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.
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.
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.
Interpol Contacted in Stolen Artifacts Case
No more antiquities thefts; U.S. and Belize sign MOU
Not a lifetime movie; NICH suing Indiana Jones
ICE HSI repatriates pre-Columbian bowl to Belize
Looted Archaeological Treasures on Red List
The Silent Invasion of Chiquibul
Unregistered Artefacts Found in Orange Walk
Jade Necklaces Stolen from Lubantuun
Two Charged for ancient artifacts
La Milpa, Belize
Looters plague Guatemalan city
Ancient Mayan Cities looted
“Fred Martinez’s Mistake,” In The Belize Times
“Seven Fined for Antiquities Possession,” In The Belize Times
Archaeology Department tries to curb looting
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 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 Center, Nimli 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.
Caracol Made Safer With New Conservation Post
Contract Signed For Cayo Archaeological Investments
Museum Gets Money for Maya Exhibit
US Embassy Donates over $200,000 for Cultural Preservation
Bridging the Archaeology Disconnect
Jades of Belize, The Catalogue
Rangers deputized to better police parks
Celebrating the Jade
More Mayan Secrets at Archaeology Summit
Archaeological Symposium Opened
Archaeology Symposium Opens at the Princess
Archaeological Symposium Underway
Royal Ontario Museum returns artifacts