Joe Awe is a Belizean activist, entrepreneur, anthropologist, mayanist, tourism lecturer at a local junior college, and also one of Belize's top tour guides.
I met with him over coffee last week to talk about the future of Belize and I insisted that he needed to share his knowledge and ideas on Belize to the world.
The conversation led to the birth of this interview where he shares some interesting facts and ideas on Belize's history, culture, ecotourism, economy and sustainable development.
Please tell me about yourself and where you were born? How has Belize changed since your youth?
I was born in San Ignacio, the first of three children. Belize inevitably has changed very much since I was a child. There are more opportunities; more educational options; more infrastructural development; a robust tourism industry; the development of oil extraction, and there is also a tremendous effort in guiding the country to be more compatible with the fast-changing times to keep us competitive and relevant in the region.
Why did you choose to study Cultural Anthropology?
My initial thought as a kid was to become an archaeologist. One must understand that we were a colonial state until 1981 and that effect, while it persists today, back when I was dreaming it, was not a dream a young man could have. It would keep me in poverty was the thought. I went to the university and I studied business administration.
It wasn't until 2005 that I decided to follow my dreams and I enrolled with the University of Indianapolis and Galen University in Belize and started to pursue my dream of archaeology. It lasted one semester as I found my true love of cultural and social anthropology. I realized I wanted all the knowledge of the past but I wanted to understand the people of the present. It would help me in a tourism career and it would touch my life as I moved forward.
My passion is spirituality, culture change, poverty, inequality and justice. I have always been in search of a more holistic existence and anthropology has been the candle light toward this path. I am a very lucky man!
How did you become involved in Belize's economic and social development?
As per the anthropology investment I made, I realized my need to be a more active person in my small society, so I gave of myself. I joined a ROTARACT club, which is the arm of ROTARY International and we organized, planned and developed programs which would touch people's lives.
Thereafter I have been a member of many other clubs for development such as Citizen's for Charity, President of the student body of Galen University, President of the Cayo Tour Guide Association a number of times. I sit on as Vice President of the Cayo Chapter of the Belize Tourism Industry Association and I am also a member of the Tour Guide Licensing Committee and Tour operators Licensing committee for the Belize Tourism Board.
In December 2012 I unfolded into the world of tourism a tour operator company called Nine Belize Ecocultural Tours, which will celebrate one year of existence on December 1st and the intention is to grow it holistically and follow the ethos of ecotourism and certainly the mantra of touching lives and changing the world.
Why is ecotourism an important vehicle to eradicate poverty and how can it provide more economic opportunities for Belizeans?
Ecotourism is by its nature an inclusive philosophy. It truly wants to find a balance in caring for what there is in the environment and making certain that the people who are at the center of the tourism industry gain from caring for their environment. So we can argue that its importance is necessary for both the environment and the survival of the population it affects directly.
Done well, the inclusivity of the human resource in the understanding why their stewardship is important pertaining to the environment and also gaining economic opportunities from the training that would be involved from such stewardship, makes ecotourism of vital importance in a country with limited opportunities in as far as its size and in as far as the amount of people who are trained in more diverse areas which could feed a larger, more robust economy, such as computer chips, and application design, and an wider-reaching off shore banking opportunity, to mention two.
What fascinates you about Belizean history?
Belizean history is fascinating for many reasons. To name a couple, its about us today. That which has occurred in our social, economic, environmental, and philosophical past is the result, which we live with today. Meandering through our history one can find instances, proof, and even direct lines to phenomena that are occurring today.
On another note, history tells of players, heroes and villains. When history is uncovered in a story-form rather than deeply academic, people can best understand it and actually place themselves within the context and we can then feel the joy, the agony, the anger, the love, the powerful and weakest moments of the people before us.
What are the significant archaeological sites of the Maya?
For historical purposes of humanity, any site is amazing.
For touristic purposes, the sites in Belize to visit would be Lamanai in the North, Altun Ha in the Northern Belize District, Cahal Pech, Xunantunich, El Pilar, and Caracol in the Western part of Belize and in the Southern District of Toledo Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit.
What do you see as Belize's greatest strength in the Caribbean and Central American region?
As a nation, we need to do more work pertaining to this question. Allow me to go beyond what instinctively comes to the minds of Belizeans that which we suggest that we are the link between the Caribbean and Central America. This is not practical and perhaps not even true. It's great marketing, but nothing else. We need to realize our identity both geographically and philosophically. Our true strength will come when we organize ourselves to targeting both Central America and the Caribbean as opportunities for growth, not only philosophically but also economically.
First we must start learning our own history and then the history of the countries around us. We must find where we can negotiate more trade and educational opportunities that will help in the development of Belize. Our strength lies in knowledge that we don't need to take sides. We are lucky that we can immerse ourselves in all the cultures around us and take advantage of the most opportunities that exists for us. Essentially, our greatest strength lies in our people. We now have to lead ourselves.
What are five crucial things every Belizean should know about Belize?
1. Our history.
2. Who are the major players in commerce, politics, and the philosophy which molds Belize today
3. How much resources our small country has and how to manage it not only with equality at heart but, with justice.
4. That we are unique. Every country around us speaks Spanish. We do too. But our first language, the language spoken and written at school, in banking, in politics is English. We are courageous. We are against many odds and we don't have to fight anymore. We just need to organize, plan and use our abilities to be both Central American and Caribbean and win.
5. That we are in our country's present together and it's the only way we will build a future for our children here and yet not here. We must start to care more now.
What are the top three books on Belizean history every Belizean should read?
1. A History of Belize, by Narda Dobson
2. Thirteen Chapters of a History of Belize, By Assad Shoman
3. The Making of Modern Belize: Politics, Society and British Colonialism in Central America
As the CEO and founder of Nine Belize, how is your company contributing to Belize's sustainable development?
Nine's philosophy is people. People are at the center at what we do. There is no protection of the environment or historical or cultural sites if we don't care for people's lives. Our contribution to sustainable development, unlike many companies who make an effort in environmentalism first, is we are making an effort in people first then they will take care of everything that needs the stewardship of the masses. Its deeply ecotourism but its powerfully holistic. We see Nine Belize Ecocultural Tours as a moral obligation to the world, which is by far more important that the basic, important sustainable development concept.