Rich in cultural heritage

Now, an opportunity to enrich the health and life of the most vulnerable

28 September 2019

It is an area steeped in Maya history and now accepted as the birth place of the Mestizo culture.  History says that in 1511, the first Europeans set foot on what is now Belize: a small crew of shipwrecked Spanish sailors landed in what is northern Belize. Twenty people were washed ashore, and most of those were immediately captured by the Mayas and later sacrificed or taken as slaves. One of the prisoners, Gonzalo Guerrero, later defected to the Mayas, and married into a noble Mayan family. Guerrero married the daughter of Nachankan, the chief of Chetumal, and assumed the Mayan way of life. It is fabled that it was in Corozal, northern Belize that the marriage took place at what is known as the Santa Rita Maya site, located in the heart of Corozal Town.  Guerrero and his wife had three children, who were the first Mestizos (mixed Amerindian-European ethnicity).

Mestizo boy and girl dressed in traditional clothing

While rich in cultural heritage, recent poverty assessments have shown this northern most district to be the second most impoverished area of the country, following Toledo in the deep south. Today, the way of life is richly flavored by both Hispanic and Mayan cultures, with an agrarian mainstay – mostly sugar cane farming and small subsistence vegetable and corn farms.  Modern building techniques and the areas susceptibility to tropical storms and hurricanes have transformed the traditional pimiento log walls and thatched roofed homes with earthen floors to majority wooden or cement structures and zinc roofing.  A few of the customary homes dot the landscape either as outdoor kitchens housing the koben (three stone fireplace) used for some traditional cooking or as reminders of their cultural heritage. 


Traditional Yucatec Maya dwelling home in Northern Belize

The ravages of the recent storms have changed the socioeconomic conditions of northern Belize and now Corozal is known as the second most impoverished area of Belize, following Toledo in South.  The loss experienced to the sugar cane farms in the early 2000s, and the devastation the papaya industry suffered never saw to its recovery and now no longer thrives.  The change in socioeconomic conditions, the storms and the area being proned to floods have impacted the health situation, with a vulnerability for water and vector borne diseases.

The visit took us to the entrance of Corozal Town and then down the long narrow bumpy and dusty white limestone roadway.  On a good travel day, the nearest of these communities are a full hour away from the main town and the more well equipped and staffed Corozal Hospital, and a full two hours from the Northern Regional Hospital in Orange


Men operating the hand cranked ferry crossing – on the road to Chunox and the interior villages
Men operating the hand cranked ferry crossing – on the road to Chunox and the interior villages

Walk District, with the access facilitated by two hand cranked ferries.  The two men operating the ferry greeted us with smiles.  Their job for the entire day sees them crank that manual antiquated rotary device moving the structure laden with vehicles back and forth across the river. 

In Belize, it is now dry season, delayed this year by an unusual amount of rains in February and March.   As we drove along through the communities, we observed the area littered with sugar cane farms, but most notable was the white limestone roadways.  The heavy dust cover was hard to escape as the vehicles breeze through the communities.  The thick white loose dust easily clings to your skin, every plant life and structure in its path.   The health complication this presents was easily understood.  In the rainy season, these same dusty pot-holed filled narrow roads become mushy white mud and in the really heavy rains the surrounding rivers flood cutting off the communities from the rest of the district.  Accessible only via the two hand operated ferries, the normal dry season one hour drive from Chunox to the main town of Corozal becomes impossible. 

“This is the reason we have selected these communities for the expansion of our work with UNICEF and PROBITAS,” said Doctor Gerahldine Morazan Director of Medical Laboratories.  “These communities are cutoff from the rest of the country during heavy rainy season and need to be able to stand on their own at least for a time during such emergencies.”

Upon arrival, first at the Chunox PolyClinic, we were introduced to Ms. Roselia Correa, the Assistant Administrator of the San Narciso PolyClinic but also responsible for this facility.  She explained that while the elders are still very much employed by the sugar cane farming or small farming, the communities that make up the Chunox PolyClinic catchment has very little to offer the young people by way of employment.

“We have very young mothers due to early pregnancies, who must work to upkeep the family.  Our young people travel to the Corozal Freezone further north for work and leave their children with grandmothers for caregiving.  The early pregnancy situation, coupled with the economic situation and unsafe water and sanitation practices presents us with malnutrition as a problem and gastroenteritis is a huge challenge,” she said.

This clearly grounds the rationale for UNICEF introducing water and sanitation health programmes along with government partners of the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education to the northern communities as well as most applicably the work with PROBITAS to support the improvement of medical laboratories for the two PolyClinics in the area.  The catchment area for Chunox is a total population of 8,000 and covers six villages with two health clinics in the communities of Progresso and the only fishing community in the area, Sarteneja Village. 

While our visit was chiefly to the two main PolyClinics, we did travel to visit one of the health centers for a rather large community… that of Sarteneja.  Currently that community rents a small lower flat of a privately- owned residence for the clinic.  The visit shows the dire need of the new clinic under construction and the promise for new equipment.  The scale used to weigh babies looks like something for a museum and the posters demonstrate the high need for education in nutrition as well as water and sanitation health. This situation was a confirmation of UNICEF’s mission.

“We work to benefit the most vulnerable,” says Michel Guinand, Social Policy Specialist for UNICEF.  “Quality medical care is a right of all children.  Our support is to benefit the children in these communities and by extension family health.  Healthy communities result in healthy children.”

Scale for weighing babies
An education poster for parents to learn about keeping children safe from parasites

This Chunox PolyClinic is newly constructed and staffed by 2 Rural Nurses, 1 Registered Nurse, 1 Practical Nurse and 1 Doctor, a Pharmacy Assistant and the medical laboratory with an X-Ray facility.  The new clinic is equipped with its own generator to provide electricity in times of storms or interruption of service from the national electrification grid.  Most notably is that the facility also has its own water cistern with a reverse osmosis treatment system.  The old clinic is being renovated to serve as residence for the doctor and a nurse, considering the inaccessibility during the rainy season and the distance makes commuting impractical.

Dr. Gerahldine Morazan (left), Ms. Lizette Bell – Project Coordinator of PROBITAS Project with UNICEF and Ms. Michel Guinand – UNICEF Social Policy Specialist discussing the project as they view the room designated for the medical laboratory in the new Chunux PolyClinic.
The new Chunox PolyClinic construction funded by Government of Belize and the Caribbean Development Bank via the Belize Social Investment Fund. All PolyClinics will now be constructed using the same design and floor plan.

The story is not much different for the nine communities and 7,000 people covered by the San Narcisso PolyClinic.  The area includes eight villages spanning a very wide area and three health centers in the villages of San Pedro Cristo Rey, Caledonia and Libertad.  Like the one in Chunox, this PolyClinic is staffed by 2 Rural Health nurses, 1 Registered Nurse, one Practical nurse, a Doctor, a Pharmacy Assistant and the plan is to include a Public Health Nurse in the near future.

“The country’s only Malaria case had come out of San Victor,” says Roselia Correa, the Assistant Administrator for the San Narcisso PolyClinic.  “Family and community health is important to this area.  We observe high incidences of non-communicable diseases, gastroenteritis and dengue.  Water and sanitation health (WASH) outreach is important as the poverty levels result in many unsafe health practices.”

Ms. Correa explained that equally the population is highly mobile with the young traveling for work, while the older males resort to sugar cane and small farming.  The population is reportedly in the lowest poverty quintile, characteristically eating what they can afford.  “Malnutrition is evident in the young children and many of the adults suffer from high cholesterol, hypertension and other non-communicables,” she explained.

The possible impact of the project extension with PROBITAS to improve the medical laboratory facilities stand to benefit a total of 15 communities with a combined population of about 15,000 persons.  These communities make up some of the most vulnerable in the northern district of Corozal.  Ms. Lisette Bell, the Director of Policy, Planning and Project Management Unit, who oversees the medical laboratory project between UNICEF and the Ministry of Health funded by PROBITAS said, “This will go a long way to improve health facilities but more so the overall health of our people in the North, people who demonstrate quite a need for the service.”