Monthly Archives: June 2012

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.