New Health and Safety Standards for Archaeological Reserves and Parks Print E-mail
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Thursday, 12 June 2014 00:00

It was just thirteen months after the Belize Bureau of Standards was contacted, but when the Health and Safety Standards were completed it has ended up as a well rounded plan to safeguard both Belizeans and tourists, who regularly visit Belize’s archaeological sites. Jose Trejo, the Director of the Belize Bureau of Standards, signed the Health and Safety Standards Statutory Instrument on Thursday of last week at the Xunantunich Archaeological Site, thus activating a set of compulsory guidelines that satisfy both National and International life saving standards.

Putting these standards together by getting expert inputs from both Belize and abroad was Armeid Thompson, Chairperson of the Tourism Technical Committee, and who is also Director of the Quality Assurance Department at the Belize Tourism Board.

“No progress is made in isolation, but requires the collective wisdom and collaboration of dedicated teams whose sole purpose is to be catalysts for change”, said Armeid Thompson last at a brief ceremony at Xunantunich and added, “…but however time is exactly what this Project did not have…”

Armeid Thompson was referring to the Making Tourism Benefit Communities Adjacent to Archaeological Sites Project (MTBCAAS), which has not only brought the Health and Safety Standards to life but sought to bring a consolidated effort of improvements to nine archaeological sites. These sites which have benefited much from MTBCAAS are Xunantunich, Barton Creek, Actun Tunichil Muknal, Nohoch Che’en (Cave’s Branch), Altun Ha, Lamanai, Nim Li Punit, Lubaantun and Blue Creek. According to statistics from the Institute of Archaeology, some 363,000 residents and non residents visited eight of these nine archaeological sites in 2013 and the effort now is to bring unparalleled protection to future visitors.

The Belize Standard for Health and Safety of Archaeological Reserves and Parks was signed by the Hon. Erwin Contreras, Minister of Trade and Industry, Investment and Consumer Protection on May 27, 2014 and it was gazetted on May 31, 2014. With the signing last week Thursday, the new set of standards have now become a policy of the Institute of Archaeology (IA), National Institute of Culture and History (NICH), Ministry of Tourism and Culture (MoTC) with all Archaeological Reserves and Parks now to comply fully with these standards. Failure to comply with any of the standards may result in disciplinary or legal action. Some examples of the standards that are now set include that all parties conducting tours at Archaeological Reserves and Parks shall be in possession of all appropriate licenses, permits and insurance. Another set of standards mandates that no permanent or semi-permanent commercial structures, such as cabins, sheds or habitable buildings, shall be erected on any Archaeological Reserves and Parks without permission from the Director of the Institute of Archaeology-on clearance from all other relevant Competent Authorities.

It will now be left to the Institute of Archaeology to be the key organization that will move forward in the implementation of these comprehensive Health and Safety Standards; be they in the areas of trails, ramps, sanitary facilities and emergency preparations for guest in times of natural disasters. The Institute of Archaeology is well fitted for the task given that it employs some 90 rangers Nationwide.  

“We have to ensure and we have to do and at the same time maintain equilibrium between catering to the tourism industry and at the same time ensuring that the Institute of Archeology adheres to its mandate of protection and preservation of archaeological resources,” says George Thompson, who is the Associate Director of Park Management and has been involved with archaeological parks for the past 25 years.

The reality remains that these archaeological sites each have their carrying capacity. As contained in the new Standards, Xunantunich, Blue Creek and Barton Creek can handle 1,500, 125 and 300 visitors, respectively.

Within the Regional context it takes some 12 months to create a standard. This was highlighted last week by Jose Trejo, the Director of the Belize Bureau of Standards, who at the same time warned that, “standard development is not science, but as you know it is driven by a process of consensus building and simply put consensus requires engagement with all our stakeholders…engagement however can easily be lost in the shuffle if there is not commitment and a supporting network of institutional partnerships to nurture it.”

For now, the brand new Health and Safety Standards continues to have robust support from the MTBCAAS Project, which was launched in March 2013. MTBCAAS efforts has been made possible with grant funding of Bz$2.75M from the European Union and the Government of Belize under the Belize Rural Development Program (BRDP) Two and Bz$1.25M contribution from the Belize Tourism Board and the National Institute of Culture and History for a total of Bz$4 million.

Denis Leseur, who was present at the ceremony in Xunantunich and who serves as a bridge between the MTBCAAS and several Eurpean Union funded projects in Belize, believes that while the Health and Safety Standards is now on paper “…it has to come real on the ground.”

Two tour guides, who came out embracing the Health and Safety standards last week were Eric Tut from the Cayo Tour Guide Association and Armine Avilez, liaison officer from the Cayo West Tour Guide Association. These are the tour guides, who will form part of the final implementers of the Health and Safety Standards, which also provide guidelines in times of natural disasters.

As the Health and Safety Standards makes clear, the unpredictable nature of Belize’s rives makes it almost impossible to give any tour operator a 24-hour lead-time as to what the river condition will be. Hence, the Institute of Archaeology will continuously monitor river level gauges, weather reports and make contacts upriver to keep the cave sites open and operational as long as possible, within acceptable standards. (Tour Operators and Guides may call the Cahal Pech Archaeological Reserve at 802-4206 from 6:00 am every morning to 6:00 pm to check on river conditions and to determine whether caves are open.)
As repeated by Dr. Jeraldo Flowers, Policy Coordinator working in the MTBCAAS, the Health and Safety standards is a perpetual process and now the team is about to develop a sensitization program with tour guide associations; especially with those from communities adjacent to archaeological sites.

He tells the Guardain that training for tour operators on the Health and Safety Standards will be from July 15th to August 15th of this year followed by sensitizations on cave rescue, medical response and site guide training.

With health and safety now at the top of the agenda in the portfolio of various Ministries and other partners, more tourists and Belizeans alike will be visiting our archaeological reserves and parks. It is with end results like the Health and Safety Standards that they will now be doing so in a manner that guarantees the preservation of Belize’s rich archaeological heritage for future generations to enjoy.