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While Belize has one of the highest growth rates in the Western Hemisphere, it is also known for having the lowest population density in Central America. Belizean culture is a mix of Christian, African, and Garifuno cultures with English as the country's official language. In 2015, the country became the first to ban bottom trawling off the coast. Hurricanes have shaped much of Belize's geography and history.
The Spanish arrived in the 16th century, and claimed all of Central America as a colony. Despite this, the Spanish never settled Belize due to its lack of silver and gold. The land didn't go unnoticed, as English and Scottish pirates known as Baymen created a settlement in 1638. Although most Mayan natives were killed off by disease brought by the Spanish and later the British, three groups of Maya remain. The Baymen changed from piracy to lumber processing, specializing in mahogany in the 18th century. Black slaves from Africa were brought over to do the hardest work in the wood processing industry. In exchange for an end to piracy along Central America, Britain was granted rights to further settle the land. In 1778, the local militia fought off Spanish forces in the Battle of St. George's Caye, when Spain tried to invade and conquer the land for its own. After the battle, Britain sought to assert control over the colony, as refusing to recognize control was meant to prevent war with Spain, which claimed all of Central America. Slavery was abolished in 1938. After the rest of Central America split from Spain, Britain renamed its colony British Honduras.
The Great Depression of the 1930's struck many countries, Belize included; the entire economy nearly collapsed due to the crash. Until the crash, mahogany was a staple of the economy; once the demand for luxury goods overseas stopped, so did most trade. The economy improved with the country entering WWII, but went back to stagnation immediately after with so many veterans to care for. In 1964, British Honduras was granted the right of self-government, as well as a loan to fix the economy by Britain, which spurred the people toward independence. The country renamed itself Belize in 1973, and declared independence in 1981. While the road to independence was non-violent, Britain did not take the declarations lightly and invaded Belize, claiming to protect the new country from Guatemala, which had claimed sovereignty over Belize since 1940. Guatemala was eventually forced to recognize Belize as its own country, despite still claiming the territory, and British soldiers went home the same year.
Belize is a major producer and exporter of narcotics, but is also the birthplace chewing gum. Due to its position between North America and South America, as well as over 60% of the country being covered by forest, it is home to abundant and diverse wildlife from both continents, as well as that which is unique to Central America. Belize is a leader in protecting wildlife, and has dedicated 36% of is land to environmental protection and preservation—the most extensive in the Americas. There are many precious and economically important minerals scattered throughout the terrain of Belize; however, not all of the deposits are concentrated enough to bother mining. Off the coast in the Caribbean lies the Belize Barrier Reef, 30 kilometers of coral that holds so much marine life that it is estimated 10% has yet to be discovered and cataloged. Additional reefs exist, including the Mesoamerican Reef, which is 900 kilometers along the central American coast, as well as the Lighthouse Reef, which surrounds the Giant Blue hole, an underwater sinkhole 300 meters across and 124 meters deep.
Area: 22,966 square kilometers Population: 340,844 (2014 estimate)