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Belize has no daily newspapers of its own, but some private weekly newspapers that cover a wide range of opinions. Since the privatization of state radio in 1998, a diverse television and radio landscape has developed. Violence against journalists is rare, but there are occasional attempts to intimidate opposition media. Journalists can be sued for large damages. Access to the Internet is expensive and limited due to a lack of infrastructure.

Belize is located in the southeast of the Yucatán Peninsula and is slightly hilly to flat except for the Maya Mountains in the interior with up to 1,122 m (Victoria Peak). After El Salvador, this country the size of Western Switzerland is the second smallest state on the American continent. Despite its small area, Belize has very different landscapes.

The northern half of the mainland of Belize is a flat area that was once the seabed a long time ago. Today, the land is covered with a thin layer of soil on which bush and dense tropical hardwood forest grow.

The coastal region is neither land nor sea, but a wet, swampy mixture of both. Mangroves and grass can be found here, and where the terrain is more solid, tussock grass, cypress and maple grow.

Central Belize consists of sandy soil, it is the land of savannahs. About 48 kilometers southwest of Belize City, the country rises to 460 to 1,120 meters above sea level: The Mountain Pine Ridge and the Maya Mountains lie here. Rich precipitation causes numerous streams to spring up, which feed the Macal River from the heights in the northwest. The Macal River and the Mopan River merge to form the main tributaries of the Belize River.

In the south of Belize – with the Maya Mountains as a watershed to the southeast – rivers flow on their short routes to the Caribbean, lined by overhanging cliffs and caves. Over the years, the rivers have enriched the coastal belt with their cargo of sand, clay and silt to such an extent that citrus fruits and bananas are successfully produced here. With an annual rainfall of around 4,320 millimetres, the south of Belize boasts genuine rainforest, home to ferns, palm trees, lianas and tropical hardwoods.

Most important cities

The largest cities in Belize (as of January 1, 2005) are: Belize City 61,461 inhabitants, San Ignacio 16,812 inhabitants, Orange Walk Town 15,298 inhabitants, Belmopan 13,381 inhabitants and Dangriga 10,750 inhabitants.

Belize City

Belize CityThe city was founded as “Belize Town” in the middle of the 17th century by British workers as a logging settlement. Belize City was the capital of British Honduras until 1970. After the coastal city was almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Hattie in 1961, the government decided to relocate the seat of government and began building a new capital inland. In 1975 the seat of government was moved to Belmopan. Belize City is the capital of the province of Belize District. As the largest and most populous city in the country, Belize City continues to be the economic and cultural center of the Central American state.

Belmopan

Belmopan has been the capital of the country since 1970. It was built on the foothills of the Maya Mountains and is located in the geographical centre of the country. Belmopan’s inhabitants are mostly civil servants. The city is in the first phase of a 20-year development plan. The parliament building on Independence Hill is extremely impressive, the facade was decorated with an ancient Mayan motif.

Coastline

The coast is lined with coral reefs, sandbanks and atolls such as Lighthouse Reef, Glover Reef and the Turneffe Islands. The reef off Belize is the second largest coral reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef and its cayes, and the longest in the western hemisphere. The barrier reef stretches along the entire coast of Belize and protects a multitude of small reefs, sandbanks and over 1000 islands, the so-called cayes (pronounced [ki:s]). Most of the cayes and the coastline outside the cities and settlements are covered by dense, extensive mangrove forests, which also serve as shelters.

Nature reserves

25 km southeast of Belmopan is the Blue Hole National Park, a nature reserve that hosts a number of rare fauna and flora. Other nature reserves include Five Blues Lake National Park, Guanacaste National Park, Laughing Bird Caye National Park, Rio Bravo Nature Reserve, etc.

Population

Until the ninth century the Mayas lived in the area of today’s Belize. So it is not surprising that the proportion of the indigenous population is still around 11%. The indigenous people have developed their own social orders and dialects. The largest population group, however, are the mestizos, the hybrids between whites and indigenous people. Dark skinned people and Creoles, whose ancestors immigrated from the Lesser Antilles as slaves or seasonal workers, account for around 30% of the population. A special feature of the population diversity are the Carifs or Black Caribbeans, because here the blacks mixed with the indigenous population. The rest of the population are immigrant Arabs, mostly Lebanese, as well as Chinese and Indians. The small white population group includes descendants of immigrants from the USA and Great Britain as well as Mennonites of German origin from Mexico.

The country is one of the Central American states with the lowest population density, but has above-average population growth.

Languages

Languages in Belize are English, English Creole, Spanish, Garifuna, Mayan languages, Plautdietsch. Especially among the Mennonites who speak Low German, High German is also used as a language of worship and religious instruction.

Independence

On 21 September 1981 it finally gained independence from Great Britain. However, the relationship with neighbouring Guatemala remained problematic, as the country made territorial claims and could only be deterred from military action by the presence of British troops in Belize. It was not until 1992 that the Guatemalan government signed a treaty that recognized Belize’s independence but did not clarify the claims to areas in the west of the country. Since 2000, negotiations have been taking place between the two countries in which Guatemala is to be given at least access to the sea via Belize.

In the first parliamentary elections after independence in 1984, the UDP won superiorly; Manuel Esquivel became prime minister. Five years later, Price took over again as head of government, and in 1993 he had to leave it to Esquivel and the UDP. Dismissals in the civil service and price increases led to an overwhelming election victory for the PUP in 1998. Said W. Musa became the new prime minister. His re-election in 2003 was mainly due to extensive infrastructure measures and the creation of housing and jobs. However, this drove up government debt, and in 2004 the government was forced to launch an austerity program.