On Being Led

by Judy Lumb

Published in What Canst Thou Say  (May 2004)

Barranco is a beautiful village located on the coast in southern Belize. Sitting atop a fifteen-foot cliff above the black volcanic sand beach, one can see layers and layers of mountains of Guatemala rising on the other side of the bay. I asked, “what is between here and the Sarstoon River, the southern border of Belize?” The answer came in Creole, “Lone bush.” I thought, “what an opportunity for a national park!” Not two months later the Sarstoon-Temash National Park was declared, just as I had envisioned.

Co-management of protected areas is my special interest, the intersection between the environment and the people. Belize is blessed with a wealth of natural resources and much of the land is under some level of protected status, but the government does not have the resources to manage these areas. So, a system of co-management has developed in which local, often indigenous, people form community associations and co-manage adjacent protected areas in partnership with the government.

Belize is also blessed with a diversity of cultures. In a population of only 250,000, there are eight major languages spoken, four of them indigenous. Ethnicity is defined, not by the color of one’s skin, but by the languages one speaks. When visitors come to a national park that is co-managed by a local indigenous group, they get a cultural experience along with the natural one.

The Sarstoon-Temash National Park was surrounded by five indigenous villages – one Garifuna village on the coast (Barranco) and four Kekchi (a Mayan culture) villages inland in the rainforest. There were no other national parks co-managed by either culture, Garifuna or Kekchi, so it seemed an excellent opportunity for a co-management project. For some time I tried without success to recruit a volunteer to stay in Barranco for some time and help get this project started.

This is a story about being led, how one small step at a time was revealed to me. I had been invited to teach the Barranco Women’s Craft Group to make quilts, but before I went, I was led to make some calls about potential support for a co-management project. I called the appropriate government officials to see what their plans for the Sarstoon-Temash National Park were and to determine if they would be receptive to a proposal for co-management. I also inquired about funding such a project. This was unusually forward of me to make these calls. I was ill – mostly confined to hammock or bed – and I didn’t get out much. I was able to use my computer from my hammock and published the Belize Audubon Society Newsletter, so I knew who to call.

I mentioned co-management of the park to the women as we worked on the quilts, but they were very focused on the sewing and did not respond to the park discussion. About six months later I got a letter saying, “Judy, you know that tourist thing you were talking about? You have to come back and help us write a proposal. A man came saying there was money.” I responded that I would be there for the dugu in August.

That August was an incredible experience of being led. Before I caught the boat for Barranco, I was offered two indigenous language dictionaries and Bibles in the same languages. I didn’t have enough money to buy the books, so I went to the bank and got a cash advance to cover the books and my expenses for the whole month. I had only planned to stay in Barranco a little over a week and had not brought much money, but this small exchange made it possible for me to following the leadings that were to come in Barranco for the rest of the month.

A dugu is a week-long family healing ceremony that is profoundly spiritual. The Garifuna people are devout Catholics and their traditional culture is intertwined with their Catholic religion. Both a Catholic priest and a traditional priest officiated in an atmosphere of spiritual depth that opened my heart to be led. In the midst of all the Masses, drumming and dancing, small, incremental steps were revealed to me a little at a time over the entire week:

“You should come and stay in Barranco for a month or so to study the Garifuna language.”
“Next February would be a good time to do that.”
“There should be a gathering of the five villages in Barranco to discuss the co-management of the park”
“I can’t organize a workshop, but in February Rob Horwich (an expert on co-management) will be in Belize to help.”
“You should visit the four Kekchi villages.”
“But wait a minute – I can barely walk! Barranco is only reachable by boat – there are no vehicles here. These villages are four, eight, and eleven miles away!”
“You can rent a horse.”
“OK, I found a horse to rent, but there is no saddle.”
“Another family has a saddle.”

There were many other signs along the way. I had conversations with Dr. Joseph Palacio, an anthropologist from the village, telling him how I was getting these leadings, but I had neither the energy not the skill required. He promised to help in any way he could and encouraged me.

I had just mentioned that I might want to visit the Kekchi villages to my friend Shorty when the Village Council Chair of one of those villages walked up – from four miles away!

So, after the dugu was over we held a village meeting in Barranco to propose the idea of a gathering there and all agreed it was a good idea. Then I took a short walk with Shorty – four days, one in each of three villages. My horse was very slow and obstinate. It took Shorty pushing behind him with a wheelbarrow to make him move, but eventually we got where we were going each day. The fourth village is Crique Sarco and it is up the Temash River about 40 miles. Shorty rented a boat to take me there. I spoke to people in the villages, asking if they would be interested in coming to a workshop in Barranco. They all were willing to come to a workshop, but they didn’t understand what a national park was. They thought I meant a football (soccer) field.

After I got home I made a few calls from my hammock and everything fell into place. I was chosen, not because I could do the work, but because I knew who to call. I got a promise of funding of the workshop, arranged for two facilitators who spoke both Garifuna and Kekchi, and got government officials to participate.

I had just written a short proposal and mailed it out to all the potential participants when my father died. For several months I was not functional. It was the upcoming workshop that snapped me out of that depression.

There were a few snags along the way, but by the end of the workshop the communities had agreed to participate in this co-management project, formed a steering committee and selected a leader. They now have a large grant and are in the process of assessing the flora and fauna to develop a management plan.

While I still follow their progress, my role was only to bring the workshop into being. In retrospect I can see how all those individual leadings fit together – the book offering that led me to get enough money, the appearance of the Village Council Chair, the availability of a horse and saddle. I think it was only because of the spiritual depth of the dugu that my heart was opened enough to receive the messages. What else am I missing in my mundane daily life?