Monday, May 7, 2007

Brooks Tropicals Preserves Ancient Mayan Ruins

Miami Herald article by Tere Figueras Negrete

When Brooks Tropicals began work on a new headquarters for its papaya-growing operation in Belize, executives for the produce distributor in Homestead never imagined the project would thrust them into unfamiliar terrain: archaeology.

Soon after the groundbreaking on the site of the new corporate offices in December, construction crews unearthed what looked like the foundation of a long-buried building -- and halted work for about two months to allow Brooks Tropicals to work with Belizean officials to excavate the site, located in the northernmost district of Corazal.

Government archaeologists soon discovered a cluster of ancient Mayan structures and the remains of three people buried in the traditional Mayan fashion, all believed to be between 1,500 and 1,800 years old.

Brooks Tropicals now plans to incorporate some of the artifacts in an exhibit within the office complex, and incorporate one of the excavated structures -- believed to be a home built for a relatively well-to-do Mayan family -- into a community park on the Brooks property.

''It's a way for the local community to see how their ancestors lived,'' said Mary Ostlund, spokeswoman for Brooks Tropicals, which employs 1,200 in Belize.

The new building will serve as headquarters for the 1,700 acres of papaya groves, which Brooks Tropicals leases from local farmers. The site will include the grove operation offices and packing facilities for Brooks Tropicals, which bills itself as the largest papaya importer in North America.

Brooks Tropicals has been marketing papayas from Belize since 1988, and began growing the fruit in 1993.

The fruit is shipped to facilities in Homestead, where the company was founded in 1928. Brooks Tropicals also grows star fruit and avocadoes in Florida, as well as importing and distributing tropical fruits and vegetables from other growers.

The human remains have been turned over to the Institute of Archaeology. The excavation revealed the remains of a man and a woman buried in a crypt. Archaeologists have uncovered four rooms and ornate pottery. Two other structures have been partially excavated, but their original purposes are still unknown.

A third crypt, holding the remains of a man, was found just outside the home.

Belizean law requires businesses to tread carefully when dealing with archaeological finds. Failing to allow archaeologists to survey sites -- and properly excavate any findings, whether deemed important or not -- can lead to hefty fines or prompt officials to shut down projects.

Some disputes have ended only after prolonged legal battles, said Jaime Awe, director of Belize's Institute of Archaeology, a branch of the National Institute of Culture and History.

''I wish more developers were as willing to work with us as Brooks,'' said Awe. 'Some look at us and say, `Oh no, here come the archaeologists.' ''

Brooks Tropicals has footed the bill for the initial excavation, roughly $10,000, said Awe.

Ostlund said the company is financially committed to the project, including the construction of the community park and excavation of other possible Mayan ruins in the area. The headquarters should be completed by February. The community park will be finished by the end of next year, said Ostlund.

The Belizean countryside is dotted with countless similar sites. The ancient Mayans numbered more than a million in 600 AD, said Awe. The current population of Belize is around 300,000.
''We have more prehistoric buildings than modern ones,'' he said.

Read the Brooks Tropicals' press release for more details (this is a 2.2MB PDF file)