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Faculty Continue COVID-19 Research: Belize and Guatemala

The Xunantunich Maya archaeological site. Image courtesy of Kristi Drexler.

By Dr. Kristin Drexler
Faculty Member, School of STEM

Our University-funded research, “A Case Study Comparison of Pandemic Experiences of Indigenous Groups in the Americas,” continues to new regions of the world. This research began with last year’s trips to Metlakatla Indian Community in Southeast Alaska and in Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico.

Currently, I’m joined by Dr. Michelle Watts, Assistant Department Chair in the School of Security and Global Studies, in the Central American countries of Belize and Guatemala for three weeks this March. Later, we will join our colleague Dr. Casey Skvorc and graduate student Pedro Maldonado in Antigua, Guatemala next week to present our research at the Southeastern Council of Latin American Studies (SECOLAS) conference. 

This past week, we completed interviews in western Belize and are now at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, to continue the study.

Belize and San Antonio Village

Belize is a small nation south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, bordered to the east by the Caribbean Sea and to the south and west by Guatemala. Formerly British Honduras until its independence in 1981, Belize is a melting pot of cultural groups belonging to both Caribbean and Central American heritage.

Belize has a sub-tropical climate. Much of Belize consists of forests, agricultural land, riparian and swamp land, and mangrove coastal and island areas.

Belize has a larger percentage of environmentally protected areas than most countries and has the second largest barrier reef in the world (second to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). Tourists visit Belize for recreation and bird or other wildlife watching, visiting its Caribbean island cayes (“keys”), Mayan ruins, caves, jungles, and rivers.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Belize from 1997-1999, I have returned to the country every year – until the pandemic began, now returning to conduct this study. I have conducted previous studies related to climate change impact in San Antonio village.

In addition, I directed a Belize Film School course for New Mexico State University. I produced a film called “Yochi,” which was partially filmed in San Antonio.

San Antonio is a small village in western Belize, primarily of Yucatec Maya families. The village is known for its artists and healers.

The Garcia Sisters (Cayo’s famous slate carvers), Elijio Panti National Park and the Pacbitun Maya archaeological site are all located here. According to Vita Realty, Pacbitun was an “ancient Maya city believed to have been an important center of trade and commerce during the classic period of maya civilization, which dates back to around 200-900 AD.”

San Antonio Village in western Belize. Image courtesy of Kristi Drexler.

The village of San Antonio is also known for the late Don Elijio Panti, who was a well-known shaman guide and herbal healer. His legacy, Elijio Panti National Park, has diverse flora and fauna, including many medicinal plants that Panti’s predecessors, like Silverio Canto, still use today.

Conducting Our Pandemic Research in San Antonio

Dr. Drexler interviews a local resident of San Antonio. Image courtesy of Hector Mai.

Last week, Dr. Watts and I interviewed 13 residents of San Antonio about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their lives. We used semi-structured interviews to obtain residents’ perceptions of the multiple impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has had on their lives.

Using the Community Capitals Framework – an area that I have used in previous studies – we examined interview responses from leaders and members of the community, including the village chairman, a health center nurse and a national park manager. Other interviewees have included people from local businesses, a school, and a women’s cooperative, as well as a farmer and medicinal healers, among others.

Dr. Watts interviews members of San Antonio Village. Image courtesy of Kristi Drexler.

We will use our COVID-19 interview data to assess community perceptions on health, cultural practices, livelihoods, the environment, governance, and education. We will also determine how those areas connect to civil society, collective action, socio-ecological system changes and resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic

 The benefit of this study is “to give voice to the lived experiences of Indigenous communities and how they have managed a global pandemic in their respective communities,” according to Michelle. Many residents interviewed for this study are leaders and innovators in their community who were able to problem-solve in real time, using their limited resources to protect their community.

Belize Is a Tourism Jewel

Barton Creek Cave. Image courtesy of Kristi Drexler.

For me, western Belize is my second home. I took Dr. Watts to some of the more popular tourism destinations in Cayo, including:

  • Barton Creek Cave
  • Downtown San Ignacio
  • Xunantunich Maya archaeological site
  • Big Rock waterfall
  • Clarissa Falls

As part of our faculty advisor duties for The Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) chapter at the University, we posted a field trip video of our experience at Xunantunich, on the top of El Castillo temple.

Reflecting on Our Belize Research Experience

As a part of the trip, we spent time to reflect on our research experience at San Antonio village and considered our answers to various questions.

What was your favorite part about being in western Belize?

Dr. Watts: The natural beauty of western Belize is amazing, but the best part was how incredibly friendly and welcoming the people are.

Dr. Drexler: There is a saying in Belize: Once you drink the water, you always come back. And I have! Ever since my Peace Corps experience in the late ‘90s, Belize has been part of my heart. The country and people of Belize are absolutely beautiful, kind and incredible.

What are some interesting things you’re learning about the people you’ve interviewed so far? 

Dr. Watts: It was wonderful to hear about how some of our respondents noticed a resurgence of nature during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the return of an abundance of birds and jaguars.  

Dr. Drexler: Many consider the COVID-19 pandemic to be a blessing of sorts. It helped them understand their priorities and return to their roots: farming, self-reliance, community, and resilience.

Why is this study important and who will want to know about it?  

Dr. Watts: We are doing this study to get to learn about the experiences of diverse Indigenous peoples during the pandemic. We hope it will add to the literature about Indigenous peoples, but perhaps most importantly, learn about their resilience and the ways they helped each other to survive the pandemic.  

Dr. Drexler: The study is important because it gives voice to communities and how they coped, adapted, and worked together to protect and provide for each other during the pandemic. Belizeans are a beautiful and resilient people, and we were so lucky to spend time to hear their stories. Thank you to the residents of San Antonio for opening your hearts and homes to tell us your experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dr. Kristin Drexler is a full-time faculty member in the Space Studies and Earth Sciences Department. She teaches geography, environmental science, earth system history, conservation of natural resources, and earth and planetary sustainability for the School of STEM. She earned her Ph.D. in educational leadership at New Mexico State University by researching socioecological systems, sustainable agroecology and community education. Dr. Drexler earned her Master of Arts in international affairs with an emphasis in natural resources management from Ohio University. She earned the Undergraduate Excellence in Teaching Award for the School of STEM (2020) and the Dr. Wallace E. Boston Leadership Award (2021). Dr. Drexler has conducted numerous community surveys in Belize regarding agroforestry, conservation, and sustainable agriculture. Dr. Drexler serves as a faculty advisor for the University’s wSTEM and AWIS chapters. She is a co-investigator for the research study “A Case Study Comparison of Pandemic Experience of Indigenous Groups in the Americas.”

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