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.