Dreaming of Belize
Chico activists use tourism to sustain their eco-friendly tropical community
About seven years ago, a group of Earth-loving people sat around in Chico living rooms discussing a dream of creating a sustainable alternative community in the Central American nation of Belize, known for its ethnic diversity and breathtaking landscapes.
Spearheaded by long-time Chico peace and justice activists, including Bob Trausch, 67, that idea quickly grew into reality in February 2004 with the purchase of about 100 acres of prime land on the Hummingbird Highway in Belize. Trausch had fallen in love with the small country during a 1997 trip doing reforestation work there. The Chico-based community members formed Hummingbird Haven, a limited-liability company.
After the purchase of the land, the real work began—it had to be cleared.
“It was all very thick bush that we had to cut with machetes,” Trausch said. Buildings had to be built, as well as trails into the bush. Keeping the ever-encroaching jungle from reclaiming the land was harder work than anyone had imagined.
Slowly, progress was made: After hacking out some clearings, the Hummingbird Haven members—who took turns visiting the land—planted bananas, pineapples and other plants, and over time, they manifested a community center building, a caretaker building, and solar showers. For a few years, a couple of the members served as full-time caretakers of the land. Now, member and former Chico resident Michael Martin—who has lived in Belize about six years and worked on a number of environmental projects there—oversees the land as the Hummingbird Haven members’ agent. Belizean Jaime Perez cares for the land and will participate in facilitating some of the ecotourism programs.
Over the years, community members have found many challenges with the financial realities of creating a community in Belize.
Trausch is retired and is able to spend significant chunks of time in Belize, which is on the northeastern tip of Central America, but many of the Hummingbird Haven members still maintain full-time jobs in Butte County and can’t visit there as often.
“It’s hard to complete a vision on land thousands of miles away,” Trausch acknowledged.
Since its inception six years ago, some people have left the group of 22 original members. The persevering 12 who remain have had to creatively expand their vision. Since it proved harder than they thought for any of them to live there as full-time homesteaders, they decided to open their land to eco-minded tourists and environmental groups who want to come to Belize to learn about alternative energy sources, sustainable agrarian practices, and methods of stewarding natural resources.
Additionally, teachers of health, nutrition and related topics will host seminars on the property. “We will help people learn to do better with the natural resources available to them,” Trausch explained. “We’ll be bringing in people [both teachers and students] from around the world.”
Recently, Trek Forest, a British group, sent 24 people to Hummingbird Haven, where they camped out in the bush, enjoyed the spectacular creek and waterfalls on the property, and learned about survival skills. Caretaker Perez, a Belizean guide with intimate knowledge of the bush trails and native flora and fauna (which includes wild howler monkeys), taught them about the local ecology.
In the meantime, Trausch, his wife, Leslie Johnson, and fellow activist Cathy Webster started a private nonprofit named after American nun Dorothy Stang, who was murdered because of her work advocating for Brazil’s environment and the poor. To date, the 5-year-old organization, Doroteia Pathways, has received notable financial support from Butte County residents and has been able to provide significant help to Belizeans, including assistance to the search-and-rescue community there, which has only minimal equipment and supplies. The nonprofit has also funded scholarships for Belizean students who have limited opportunity to attend high school or college, and they’ve provided medical supplies to hospitals and clinics.
Doroteia Pathways has a project under way right now, spearheaded by Trausch, that involves filling up two huge shipping containers with bicycles, medical supplies, and other goods, one destined for Haiti (at the end of April), the other for Belize (sometime this summer). He’s particularly interested in acquiring bicycles for the Haiti container, as bikes are the main form of transportation in the post-earthquake nation.
Hummingbird Haven member Sheldon Praiser has, along with Trausch and Johnson, long lived at the south end of Chico in an alternative community called Riparia, that was formed almost 23 years ago by like-minded folks who wanted to grow organic food, share material items, and live more ecologically. Like Trausch, Praiser, 69, has visited Hummingbird Haven many times. He said the focus has always been on creating an “eco-friendly village,” and the shift from homesteading to eco-tourism is “consistent with some of the things we first envisioned—but it’s a shift, too. It’s mostly an issue of being able to finance what we want.”
He noted that maintaining the land has been expensive and has created a lot of pressure. “For a long time, we talked about needing some kind of income. Now, we’re almost licensed [as an eco-tourism center]. Just having income will be helpful for the group.”
Praiser said he and the other community members want Hummingbird Haven to become not only a center, but also a retreat for people who have a common ground of sustainability and environmental concerns.
Praiser, who worked and traveled in Africa after college, said he’s always enjoyed being with people of other cultures. “There’s a spark and a zest in the people of Third World countries,” he said. “I think it’s more of a relaxed environment where people aren’t quite so busy and have more time for the human side of themselves to get energized and nurtured. People [there] may be poor, but that draws them together. To me, they have a more penetrating human contact than what we have in our culture.”