Population of Belize

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Belize Map Economy History

Perhaps the most pronounced feature of the Belizean population, aside from its ethnic heterogeneity, is its small size. In 1980 the population was estimated at approximately 145,000. Slightly more than 50 percent of the people resided in eight urban areas, with more than 30 percent in Belize City. By 1990, the pattern of population distribution had changed, with 51.8 percent of the approximately 191,000 Belizeans living in rural areas. The growth in the rural population during the 1980s stemmed primarily from the influx of Central American immigrants who moved to Belize's countryside. Meanwhile, many urban Belizeans moved to the United States and elsewhere. Even with the increase in its overall population, Belize remained one of the least densely populated countries in the Americas, averaging 8.5 persons per square kilometer in 1991.

Belize is divided administratively into six districts: Corozal, Orange Walk, Belize, Cayo, Stann Creek, and Toledo. In 1991, more than one in three Belizeans lived in Belize District (including Belize City), which had a population density five times greater than the least populated district, Toledo.

As in many other developing societies, the Belizean population was unevenly divided by age and gender. The ratio of males and females in the population varied considerably over the last century. In the 1980s, males outnumbered females in most age groups. Shifts in the gender ratio have generally been attributed to changing migration patterns. In the 1940s and 1950s the emigration stream was predominantly male, but recently, women emigrants outnumbered men.

Consistent with the demographic profile of most developing nations was the general youthfulness of the Belizean population. In 1990 some 46 percent of Belizeans were fourteen years of age or younger and some 58 percent were under the age of twenty. Regular declines in the death rate have steadily increased the proportion of the population sixty-five years of age and older, to 4.6 percent in 1980.

The average crude birthrate for Belize experienced slow but steady decline, from 44.1 per 1,000 population in 1963 to 35.0 per 1,000 in 1990. The average fertility rate also dropped from nearly 7 children per woman in the late 1960s to 5.4 in 1985. Coupled with declining death and infant mortality rates, the high birthrate between 1970 and 1980 indicated a potential population increase of more than 3.0 percent for the decade. However, the actual increase between 1970 and 1980 was only 1.9 percent, indicating a very high rate of emigration, perhaps involving as many as one in every eight Belizeans. During the 1980s, the rate of natural population increase was about 3.0 percent for the decade. The difference between projected and actual population increase for the period 1980-1990 was considerably less than in the 1970s, as the actual rate of increase was some 2.4 percent. The closer correspondence of these two figures reflected not so much a decline in emigration by Belizeans, as the scale and demographic impact of the immigration from the surrounding Central American republics.


Continuous migration has made it difficult to determine accurately the size and social composition of the Belizean population and to project future growth. Although small numbers of Belizeans have emigrated to Britain, Canada, and the West Indies, the principal destination of most Belizean emigrants has been the United States. Estimates of the Belizean population in the United States have varied between 30,000 and 100,000. The United States Embassy in Belize has estimated that in 1984, about 55,000 Belizeans were residing in the United States, with two of three living there illegally. Settling primarily in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, and New Orleans, most of these emigrants were either Creole or Garifuna. Their remittances, estimated at US$11 million in 1984, played an important role in the subsistence of many Belizean households, especially in Belize City and Dangriga. Later estimates were that as many as 65,000 Belizeans were living in the United States by mid-1988, with the majority ranging in age from twenty to thirty-four.

Estimates of the immigrant population in Belize also varied widely. According to the 1980 census, more than 10 percent of the population, or roughly 15,000 people, were born in other countries. One of two immigrants came from either Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, or El Salvador. By the late 1980s, these figures were considerably higher because immigration continued, albeit on a lesser scale, over the course of the decade. The percentages of immigrants who were from Mexico and Central America, the numbers of foreign-born refugees, and the numbers of Belizeans who had been born in other countries all increased. The number of Salvadoran refugees living in Belize was estimated at between 2,000 and 15,000 in the late 1980s, and recent studies claim that between 25,000 and 31,000 citizens of neighboring republics had entered the country since 1977.

The presence of these "aliens," as they were popularly known, was visible in Belize. As of 1991, Salvadoran and Guatemalan vendors lined the sidewalks of Belize City's main commercial street and were prominent in the marketplaces of Orange Walk, Dangriga, and especially the capital, Belmopan. Belizeans derisively dubbed a recently developed satellite shantytown in Belmopan as "Salvapan." Along the remote Hummingbird and Southern highways, the fields of the new migrants cut dramatic swaths in the previously uninhabited forest. This situation raised environmentalists' concerns about soil erosion. Although Central American immigrants have settled throughout the country, they have been most heavily concentrated in the rural areas of Cayo and Toledo districts.

The emigration of English-speaking Creoles and Garifuna to the United States and the immigration of Spanish-speaking Mestizos from Central America exacerbated ethnic tensions and challenged long-held assumptions regarding the character of Belizean culture, which has traditionally been oriented toward the English-speaking Caribbean. Although they comprised only 40 percent of the total population in 1980, Creoles long considered Belize "their" country--black, English-speaking, and Protestant. Moreover, Guatemala's persistent claim to Belize's territory caused many Belizeans, especially Creoles, to be antagonistic toward Hispanic culture. A key problem in the drive toward building the Belizean nation was the substitution of an ideology of cultural pluralism for undisputed Creole cultural dominance. Neither educational efforts nor political rhetoric has been completely successful in this regard. Indeed, by the early 1990s, many Belizeans were apprehensive of increasing ethnic tension.


The most salient characteristic of Belizean society in the late 1980s was ethnic diversity. Ethnicity in Belize was not reduced to race, but instead referred to the collective identities formed through a complex interplay of racial, linguistic, and religious factors, as well as a sense of shared history and custom.

The two largest ethnic groups together constituted almost three-quarters of the population. The 1980 census listed 39.7 percent of the population as Creole, a group usually defined as English speakers descended wholly or in part from African slaves imported to work in the colonial mahogany industry. The 1980 census combined the previously separate "black" and "coloured" segments of the population into a single group. Consequently, there was considerable physical diversity among people listed as Creole. A folk system of racial classification further hierarchically divided Creoles on the basis of such physical features as skin shade, facial features, and hair texture. Despite political independence, the colonial social bias toward "clear" or light skin and European features endured in contemporary Belizean society.

The second largest group, comprising one-third of the population, was identified as Mestizos, or persons of mixed Hispanic-Amerindian origin. In the local Creole vernacular, the Mestizos were known as "Spanish." The physical appearance of the Mestizos varied but not to the extent that it varied among Creoles. Most Belizean Mestizos were descended from refugees of the midnineteenth -century Caste War of Yucatán. The majority of them settled in the northern districts of Corozal and Orange Walk, where they initiated the cultivation of sugarcane in Belize.

Migration during the 1980s had a major impact on the demographic balance between the two largest ethnic groups. As of 1991, the government had not released figures on ethnic identity from the 1990 census, but census officials predicted that Mestizos would equal or outnumber Creoles.

The third largest ethnic population comprised three distinct groups: the Yucatecan, Mopán, and Kekchí Maya. In 1980 one in ten Belizeans belonged to one of the three groups. Belizeans commonly referred to the Yucatecan and Mopán peoples as Maya. Contrary to the statements of colonial historians, some of these Mayan peoples were indeed descendants of the inhabitants of pre-Columbian Belize. Most Kekchí and Mopán, however, emigrated from Guatemala in the late nineteenth century.

The Garifuna, formerly known as the Black Carib, were Belize's fourth largest ethnic grouping, constituting 7 percent of the population in 1980. Descended from African slaves who intermarried with Amerindian inhabitants of the eastern Caribbean islands, the Garifuna were deported to the Gulf of Honduras by the British in the late eighteenth century. Some Garifuna migrated to the southern Belizean coast, where they established five major settlements. Initially fishermen and subsistence farmers, the Garifuna were gradually incorporated into wage labor in the mahogany industry as early as the 1820s, and later on in the banana and citrus plantations that developed in the Stann Creek Valley and elsewhere in the early twentieth century. Over the course of the twentieth century, an increasing number of Garifuna men became migrant workers, first along the Caribbean coast of Central America, and later in the United States.

Smaller ethnic groups--East Indians (whose forebears came from present-day India), Arabs, Chinese, and Euro-Americans, including a sizeable community of German-speaking Mennonites--made up the remaining 10 present of Belize's population. Of these groups, the East Indian population was the largest. They were largely descendants of nineteenth-century indentured laborers imported to work the sugar plantations of the Corozal and Toledo districts. By the late 1980s, they had intermarried extensively with other ethnic groups, and for the most part, they no longer possessed an identifiably East Indian culture. They lived in all of the country's six districts, but were concentrated in Toledo.

There was a second, and much smaller, East Indian community in Belize, composed of Hindi-speaking traders who immigrated to Belize from Bombay in the 1960s. Living primarily in Belize City and Orange Walk, they formed an aloof, close-knit community that, by the late 1980s, dominated Belize City retail trade and played a major role in currency exchange and speculation.

The smallest ethnic groups--Arabs and Chinese--were also exclusively urban, mercantile populations. Known variously as Turks, Syrians, and Lebanese, many Belizean Arabs were actually Palestinian. Immigrating to Belize in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they figured prominently as merchants in the Belize and Cayo districts.

A significant number of Chinese were imported as contract laborers in the nineteenth century, but virtually all Chinese people living in Belize today came to the country in the twentieth century. Most resided in Belize City, but at least a few Chinese families lived in every major town. Some were merchants but most worked in the restaurant and lottery industries. In the late 1980s, the Chinese population increased dramatically with immigration from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Belize's small, German-speaking Mennonite population emigrated from Mexico between 1958 and 1962. Numbering more than 5,000, the Mennonites founded numerous settlements in the Orange Walk, Cayo, and Toledo districts. The government granted them complete autonomy over their communities. Nevertheless, they have been slowly integrated into the life of the nation, particularly into the economy. The more progressive Mennonites of Spanish Lookout (Cayo District) and Blue Creek (Orange Walk District) became important suppliers of poultry, eggs, dairy products, and furniture. Still, they remained exempt from military service and were not allowed to vote.

Aside from the Mennonites, the majority of Belize's small white population were British and United States expatriates. Unlike some other Caribbean societies, Belize never supported a large European settler community during the colonial period. Since independence, a large, transient population of United States and British volunteers and international aid personnel has augmented the local European population. In 1986 the United States Peace Corps alone had more than 200 volunteers, the corps's highest volunteer-to- population ratio in the world. By 1991, however, the number of Peace Corps volunteers had dropped to less than 100.

The distribution of officially recognized ethnic groups was highly skewed by region, and each district had its own characteristic cultural orientation. Creoles made up three-quarters of the population of Belize City and the surrounding area but no more than one-third of the population in the other five districts. Mestizos constituted two-thirds of the people in the northern sugar-producing districts of Orange Walk and Corozal, one-half the population of the predominantly agricultural Cayo district, but only about one-tenth of the population in Belize, Stann Creek, and Toledo. Garifuna lived mostly along the coasts of the two southernmost districts of Stann Creek and Toledo; they made up fewer than 3 percent of the population in any of the other four districts. The majority of the country's diverse Mayan population resided mainly in the interior of Toledo (where they constituted some 57 percent of the district's people) and the rural areas of Stann Creek, Orange Walk, and Corozal.

SOURCE: Library of Congress Country Studies/Area Handbook

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Belize Map Economy History