Because of its location, Belize has always attracted Central American immigrants seeking better opportunities or access to land for subsistence farming. From as early as the 1860s, Central American immigrants were making villages like Dolores and Otoxha in the Toledo district their homes. More recently, the civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua during the 1960s to the 1990s caused considerable amounts of immigration to occur.
The first wave of immigration in the current era took place in the late 1970s when middleclass citizens of El Salvador began leaving their country for Belize due to local conflicts. Next came village people called “campecinos” from El Salvador. These campecinos came from war ravaged areas like Santa Ana, Sonsonete, Ahuachapan, Chalatenango, Cabañas, Cuscatlan and La Libertad in northern El Salvador. These were villages where guerrilla activity was being suppressed by the Salvadorean government using “scorched earth” policies such as burning of crops and forests or killing of livestocks and villagers. To travel to Belize, these immigrants first entered Guatemala at places like Jutiapa and Chiquimula. They then boarded trucks or buses and headed for the Peten region of Guatemala. The final leg of the journey was the crossing from Peten into Belize near Benque Viejo Town. The journey from El Salvador to Belize took about two days.
Numerous Guatemalans have also immigrated to Belize starting in the 1980s. Most were from the Alta Verapaz, Izabal and Peten departements of Guatemala. These refugees were running from the “rural pacification” hostilities initiated by General Rios Montt in Guatemala. Rural pacification meant the killing of large numbers of village people who did not agree with the government of Guatemala.
In 1981, the government of Belize and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began a refugee resettlement project on 15,000 acres of uncleared land in the upper Belize River Valley. This area was named Valley of Peace. Land was given to the refugees to encourage food production. This resulted in a number of small farms dedicated to vegetable production. These farms helped to improve Belize’s self sufficiency in fresh vegetables.
In addition to vegetable production in Valley of Peace, Central Americans were also incorporated as semi-peranent workers in the banana industry which was revived in the CowPen and Trio Branch areas in the 1970s. These new immigrants also replaced Creoles as the unskilled labour in the various aspects of the citrus industry starting around the time of independence.