Food Security Vs. the Environment: Why is there a conflict?

So, I fell off the blogging bandwagon for a bit, but a recent conversation has prompted me to speak up.

The other day I interviewed a food security nonprofit working with subsistence farmers in Africa and they don’t have any measures for environmental impact.They insist that they are first and foremost an anti-hunger organization, but I think if your goal is to help farmers increase their yield, you have to ensure that their land is viable for the coming years.

Over and over again I’ve heard someone working in food security/international development minimize environmental goals. I’m always disturbed by this because both food security and environmental sustainability are incredibly important to me. I hate that there seems be a perceived conflict of interest. To me, environmental sustainability (erosion control, water conservation, building soil quality, etc.) fits hand-in-hand with food security.

There seems to be this impression that caring for the environment is a luxury that only the upper-class or rich countries can afford . But, in my opinion if you are a rural farmer or fisherman, you are even more dependent on your environment and you have an even greater incentive to adopt environmentally sustainable methods.

I don’t know why principles of agroecology are not more widely implemented in organizations helping small-scale farmers. Agroecology is all about minimizing inputs and labor. Numerous studies have shown they’re effective in increasing crop yields. Are food security folks not aware of its benefits? Or are they skeptical? Is big agro-business pawning their seeds and fertilizers to blame for this skepticism?


The Day After

After much anticipation, we finally had our island wide beach clean-up. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I think Anja described the feeling best when she compared it to throwing a birthday party in elementary school when you invite the whole class to your house, but you’re deathly afraid that no one will show.

After breakfast, we went to the marine station at a quarter to 9 with plans to prep materials before everyone arrived, but to our surprise we were greeted by a dozen boys aged 5 to 14 waiting for us on the porch. The small army yelled, “You’re late! When’s the beach clean-up starting!” We sent them off in groups with gloves and bags. As the morning progressed more people continued to emerge to help.

The first half hour was incredible with boys and girls running up with wheel barrels full of glass bottles and trash. Adults all around the island swept up and loaded down the kids who brought the garbage back to the marine station to be sorted. Some of the tourists and the US highschoolers doing a study abroad with Monkey Bay and Tobacco Caye Marine Station came out to help too. Christian opened up some coconuts for fresh coconut water. Chop and Alvin, the cook at Paradise, manned the BBQ grill. After the BBQ, Captain Coach took the kids out to South Water Caye as a treat. This morning Captain Fermin loaded up all the trash and recycling on his boat to go to the mainland. His boat, “Fully Loaded” was truly fully loaded.

Working out on Tobacco Caye, my feelings oscillate between a desire to make sweeping systemic improvements and recognizing the power of small actions. The beach clean-up was very small-scale, but it was an idea that originated in the community. We helped organize and the station paid for the supplies and some food, but it was really on the community to participate…and they did. It was fantastic to see everyone stepping in to do their part.

Working Together

We’ve had several people on the island mention how they wish the island worked together more. When we were on the mainland meeting with government officials and non-profits who have worked with TC in the past, they all said there was a lack of leadership on the island that made working with the community difficult. As I’m getting to know people here I’m recognizing all these individual skills and strengths. I’m also noticing that some of them have common concerns and aspirations, but instead of talking and collaborating with one another, they go off and try to do their own thing.

Anja, Margaret and I are talking about organizing an island-wide beach clean-up day. I know, not terribly original, but we are hoping to make it a day for the community to come together. During our week on facilitation at DPMI, we learned that one of the most important things a facilitator can do is create a safe environment for sharing. I’m hoping that with this simple, shared goal of cleaning up the island, we might create an atmosphere where people can take pride in their island and talk to others about common goals.

At the same time, we’re starting to research the feasibility of some of the needs the islanders have mentioned, specifically a safe-swim zone by the dock, mooring buoys, solar energy, and waste disposal. We’re also looking into better signage on the island about the reserve. Most of the tourists coming to TC are only here for a day or two and we’ve found overwhelmingly that many of them don’t even know that they are in a marine reserve. There’s a $15 conservation fee, best practices for snorkeling or diving in the area, and restrictions against fishing for lobster and conch in certain areas and during certain seasons. However, most tourists don’t know about these guidelines and end up unwittingly breaking rules and harming the reef. The current signs are outdated, faded or placed badly…one is actually on the backside of a building.

Well….the 1 reader of my blog out there….I feel like I should apologize. This blog has become more of me thinking aloud about issues on the island and although these things are incredibly interesting to me, I worry sometimes that they’re quite boring to others. Honestly, even most enviro geeks aren’t as excited about waste disposal as I am. I fear I am becoming the boring spouse who comes home at night and can’t stop droning on about work….and it’s not even the juicy workplace gossip (cause there IS plenty of that going on the island!) You’ll have to track me down for the details on that.

Garbage Island

So excited about our meeting today! The last couple of days I was thinking to myself how I wished there was a mechanically skilled person on the island, someone who would want to be trained on maintaining solar panels and water catchment systems and maybe someone who understood how to prevent erosion on the island. Then today we met Gerald. Gerald, the maintenance guy for Paradise Lodge…who is also building his own island from trash! Yes, the mystery of what happens to the trash on the Tobacco Caye has been solved.

Yesterday, I spoke with Samuel, the maintenance guy at Tobacco Caye Lodge about trash on the island and he described how it’s sent out to build up an island not far from us. Today, we spoke to Gerald for a good hour. He described how he’s layering bottles, mud, cardboard, plastic bags, bagged trash and sand to build up an island. He’s installed piping to deal with methane gas release and has started planted coconut trees. He is running off a generator right now, but he’s repairing broken solar panels from the Blue Dolphin Lodge so that he can have solar on his island soon.

He also showed us how he’s started to build up a beach outside of Paradise Lodge. By strategically placing sandbags perpendicular to the edge of the coast, he’s managed to build up about 10 feet of beach. He also described how a conch and wire basket system could be used to do the same thing at different parts of the island. He’s a natural tinker. Since he was a child he’s enjoyed fixing things, taking them apart and figuring out how they work.

He tells us that the solar panels on Paradise Lodge are fully functional, but 10 of their 16 six-volt batteries don’t work anymore, so they’re not able store the energy they need and they need to use the generator part of the day. When we went over at 11:30am, the functioning batteries were all already fully charged. If they had new batteries, they could be running completely on solar. The problem is each battery costs about BZ$450 plus shipping. I’m digging around to see if there’s a possible grant.

Over the summer, during classes with DPMI, we talked quite a bit about how community development is often focused on what’s lacking or needed and how we need to recognize existing assets. We’ve been on the island for about 2 weeks now and  we’re starting to seek out the quieter people, like Gerald, who we haven’t had a chance to meet yet. How many others will have surprising personal projects?

Tobacco Caye

Margaret, Anja, and I are on Tobacco Caye, our home for the next 6 to 7 weeks! It’s hard to believe I only arrived last Friday afternoon and how quickly we’re settling into island life. The first weekend the Tobacco Caye Marine Station was hosting a large group of environmental science undergrads from Texas. Since Sean and Jen had their hands full with organizing the group and outings and Anja wasn’t arriving until Sunday, Margaret and I spent the weekend the way most tourists visiting the island would: snorkeling, napping in hammocks, and hanging out at one of the two bars on this tiny island.

Anja and I have decided this week is going to be devoted mostly to talking to the locals and conducting a needs assessment through informal interviews. The funny thing is it doesn’t really feel like work. I feel like I learned quite a bit over the weekend already (when we weren’t officially “on the clock” yet). People are friendly here and curious about why we’re here. With no television, only one source of internet, and limited electricity, it’s pretty easy for the short 3 minute stroll from one end of the island to the become an hour journey as you become sucked into conversation with people along the way.

We’re all a bit pleasantly surprised by how developed this little patch of sand is. There are 5 hotels, 2 bars, a few snack bars and restaurants. Most of the hotels are comprised of several cabanas, some built on stilts right in the water. Although we were told there were about 20 permanent residents, I think that number is actually closer to 40 with most people coming on and off the island with regularity. Most tourists come for 2 or 3 nights and snorkel. There is a “party boat” that comes on Wednesday nights and Saturday nights with T.C. being the second stop on a 3 island trip.

Taking stock of the community services, I already have some issues I’m interested in pursuing further.

Electricity: Except for the Marine Station that has solar panels, everything else on the island runs on generators. It’s so costly most places only run it for a few hours in the evening. With the amount of sun the island gets, solar power would be terrific but the upfront costs have been prohibitive. Would it be possible for more buildings here to use solar power? What obstacles might we help them overcome?

Waste: The country of Belize is actually building its first properly lined landfill on the mainland right now and it’s not expected to be completed for another 5 years. Most people on the island, like people on the mainland, reuse what the can and then burn the rest. Those who work at the hotels usually rake the sand everyday and bundle up other garbage in bags that get taken off island, to who knows where.

Septic system: Composting toilets seem obvious for an island with limited water resources, but all the toilets here are weak flush toilets. The solids are collected in septic tanks, but it’s unclear when/how they’re emptied and where liquid waste goes. Since we’re within swimming distance of one of the most ecologically diverse barrier reefs in the world, I do wonder how effective filtration is. Maybe it’s a non-issue. Maybe natural barriers are able to filter the water sufficiently before it reaches the reef, but I do wonder. Either way, it definitely seems water inefficient.

Water: It looks like almost all of the buildings depend on rainwater catchment. Melissa, who runs our hotel, has a 5-liter water cooler in the kitchen for us to drink from. We’re in the middle of rainy season right now (there have been 2 dramatic thunderstorms already), but we’re told they do run out of water on the island sometimes. When that happens they need to bring it from the mainland.

Ecotourism: Under Belizian law, any groups larger than 8 needs to be accompanied by a registered tour guide for excursions. Right now, the island only has 2 registered guides and 1 of them has an expired license. With the number of short stay visitors who come to the island, it’d be really great to have more guides who could provide valuable local knowledge about the sensitive marine system. The guides would also make more money if they were officially registered, but low level of literacy and high exam fees seem to be some of the barriers. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to speak with the Tourism Dept next week and find out more.

Well…this is an awfully long post, and it might be the last one for a little while. The Marine Station has limited bandwidth, so I’m afraid no photo uploads till we’re back on the mainland.

First day in Belize!

Flying into BZE is other-worldly. From the air, I could see the sandy beaches and turquoise seas. The water is so clear I could even spot the coral reef system that runs parallel to shore protecting the coast from the onslaught of waves. Perhaps most surprising though is what’s missing. Most countries with such an incredible coastline are littered with coastal development, huge hotels and casinos, resorts….but Belize’s coast is practically virgin. Turquoise water meets sand meets rivers meets lush jungle. With a population of only 300,000 and a forward-thinking conservation model, Belize is a conservationalist’s dream come true.

I was picked up at the airport by Brittany and Anna of Monkey Bay Sanctuary, which is affiliated with Tobacco Caye Marine Station. Monkey Bay is pretty awesome, but since I’m tired and hot as hell, I’ll let their website and pics tell the story.

Let the adventures begin!

Coral reefs and mangroves: A coastal country’s best friends

One of the nice things about dating someone in the same field is when I start talking about the importance of coral reefs and mangroves in Belize I not only get a patient listener, but someone who actually says, “I brought this working paper on coral reef valuation from the office that might help you.”

My fellow MIIS colleague and main squeeze Sam recently started his summer internship at World Resources Institute in Washington, DC.

So, here are some cool factoids:

-Several of Belize’s major commercial species rely on mangroves during some portion of their life. Mangroves also filter sediment and pollutants from coastal runoff, supporting the clean water favored by corals.

-Coral reef-and mangrove-associated tourism contributed an estimated US$150 million to $196 million to the national economy in 2007.

-Annual economic benefits from reef and mangrove-dependent fisheries is estimated at between US$14-16 million.

-Reefs and mangroves protect coastal properties from erosion and wave-inducing damage, providing an estimated US$231 to US$347 million in avoided damages per year.

These numbers are especially notable since Belize’s GDP in 2007 was US$1.3 billion.

It makes economic sense for Belize to protect its reefs and mangroves. The country’s MPAs system, consisting of 18 protected areas, is widely hailed as an example of forward thinking in marine conservation. But, enforcement has been challenging. Sure, it makes economic sense on the national level and international level, but what’s the incentive for local fishermen and business owners to comply with the restrictions?

In the end, it comes down to people, to individuals deciding whether to take an action or not. All the science and research in the world is not enough to change behavior. This is where I’m hoping my last 3 weeks in DPMI on facilitation techniques and designing projects with a participatory approach will come in handy. I guess I’ll find out soon!

Girl Effect

Love this video!

A is for anxiety

It’s hard to believe that in a week I’ll be leaving for Belize to work with a community on the small island of Tobacco Caye. I have a Center for the Blue Economy fellowship with the Tobacco Caye Marine Station.  I’ll be working with my fellow MIIS colleague Anja on the public perception of MPAs.

What’s an MPA you ask? Well, a Marine Protected Area is a protected area where restrictions have been placed on human activities in the interest of conserving the natural environment. The creation and enforcement of an MPA in Monterey, CA is providing safe haven for dozens of threatened and endangered species, protecting biodiversity, and preventing overfishing in the region.

If you step off the tiny island of Tobacco Caye, you immediately find yourself on an incredible strip of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This beautiful coral reef system attracts thousands of divers every year, is home to a wide range of sea life, and provides the country of Belize with vital protection from storms. 

Our goal is to work with the community of Tobacco Caye to develop a sustainability plan for the island that addresses its unique environmental and economic challenges. It goes back to the Big Question always on my mind: How do we meet human needs now and preserve the environment for future generations? 

Islands are really fascinating for me. Last semester, I was part of a class that researched and visited Lopez Island (located off the coast of Washington state) to collect baseline data and propose a sustainability plan across various systems (agriculture, water, waste, electricity, and transportation). It was an incredible, and at times incredibly challenging, experience. There were 12 of us and we had 4 months. This time around there will be 3 of us and we have 6 weeks. This plus the additional challenges of working in a different country has me, well, to be perfectly honest, a little anxious.

But, anxiousness is part of my nature. As much as I try to fight the neurotic New Yorker part of me, I must admit: I love the anxiety. It keeps me on my toes. It makes me feel alive. I’m going to be in a beautiful new place meeting interesting people. I know that I will learn a lot from the experience and I hope that I will be able to help in some way for the short time that I’m there. 

Give a man a fish…

If you give me a fish, you feed me for a day.

If you teach me to fish, you have fed me until the river is contaminated or the shoreline seized for development.

 But, if you teach me to organize, then whatever the challenge, I can join together with my peers…

 And we will fashion our own solution.

~Barefoot Guide to Working with Organizations and Social Change, Vol 1

There is so much that I love about this quote that I discovered in class today. First, it cleverly plays with the all too common, and now cliché, expression “Give a man a fish, he’s fed for a day. Teach him how to fish…”

Second, it touches on sustainable development. Much of traditional development theory assumes that a developing nation simply needs….well… more development. More infrastructure, more roads, more business, more factories, more industrialized agriculture, more efficient use of its natural resources. This quote begins to touch on the idea that rampant development is not the answer. Development needs to be done sustainably or you end up with polluted waterways and a citizenry plagued by inequality.

We’re talking about creating change that will last not just this lifetime, but lifetimes to come. Ultimately, sustainable development needs to be about meeting the needs of this generation, without jeopardizing the needs of future generations. This is a concept that people working in the environmental field have internalized, but, after a week and half in DPMI, I’ve definitely noticed that environmental sustainability is all too often just an afterthought for those working in the field of international development.

This is a major problem because communities–all around the world, but most especially in developing countries—rely on their natural resources. People don’t live in a vacuum. I’m sure this will come up again, but simply put, in my opinion: in order for a project to be truly sustainable, it absolutely has to be environmentally sustainable.

Third, I like the above quote because it is focused on building human capital.

Fourth, it’s not only about teaching technical skills, but about fostering social change. I’ve met farming families in rural Honduras, indigenous political prisoners in Chile, and cattle ranchers on Lopez Island off the coast of Washington state. They know about farming and ranching and laws and policies with a depth that would take me a lifetime to understand. I’m not going to help them by coming up with new practices, because chances are they’ve already thought of them. This leads into the final reason why I like this quote.

This quote is about empowering people so that they can discover their own solutions. I’m reminded of a visit to Paicines Ranch with Professor Jeffrey Langholz a couple months ago. The owner described her frustration with government regulations. She described how regulations meant to protect rivers actually led to actions that did more harm. She summed up by saying, “Tell us how you want the river to look like and we’ll get it there.” That’s a message I wish policymakers took to heart: Work with people to set goals and then let them implement.