Of 13 Commonwealth member countries in the Americas, only Belize, Canada and Guyana lie on the mainland, three of the most sparsely populated countries in the association; all the others are islands or archipelagos.
The country’s current Prime Minister, Dean Barrow, is the first of African descent.
Belize forms part of the Commonwealth Caribbean, and is located in central America, bordering Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west and south.
Belmopan (capital, pop. 21,800 in 2010), Belize City (former capital and commercial centre, 68,300), San Ignacio (20,800), Orange Walk (16,900), San Pedro (14,200), Dangriga (12,800), Benque Viejo (9,800), Corozal (9,700) and Punta Gorda (5,600).
There is a road network of some 2,870km, 17% paved, with 1,420km of all-weather roads. The four main highways are: Northern Highway (Belize City to Chetumal on the Mexican border); Western Highway (Belize City via Belmopan to the Guatemalan border); Hummingbird Highway (Belmopan to Dangriga); and Southern Highway (Dangriga to Punta Gorda). Belize City is the main port; the international airport, Philip S W Goldson, lies 16km north-west of Belize City.
Belize is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, Association of Caribbean States, Caribbean Community, Non-Aligned Movement, Organization of American States, United Nations and World Trade Organization.
Belize is strengthening its links with its Central American neighbours through its membership of the Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana.
The long east coast is mostly flat with lagoons and mangrove swamps. For 16-32km out to sea the water is only about 5m deep and a barrier reef (second in size only to Australia’s) stretches nearly 297km, with many tiny islands known as cays or cayes inside. Three smaller reefs lie further out. Inland, the terrain rises with Victoria Peak (1,122m), the country’s highest point, in the Cockscomb range to the east, and the heavily forested Maya Mountains to the south-west. Continuing north, the Western (Cayo) District is also hilly, with the Mountain Pine Ridge. The northern districts have wide areas of tableland. There are 17 principal rivers, navigable at best only by vessels of shallow draught
The climate is subtropical, moderated by trade winds. The average temperature from November to January is 24°C and from May to September 27°C; inland there is a greater range. There are two dry seasons: March–May and August–September (the Maugre season). Annual rainfall ranges from 1,290 mm in the north to 4,450 mm in the south. The country is susceptible to hurricanes; Hurricane Iris in October 2001 – the fourth in three years – was the worst for 40 years. Several years later in August 2007 another hurricane, Hurricane Dean, hit Belize affecting the livelihoods of up to 2,500 families in the northern parts of the country.
The most significant environmental issues are deforestation; water pollution from sewage, industrial effluents and agricultural run-off; and solid waste disposal.
Forest covers 61 per cent of the land area and includes rainforest with mahoganies, cayune palms, and many orchids. Higher in the mountains, pine forest and cedar predominate. Arable land comprises three per cent of the land area.
There is a strong emphasis on conservation. By 1992, 18 national parks and reserves had been established, including the world’s only jaguar reserve. Other native species include ocelots, pumas, baboons, howler monkeys, toucans and many species of parrot.