Supporting the Maya Children of Tumul K’in in Toledo, Belize
by Juanatano Cano
The Belize trip of summer 2018 opened the door to me to a different leadership experience. This experience allowed me to find a high school, Tumul K’in, in the District of Toledo, Belize. Tumul K’in is a co-ed high school that prepares Maya youth to succeed in a modern world while preserving their Maya identity. During my visit to the high school, I had the opportunity to interact with students, parents, teachers, and school administrators. Also, after watching a documentary called, “The Forgotten District,” this made me realize that indeed there is urgency in preparing the children in this district and in making sure that they have the 21st century skills to compete for jobs. However, preparing Maya children in the district of Toledo with 21s century skills does not mean that children should give up their beautiful culture and language.
This paper will briefly introduce the history of the Maya and will discuss how to help the Maya children in the District of Toledo. Also, it will give some successful examples of how Tumul K’in empowers the Yucatec, Mopan, and Ke’kchi students through education supported by their own Maya languages and cultures while preparing them to start their own businesses or pursue higher education. Furthermore, the paper will discuss some economic policies appropriate in helping to end poverty and will give some recommendations on how to improve the quality of life of the Maya people living in the district of Toledo.
To understand the Maya people in Belize, it is important to revisit their history. The history of the Maya civilization is best known for its Maya Temples (also known as Mayan Ruins) from Southern Mexico to Central America such as Chichen Itza, Copan, Tikal, etc. These temples are a testimony of a great civilization in the history of humankind. According to Suter and Buell (2016), the Mayas were more progressive than any other civilization in this time period and advanced far beyond their own personal needs, in fact the scientific work and art of the Maya have made a lasting impression on the history of humankind. Also, Suter and Buell (2016) state that the calendar system the Mayas invented allowed them to plot time for the next 400 million years and predict occurrences such as the movements of the planets and the eclipses of the sun and the moon to the nearest second. They calculated the days in the year to add up to 365.2420 days compared to our actual value of 365.2522. Furthermore, Suter and Buell (2016) describe that the Maya number system allowed them to make sums up into the millions and comprehend the concept of the zero ahead of any other culture. These scientific works and predictions are certainly testaments of an advanced great civilization. But, what exactly happened to these Maya scientists? What led to their extinction? Suter and Buell (2016) explain that several speculations have been made as to what caused the collapse of the Classical Maya civilization (before 900 AD) though discrepancies have been found in each hypothesis. For example, some people have tried to blame disease but epidemics such as malaria and yellow fever were only introduced with the Spanish. Others criticize the Maya agriculture procedure of cutting and burning the forest and suggest a lack of food as the reason for the culture’s end. But good soil fertility found at one of the first to stop functioning helps to refute this explanation. Others agree that whatever caused the extinction still remains a mystery. Nevertheless, what is best known and recorded about the history of the Maya is that a rapid decline of the Maya happened when Europeans arrived in the 16th Century. According to Eleazar (2013), when the Spaniards conquered Maya civilization, the civilization declined faster. The Maya people were dispossessed of their lands and forced to work in cocoa plantations and other parts of the colonial economy. Consequently, Eleazar (2013), states that millions of Maya people are still striving, living and surviving among the harshness of these contemporary days. They are living in Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala.
In the case of the Mayas in Belize, according to Bridgewater (2012), long before Europeans the forest of Belize was home to the sophisticated and culturally advanced Maya civilization. Also, according to the Maya Atlas, during the conquest, many of the Mayas went on hiding in remote mountains and were not conquered (Toledo Maya Cultural Council, 1997). The forty-two Ke’kchi and Mopan Maya communities in Southern Belize created the Maya Atlas. The Atlas serves as a window to both the ancient and modern Maya world; it appeals to people interested in indigenous rights, environmental issues, Latin America, arts, ethnography, traditional knowledge, and community-based conservation. The Atlas states that the Mayas who fled into the interior to take refuge in the Maya mountain range continue unique Maya practices; they refused to be Christianized. Hence, they continue to use the Maya temples for religious purposes and the temples are a testimony to their connection with the past. Currently, both the Ke’kchi and Mopan continue to look up to these unconverted Mayas. Also, according to the Toledo Maya Cultural Council and the Toledo Alcaldes Association some of the Mayas speak to their leaders through prayers and incense burning. These Maya leaders are considered to be the caretakers of wild animals. According to Penados (2017), the Alcalde system has played a role in efforts to overcome the effects of colonization and exclusion. They revitalize their communities and care for Maya ways of knowing and being in Belize
According to the Inter-American Development Bank (2013), Children in rural areas have limited access to secondary education. The urban-rural gap in primary schools has remained largely constant at two percentage points over the last decade. In 2009, 93 percent of primary-aged children in urban areas attended school, compared with 91 percent in rural areas. The gap is much more pronounced at the secondary level. In 2009, while five in ten students living in urban areas were enrolled in secondary schools, only three in ten residing in rural areas were attending school. Furthermore, the Inter-American Development Bank (2013) states that at all education levels, attendance of Maya children (Yucatec, Mopan, and Ke’kchi) is lower than children from other ethnic groups. The gap is pronounced at the secondary level, where approximately 40 percent of Mestizo, Maya, and Garifuna children attend school compared to 57 percent of Creole children. Similarly, the tertiary-level attendance rate of Garifuna and Creole students is more than double the rate of Mayan students, which is reported at 8.4 percent.
In addition to Maya student’s poor attendance, the education in the district of Toledo is not adequate. According to an article about “Education in the Toledo Region”, improving access to a quality education is imperative in the remote Toledo region since poverty and dependency have the strongest hold there. However, the quality of education in Toledo is below in other parts of the country. The article explains that Toledo’s teachers face difficult conditions, including multi-grade classrooms and few supplies. Only 13 percent of Toledo’s youngsters are in preschool compared to 32 percent nationally. Also, only seven percent of Toledo’s children have access to ten or more children’s books in their homes. This lack of access to preschool and books mean that children are unprepared to enter primary schools and leads to repetition of grades in the early primary years. Furthermore, according to the 2010 UNICEF Annual Report for Belize, the rural district of Toledo, which is predominantly Indigenous Maya, is the most vulnerable.
Education is not the only problem. According to the High-level Political Forum at the United Nations in New York along with 44 other countries, the government of Belize submitted a Voluntary National Report on the country’s progress towards realizing the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. The United Nation said that the Belizean government reports detailed presentations on goals pertaining to marine life protection, poverty, health, and gender equality, but it is noted that it is entirely absent of reporting on indicators related to Indigenous Peoples in Belize. The report was not developed with any input from representatives of Indigenous communities. Also, according to the United Nations Press Release 2004, Indigenous Peoples, along with other minority groups, have pushed for parties to recognize that the next agenda for development must ‘Leave No One Behind.’ Yet, Belize is on track to again leave the Maya Peoples behind.
Recommended Policy Change (Economic Theories)
According to Mell, A. and Walker, O. (2014), “a pure public good has an additional property: it is non-excludable. It means that it is impossible to stop someone else from using public good” (p. 117). However, based on the United Nations Report and on my personal observations, the Indigenous people are being excluded. It is well known that for over 500 years the majority of these people have been poor and marginalized. Currently, most of these people don’t have access to good roads, schools, hospitals or jobs. Also, according to Sacks (2005), the main sign of underdevelopment in a country or region include poor levels of human capital (health, skills and education, business capital (machinery and buildings) infrastructure (transport, power, and sanitation), and natural capital (viable land). This is the current situation of most of the Indigenous people in Belize and in other parts of Indigenous remote areas across Latin America.
Keynesian Economics Theory
According to Mell, A and Walker, O. (2014), the Keynesian model divides demand in an economy into three sources: households, firms, and the government (p. 239). This theory seems to go along with what was mentioned above about the theory of public goods. The Keynesian theory states that the government should be spending more on infrastructure, unemployment benefits, and education. Yet, the Belizean government does not seem to allocate that much resource to the indigenous people in the forgotten district. The Maya, in general, are poor because they lack proper education and skills to apply for good-paying jobs. According to the Poverty Assessment Report-Belize (n.d.), the poor are not well educated and lack technical and vocational skills. Furthermore, the report states that the poor’s young children are less likely than the children of the non-poor to have higher levels of education and to be involved in technical training. This indicates that the funds that are allocated are not reaching the poor Indigenous population.
According to Cost-benefit analysis, the systematic approach is to estimate the strengths and weaknesses of alternatives. Broadly, it has two main purposes: a) to determine if an investment/decision is sound (justification/feasibility)—verifying whether its benefits outweigh the costs, and by how much; b) to provide a basis for comparing projects—which involves comparing the total expected cost of each option against its total expected benefits.
In my particular case, I will have research done on costs and benefits of any project that I might do in the future in Belize, specifically any costs that involve supporting Maya children at Tumul K’in. For instance, I will take into consideration any direct and indirect costs. That is, under direct costs, I will consider the capital investment, any change in tax or licensing costs, consulting fees, and annual maintenance costs. Under indirect costs, I will consider ongoing training, leasing fees, labor hours, transportation costs, and so on. Furthermore, I must calculate the benefits and incorporate the time that it will take into the equation.
I strongly believe that improving education and empowering children is one way to get out of poverty; education is a major key to improve the quality of life in the district of Toledo, Belize. According to Franz (2004), education is the central means for preparing children to become competent adults for socializing them to subscribe to the values of society. However, current models of education for development can benefit and contribute genuine progress in education. These include being aware of and respecting existing cultures and values and conceptualizing education as a process that takes into account the experience and knowledge of learners, especially in adult education and community development programs (UNESCO, 1993). The Maya Ke’kchi, Mopan, and Yucatec teenagers need education in their own Maya languages and cultures while preparing them to start their own business or pursue higher education.
Moreover, there is a theory of economic development widely discussed in Mexico called “comunalidad” which is central to my recommendations for education of indigenous students in Belize. Comunalidad refers to the knowledge and wisdom of the traditional indigenous communities which should be utilized in education and economic practice. In the words of Martinez Luna (2010), “Comunalidad is a way of understanding life as being permeated with spirituality, symbolism, and a greater integration with nature. It is one way of understanding that human beings are not the center, but simply a part of great natural world. It is here that we can distinguish the enormous difference between Western and indigenous thought. Who is at the center —- only one, or all?” (pp. 93-94)
An alternative is that the Maya people should be promoting their own ecotourism in order to obtain the economic strength to achieve their own education. They have been living and protecting the rainforest and traditions in the Toledo District for many years. The Belize government should advertise and encourage tourist to visit the Toledo district and support the Toledo Ecotourism Association. According to the Toledo Ecotourism Association, the Association has created a community-based program in which 10 villages have nearly identical eco-lodges where visitors from around the world can spend a few days roughing and seeing what life in these natural surroundings are like.
Future project in Belize
One of the main individuals who I will work with is the School Principal at the “TUMUL K’IN” Center of Learning in Toledo, Belize. The school principal is a Maya Mopan. Tumul K’in is a co-ed high school that provides a curriculum 1-4 (equivalent to grades 9-12) in a safe, secure boarding school setting that prepares Maya youth to succeed in a modern world while retaining their Maya identity. Tumul K’in in Maya Mopan means “New Day”. The Center started in 1997 with the help of the Maya Institute of Belize. It was created in an effort to address the cultural and natural resources the Maya people offer for development and to address the crisis of poverty. The Belize government, including the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Natural Resources, supported the idea that education was an appropriate solution to poverty. The high school officially opened in 2002 and was inaugurated by Prime Minister Honorable Said Musa. The center started with 12 students and it grew to 100 students with almost equal numbers of boys and girls. The students are primarily Mopan and Q’eqchi.
The high school, Tumul K’in, Maya values are:
Respect for Mother Nature, Community Interdependence and Cooperation, Intercultural understanding and tolerance—Recognizing and understanding that everything and everyone has a reason for being, has a role and a protector, recognizing the Sacredness of humanity, nature, and the universe. Tumul K’in promotes personal and community organization, truthfulness in words, dialogue and consensus, and self-reliance.
I have developed a strong relationship with the School Principal at Tumul K’in. We communicate weekly through email, messenger, or Facebook. For the new school year, 2018-2019, I will do my best to send 30 sets of English textbooks and 30 sets of Math textbooks. Also, I will do my best to visit the Learning Center at least once a year so that I could continue interacting with students, parents and school staff. Also, as a global leader, in the future, I would like to provide scholarships to Maya students at Tumul K’in. This year, with the support and help of Dr. Alan LeBaron (founder and director of Maya Heritage Community Project at Kennesaw State University), we are supporting the education of two undergraduate Maya students in Guatemala. Our hope is that one day, we could help a few Maya Graduate students in Mexico and Central America to become global leaders.
What have you learned?
In matters of two days, I had the opportunity to do some exploration in the Toledo District of Belize.
On day one, I visited a cacao farm where I literally learned how to roast organic cacao on a Comal (a circular iron hot plate over wood fire) and then grounded the roasted cacao over the Molcajete (a stone tool used for grinding food products). The final step was to make organic dark chocolate. I liked the chocolate and ended up buying five large thick bars and paid $25.00 (U.S. dollars). With this money, I might have supported the Maya Q’eqchi family income for a couple of days. This experience demonstrates my support for ecotourism. However, for several reasons, not everyone supports ecotourism in this Maya district. It seems that the government of Belize does not promote developmental projects in the district of Toledo. For example, in a documentary called “The Forgotten District” I learned that in 1997, the Toledo Ecotourism Association (TEA) won an Award Prize from Europe for a developmental project. They won about a million dollars for creating a most socially responsible community-based program. However, the government of Belize told the TEA that they had to use the money in the Northern part of Belize. This was a slap in the face of the Mayas. Nevertheless, I learned on this trip that Maya families are opening up their communities to tourism. With the help of the Toledo Ecotourism Association, the families are combining tourism, cultural revitalization, and environmental conservation.
On day two, I drove to a high school called Tumul K’in in Blue Creek in the district of Toledo, Belize. The mission of the school is all about providing education to teenagers substantiated in their own Maya languages and cultures and while preparing them to start their own business or pursue higher education. During my 8-hour visit at the school, I had the opportunity to talk to former students, parents, teachers, and school administrators. After listening to different individuals and sharing their stories about the importance of education, I left with the conviction that education is a key to improve the quality of line in the district of Toledo without giving up their culture and language.
After stating the beauty of the culture and science of the Maya People, after stating the history and struggles of the Maya people in the district of Toledo, Belize, and after stating my experience with the Maya Mopan and K’eqchi at Tumul K’in, my hope is to bring awareness and opportunities to the Maya people of Belize. This experience reminded me of where I came from and that I have not forgotten the poor conditions of the rural schools I attended in Guatemala.
I am thankful that the EDD in Organizational Leadership program at Pepperdine University allowed me to come to Belize for the first time. As I stated in this paper, I have had the opportunity to meet a Maya Elder and his family, the students, parents, and school administrators of the high school Tumul K’in in the district of Toledo. Also, I learned so much by interacting with my cohort members and with Dr. June. My hope is to continue what I started doing during these five days by utilizing Tumul K’in to help the Maya children of Belize to preserve their Maya identity while preparing them to start their own business or pursue higher education. This would be my way to contribute to society as a global leader.
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