Looting of archeological material has been a serious problem in Belize for hundreds of years. Due to the forested terrain in which many of the Mayan sites are located, it is very difficult to determine precisely how many archeological sites have been looted and how much cultural material has been lost. The environment is one in which it is easy for all sorts of clandestine activities—like illegal logging, the poaching of wild animals, arms smuggling, drug smuggling, and the destruction of archaeological sites and cultural material—to occur.

Belize has a rich archeological record that dates back to the Paleo-Indian period (ca. 15000-7000 BC). Ancient Mayan culture (ca. 2500 BC-AD 1798) played a dominant part in Belizean history, and to this day, there are still many Maya communities in Belize. Over 2,000 historic and prehistoric sites have been recorded in Belize, more than half of which show evidence of looting.

A recovered Maya artifact

A recovered Maya artifact (BBC)

Sandwiched between Mexico and Guatemala, and between the Petén rainforest and the Caribbean Sea, Belize is ideally situated to serve as a transit point and port for the illegal export of archeological materials from neighboring countries. Before 2013, Belize  was the only remaining country in the Maya region without a bilateral agreement with the U.S. With the signing of the bilateral agreement in 2013, the entire Maya region is now under protection.

There is a long history of archeological investigation in Belize. For many years, archeologists from around the world, including America, Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Spain, have been researching and publishing their work on the ancient Mayan sites in Belize. The continuation of this research is important for the tourism industry in Belize as well as for the preservation of the rich history of the Mayan civilization.

As Belize’s population grows, large areas of the countryside are being developed and more and more culturally rich Belizean sites are in jeopardy of being destroyed without proper scientific investigation. In 2013, one of Belize’s largest Maya pyramids was bulldozed during construction of a new road. In an article reporting on this tragedy, Professor Emeritus of Archeology at Boston University Norman Hammond wrote: “bulldozing Maya mounds for road fill is an endemic problem in Belize (the whole of the San Estevan center has gone, both of the major pyramids at Louisville, other structures at Nohmul, many smaller sites), but this sounds like the biggest yet.” These kinds of threats, in conjunction with archeological looting, continue to threaten Belize’s rich cultural heritage.

Knowledge of the heritage of Belize is necessary for the tourism industry, which is Belize’s #1 industry. Belize is the ultimate tourist attraction. Its combination of a 185-mile long barrier reef, lush tropical forest, archeological sites, and diverse cultures makes it a premier destination. Vandalism and looting of Belizean cultural sites is detrimental to its tourist industry, which depends on many of these historic sites.

Sales of Mayan antiquities at auction and online are proof of the international demand for Pre-Columbian materials. This market is dependent on the continued looting of archeological sites, so it is rare to find an archeological site in Belize that has not been stripped of some cultural material. Below is a list of online news and resources that focus on looting and the illicit antiquities trade in Belize.

2014

February 2014
Interpol Contacted in Stolen Artifacts Case

2013

May 2013
Ancient Maya Pyramid Destroyed in Belize

February 2013
No more antiquities thefts; U.S. and Belize sign MOU

January 2013
Archaeological Site Looting in “Glocal” Perspective: Nature, Scope, and Frequency

2012
December 2012
Not a lifetime movie; NICH suing Indiana Jones

May 2012
Artifacts from a Time of Many Droughts

January 2012
Pre-classic Mayan bones & artefacts discovered in San Ignacio

2011
October 2011
Stolen Artifact Returned to Belize
Archaeologist say monitoring the black market trade is difficult

September 2011
ICE HSI repatriates pre-Columbian bowl to Belize

July 2011
GOB “fiddling” while Guats continue raping Chiquibul Forest!

May 2011
National Geographic Society Funds Mayan Garden
Illegal logging in Chiquibul costing Belize at least $15 million

2010
June 2010
Looted Archaeological Treasures on Red List

April 2010
Xatéros loot archaeological artifacts from western border to Belmopan: Dr. Awe

2009
December 2009
The Silent Invasion of Chiquibul

January 2009
Orange Walk Residents Charged for Illegal Artefacts
Guatemalan labourer found with Mayan Artifacts

2008
September 2008
Unregistered Artefacts Found in Orange Walk

July 2008
Jade Necklaces Stolen from Lubantuun

2007
December 2007
Two Charged for ancient artifacts

February 2007
Archaeologists let looters do some of the work
Guatemalan busted with Mayan Artefacts

2005
August 2005
Hijacked Cultural Antiquities Recovered

May 2005
The Jade Head’s Home

2003
September 2003
La Milpa, Belize

December 2003
Looters plague Guatemalan city

2001
November 2001
Ancient Mayan Cities looted

March 2001
U.S. Citizen pleads guilty to artifacts possession

June 2001
Looting a lost civilization Maya Scholars in race with thieves
A new Maya stela from La Milpa, Belize

2000
Summer 2000
Actun Chapat

June 2000
Cahal Pech

May 2000
Artifacts bust in Cayo is 3rd in three weeks
San Pedrano busted with load of Maya artifacts

1999
October 1999
A Symposium on Illicit Antiquities: the Destruction of the World’s Archaeological Heritage

September/October 1999
Looters Foiled

1998
June 1998
“Fred Martinez’s Mistake,” In The Belize Times

March 1998
“Seven Fined for Antiquities Possession,” In The Belize Times

February 1998
Archaeology Department tries to curb looting

1987
May 1987
Looters Play Havoc with Archeological Work at Ancient Sites: Belize Fights to Safeguard Mayan Past

The government of the Republic of Belize has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the United States to restrict imports of cultural material (February 2013). This MOU, or bilateral agreement, is a substantial step toward enabling the US government to do its part in helping to stop the looting of archeological sites in Belize. This agreement will remain effective for five years, at which time it will be up for renewal. Read more about the MOU here.

In 2014, the United States Embassy in Belize and Belize’s National Institute of Culture and History co-hosted workshops in Belize City, San Ignacio, San Pedro, and Orange Walk to increase awareness of archeological looting and illicit trade of artifacts in Belize.

Belize also has bilateral agreements for the protection of antiquities with Mexico and Guatemala: Protection and Restitution of Archaeological Artistic and Historic Monuments, (ratified with Mexico on March 17, 1995) and the Special Agreement Between Belize And Guatemala to Submit Guatemala’s Territorial, Insular And Maritime Claim To The International Court Of Justice (signed on December 8, 2008).

We at SAFE feel strongly that the best way to understand Belize’s cultural history is through the study of its artifacts within their archeological, architectural, and historical contexts. Objects that have not been scientifically examined or professionally preserved are missing information about their meaning and cultural significance. We know we are not alone in our concern and urge you to support the request of the Republic of Belize by saying YES to Belize.

For more information about CPAC, please visit the U.S. State Department International Cultural Property Protection web site.

The Maya region includes the modern countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. Mayanists generally divide the region into the Maya Lowlands in the north and the Maya Highlands in the south. The northern half of Belize falls within the Maya Lowlands while southern Belize is in the Maya Highlands region. When Mayan artifacts are offered for sale, they are usually assigned a provenance of either Highlands or Lowlands. Since Belizean artifacts can fall into either category, and since the majority of the artifacts on the market are looted, it is nearly impossible to determine whether antiquities come from Belize, Mexico, or Guatemala.

The most common types of Pre-Columbian antiquities on the United States market are stone tools, ceramic vessels, and small ornamental objects, such as pendants and earflares. All of these objects are commonly associated with graves. Architectural objects and sculptures, while not as common on the black market, are definitely being sold.

Thousands of U.S. dollars are spent on Pre-Columbian cultural material. Auction houses and internet dealers offer Mayan objects for sale in the U.S., and this market is dependent on looting in Belize. The many looter’s trenches at archeological sites in Belize bear testimony to this.

Belize is a state party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export or Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (ratified by Belize on January 26, 1990) as well as to the 1972 World Heritage Convention Concerning the Protection of World Culture and Natural Heritage (November 16, 1972). The current national legislation is the 2003 National Institute of Culture and History Act, which improved upon legislation that dates as far back as 1894.

The Belizean government also supports several initiatives and programs that intend to preserve, promote and study the country’s cultural heritage. The Belize Institute of Archaeology (IA) is dedicated to the research, protection, preservation, and sustainable management of cultural and archeological resources. The IA has over 60 staff, park managers, and rangers who care for the country’s archeological heritage. The IA also organizes public outreach education programs such as the annual Belize Archeology Symposium, which has been held every summer since 2002. In 2013, the IA launched an anti-looting campaign to raise public awareness of cultural heritage protection.

In 2002, the Museum of Belize opened with a goal of promoting, documenting and exhibiting Belize’s culture and history. There are also a number of regional museums around the country, including the Lamanai Visitor CenterNimli Punit Visitor Center, and Cahal Pech Visitor Center.

Below is a list of articles which demonstrate how the IA and Belizean Government protects the country’s rich cultural heritage and educates the public and tourists about Mayan culture.

2015
July 2015
Caracol Made Safer With New Conservation Post

June 2015
New Maya Discovery in Belize Brings Tourism and Archeology Together

2014
Workshop of preserving cultural heritage held in Corozal

2013
IA staff conduct educational talks at Belizean schools

2012
Autumnal Equinox Camping Event at Caracol

2011
July 2011
Contract Signed For Cayo Archaeological Investments

2010
December 2010
Museum Gets Money for Maya Exhibit

2009
August 2009
US Embassy Donates over $200,000 for Cultural Preservation

May 2009
New archaeological site declared to move away from Mayan Temples

2008
July 2008
Bridging the Archaeology Disconnect

June 2008
Jades of Belize, The Catalogue

2007
February 2007
Rangers deputized to better police parks

2006
September 2006
Celebrating the Jade

July 2006
More Mayan Secrets at Archaeology Summit

February 2006
Management Regime Signed for El Pilar
Museum of Belize Celebrates 4 Years

2005
July 2005
Archaeological Symposium Opened

2004
July 2004
Archaeology Symposium Opens at the Princess

2003
July 2003
Archaeological Symposium Underway

2001
June 2001
Royal Ontario Museum returns artifacts

Figurine fragment of God N from a looter’s trench