Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The underprivileged and overlooked areas of San Mateo still lack proper road access

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At first glance, the Caribbean island of Ambergris Caye looks like paradise, with clear waters, white sandy beaches, and high-end resorts. Life is primarily centered in San Pedro Town, a haven for tourists. However, tucked on the island’s outskirts, out of sight of tourists, lies another view for locals: the San Mateo subdivision. This disparaged community, with approximately 1500 residents, suffers from years of neglect and poverty.
Constructed within mangrove swamps filled with trash over the years to make “land,” San Mateo lies on the western lagoon shoreline of San Pedro just north of the Boca del Rio Bridge. Most residents live without electricity, reliable running water, and proper sewage systems. Every day, the people of San Mateo walk across old, rotten wooden planks on their daily routes to get to school or work. The bridges are so deficient that residents have nicknamed them “The London Bridge” because they always fall apart. This small but diverse population lives in swampy and neglected areas of the island because it’s the only place they can afford.
Although the number of households in the community has grown over the past fifteen years, few roads have been built, and many residents remain hopeless.
Work done in the past
Records indicate that in 2010, Professor Kim Shackelford led an empowerment project involving eight students from the University of Mississippi Service-Learning Class, one faculty member, and the residents of San Mateo. The project’s goal was to replace the makeshift London Bridges with properly accessible roads for the people of San Mateo. The project culminated in a short ceremony at the entrance of the San Mateo Subdivision in northern San Pedro Town.

Students at Ole Miss raised money to pay for materials through food sales, yard sales, and even karaoke nights back in Mississippi to finance the construction of roads in San Mateo. Residents of San Mateo contributed their labor weekly on Sundays for three years, with limited support from the outside community, to improve road access.
During three years, students raised around $45,000 through fundraisers to build nearly one mile of road. The San Mateo Empowerment Project, initiated in January 2010, ended on March 14, 2013, as the students who started the project graduated from the University of Mississippi in January 2012.
After Mayor Daniel Guerrero was elected in 2012, efforts to build roads in San Mateo began. Guerrero expressed concern about the area’s lack of infrastructure, including electricity, sewage systems, potable water, and proper road infrastructure. He mentioned that the San Mateo Empowerment project was yet to come. However, as of 2024, residents still use the “London Bridge” for commuting.
Despite some improvements, undeveloped areas in San Mateo still require proper road work.
What is being done now?
The San Pedro Sun (SPSUN) contacted Councilor Ernesto Bardalez, currently in charge of the Road Works and Infrastructure portfolio under the governance of People’s United Party’s elected officials, Mayor Gualberto “Wally” Nunez, and Area Representative Andre Perez. Bardalez was asked what could be done for the area to rebuild and improve proper road access for the people. An SPSUN reporter accompanied Bardalez on an area inspection on May 14, 2024, where they spoke to neighbors who shared their daily challenges in traveling to and from the sector. Some mentioned that their children have to use plastic bags on their feet to walk through the swamp, especially during the rainy season when the tide rises and causes flooding. Residents also mentioned that due to the lack of proper road access, Belize Water Services Limited and Belize Electricity Limited have been unable to install essential utilities in the neighborhood. As a result, some residents use candles at night or share electricity with neighbors using extension cords mounted on makeshift electrical posts made from old wooden sticks.

Residents also mentioned that, without government support, they had taken it upon themselves to cover part of the swamp in front of their homes using garbage, pallets, sand, and rocks just to be able to walk on solid ground. When asked why they chose to live there despite the hardships, they explained that they could not afford to live elsewhere.
After the visit, Bardalez stated that he would put the matter on the agenda to start working on the area as soon as possible, especially with the rainy season approaching.
Bardalez stated, “As the councilor in charge of Road Works, along with the Mayor and the SPTC, we are committed to providing better access to the homes built off the main road. We aim to create safer access for the residents, especially for the children living in the area. While we may not be able to create full streets yet, we plan to establish a more organized, solid, and safer access, which is the first significant step. This is crucial for providing utility services to the area. We ask residents to please bear with us as we work on a plan. I have assessed the area and its urgency to improve living standards for all residents.”
As the island rapidly develops, residents urge government authorities to assist developing communities with proper infrastructure and affordable residential properties.

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