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Sep 30, 2003

Cayo cave prompts wonder and controversy

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With the tourism boom showing no signs of letting up, there will be increasing pressure to find new visitor attractions and bring more formal organisation to existing ones. The result is that while the natural wonder may retain its beauty, the socio-political fallout can get downright ugly. The cave I visited yesterday is a good example.

Janelle Chanona, Reporting

Getting to Barton Creek Cave is itself an adventure, which includes more than seven miles of bumpy road, and in the rainy season, at least two river crossings.

Once on site, tour guide Gonzalo Pleitez gets our inflatable kayaks ready for the river.

But before we hit the water, we hit a brick wall…or in this case, a chain link fence.

Guard

“We need to have the serial numbers for all the tour guide license, because they request that each person that is a tour guide supposed to have their license to enter the cave.”

The National Institute of Culture and History has stationed two employees at Barton Creek to monitor activities at the site and submit daily reports on the coming and goings. Visitors now need a permit to do the tour, a permit we don’t have.

Guard

“That is the rules they give us, we have it in paper.”

Janelle Chanona

“Well I don’t have anything in paper Sir, so….”

Security Guard

“Probably will give you the break to go in, but for the next time.”

According to NICH, the new rules have become necessary because of the increasing popularity of the cave, and we’re about to find out why.

Armed with powerful spotlights, we embark on a one and a half mile journey into the dark. Right off the bat, we glimpse the first attractions of Barton Creek and minutes later meet our welcoming party.

Thousands of bats now call this cave home, evidenced by the guano or bat droppings that appear in belts on the walls. But thousands of years ago, the Mayas did use this cave, though their remains are hidden from view in the high ridges above. Selected pieces have been relocated as proof positive of human occupation. (Shots of skull and pots)

But the real attractions of Barton Creek Cave are the impressive stone structures, millennia in the making. Twisted and gnarled, they rise from the depths of the dark like jellyfish and shine like cut crystal.

Gonzalo “Gonzo” Pleitez, Tour Guide

“Really, Barton Creek, if you focus on it a lot, has to do with mostly geology, cause it’s very difficult to talk about the ancient Maya beliefs inside Barton Creek unless you can convince the people that they are going to see a lot of evidence. Otherwise in here you got to picture it that at one time the Mayas came in.”

In certain sections of the cave, the ceiling drops to just a few feet above the water level and navigation becomes tricky.

But the tranquillity of the tour belies the turbulence that has been boiling at the mouth of the cave.

Mike Bogaert, Landowner

“The Barton Creek cave experience is not just going into the cave, it’s coming into our community. It’s coming into the community we live in and respecting the community. The government has done none of that.”

Until recently, forty-six year old Mike Bogaert and his wife Kristina owned the land used to access the Barton Creek Cave, land he says was wrongly taken away from them.

Mike Bogaert

“There’s not a lot of trust among what’s gonna happen with guys with guns, and she’s terrified. And so I backed off, they came, they took the land. I’ve had guns pointed at me out here; I’ve had all kinds of trouble with the government workers. They don’t respect any private land. They just took it, no compensation to me, no negotiations, nothing. Come in at gunpoint, take the land and goodbye.”

For the past seven years Bogaert has rented canoes, lights and batteries to tour guides. But coming from a monopoly background, competition has now become a tough pill to swallow.

Mike Bogaert

“They are now letting renegade tour guides-I call them renegade tour guides–leave canoes and stuff and all kinds of things at the supposed national park. Now I don’t get any rental business, because they’re leaving the stuff over there. So the business I have is diminishing and going away.”

“What I fear is going to happen is this is taken over. They’re gonna run this, it makes profit because a lot of people are coming here, and it’s going to be turned over to a private organisation. It’s going to be overrun with cruise ship business; we are going to terrorize our Mennonite community. I’ve already lost any privacy I’ve ever had back here now with these people here, and we are going to destroy Barton Creek Cave as a tourist destination.”

But the government insists they are at Barton Creek to properly manage and protect the sensitive remains at the site. According to the Department of Archaeology’s Jaime Awe, the Bogaerts have been compensated and the appropriation of the land was only necessary because the family refused to compromise with the government. G.O.B. says in the end, they just want to ensure access to everyone, even those carrying canoes.

Mike Bogaert

“I want the government to move. They came in here. They put a house right on my front yard, I’ve had my privacy disrupted, no privacy whatsoever now. I’ve got government employees all over, I’ve got people coming around my farm all times of night. If they want this, take my whole farm or leave. I cannot live here with the way they treat. There’s no negotiations, there’s no, “hi we’re here to work with you together with the cave. These are our employees, they’re gonna help….” There’s none of that.”

But G.O.B. is here to stay and everyone, including tour guides, will have to get used to the idea. Although conservation is at the heart of everyone’s argument, the difficulty is to get all parties to agree on the best means.

Gonzalo “Gonzo” Pleitez

“I would rather go to a place where I can get gear, or where I can dialogue with the landowner and say, “can you allow me permission. I will meet your expectations.” And I’m not looking forward to going to anybody’s property and just bypassing their rights. Caves are tricky. They are very tricky. We know that it’s a national monument, I guess it belongs to the country, but at the same time you have to be able to respect landowners.”

“I’ve been to many of the caves in Belize and I must say I’m very sad that when you walk into some caves you find people’s names written on the walls. Well that’s something that you are not going to see inside Barton Creek.”



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