his stay in Belize. They both had started a number of projects notably a local Market, a Tourism Map/Brochure and an Entranceway into the town, all of which, in my personal assessment, needed some push and direction to get them done. Roger was focused on wrapping up his term and on his main project, a monthly town newsletter “El Chiclero”, which kept him busy full-time and Kota needed a lot of guidance to get these projects completed.
My primary assignment, as you may recall, was to develop a sustainable tourism master plan for Benque that celebrates its culture, heritage and history but also creates additional economic opportunities for all Benqueños. The Mayor gave me a free hand to do whatever I needed to do to get the stuff going. I literally spent about two months trying to talk to as many people as possible and trying to get a sense of where the community is at. We got started with a stakeholder group consisting of a variety of local stakeholders appointed by the mayor and invited a number of national tourism industry representatives including the Ministry of Tourism. In a record time, in less than six months, we delivered a Tourism Action Plan, which was well received by the community, tourism professionals and the industry.
The implementation of the Action Plan started almost immediately. We have been busy finishing up on a number of projects, including the ones that have been languishing, such as renovation of several neighborhood parks, a visitor map/brochure, an entrance feature to the Town and a local market which is about to break ground next month with full funding from European Union. Additionally, we have completed couple of conceptual studies for the revitalization of the historic downtown and for a Riverwalk. Thanks to a bunch of Ohio State students. Earlier this year I had arranged for a group of Ohio State Architecture, Town Planning and Landscape Architecture students come to Benque for ten days during their spring break to work on a downtown revitalization plan and a master plan for a Riverwalk along the Mopan River from Benque to the Xunantunich ferry in Sucootz. It was an unforgettable experience for the students and a great booster for the community. In the next few months our goal is to have a self-guided walking tour of the historic downtown in place, a sixteen page travel guide completed and a travel website (www.discoverbenque.com) up and running. For the remainder of my stay here, I will be busy putting together proposals for a few long term catalyst projects that are extremely critical for the successful implementation of the tourism plan in Benque.
|Entranceway from western border heading towards Benque. The landscaping is now fully grown.|
It has been very gratifying to be able to guide the community to create a strategic action plan and get the implementation of the plan underway. The Ministry of Tourism and Belize Tourism Board are very pleased with our progress and have generously supported some of our initiatives. They have informally adopted and are promoting our process as a national model for developing local community tourism plans. As a result I have been invited in a number of other towns to assist them with organizational, planning and or urban design issues.
These out of town projects and any project other than your primary assignment are considered as secondary projects in Peace Corps. I have several other local groups that I help out with from time to time. One of my other secondary projects involved occasionally taking photographs for a local conservation group. The most exciting assignment was a flyover the Chiquibul National Park.
|Colors of Chiquibul|
The Park is about 264,000 acres with an additional Chiquibul Forest Reserve of about 148,000 acres of hard wood forest bordered by Maya Mountain Range on the south and east and stretching to the Guatemala border to the west. Approximately, 26,000 acres of Caracol Archaeological Reserve sits along the Border and surrounded by the Park. These areas along the border are “invaded” by Guatemalans regularly to carry out a variety of illegal activities such as logging, slashing and burning for farming, stealing of Xate, a plant used for medicinal and various other commercial purposes and more recently gold panning. Most of these areas along the border are inaccessible from the Belize side. There are a very few ranger stations along the border and it’s a 3 to 4 days of hike from the field station to get to one of these remote ranger stations. We were trying to document the effects of these incursions by the Guatemalans. It is really sad to see how a strip of about one to two mile of this park along the border is slowly being deforested and destroyed by these illegal activities. The photographs I took were used to raise the awareness at the national and international levels. It is really a national priority to address this issue and I am glad that in some small way I was able to help. The photographs were taken from a single engine five-seater Sesna, flown by an American nonprofit group Lighthawk and flying at about two thousand feet. I have no doubt I will stay very busy and enjoy the reminder of my stay. I just hope that I can make enough time to see the Country a bit before I leave. There are some images that you can see on my website www.subratabasu.com and look up Belize gallery.
|Looking towards Guatemala. See the "bald spots" as signs of logging activities.|
|Slash and burn|
|Slash and burn|