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Saving Belize’s mangrove forests


The Placencia peninsula is located in the Stann Creek district in the south-east of Belize. Nadia from WWF-Belize, my host here, is supporting community mangrove protection work in this region, having identified it as one of Belize’s most vulnerable sites. Not just from human pressures such as overfishing but also natural weather hazards like hurricanes and storm surges.

As you drive down the peninsula this vulnerability is not hard to understand. The land narrows so much in some places you can glance to the left and see the waters of the Caribbean Sea and to the right and see the mangrove-surrounded Placencia lagoon.

Below the water level in a mangrove forestBelow the water, mangrove forests proved shelter for fish - so much so that they're known as 'fish nurseries'. © WWF

It’s this proximity to water that makes it such a tourist hotspot. And what do tourists want? Second homes and hotels with a view of the water, of course – and therein lies the mangroves problem. Much of the peninsula has been redeveloped and the natural mangrove vegetation removed to create those idyllic sea views.

I admit, before I started this job I’d never given much thought to mangroves – but now I see them as climate change heroes. A frontline defence against rising sea levels and storm surges. Not only do mangrove forests buffer the coastline against potentially destructive wave energy they also provide many other services, such as keeping water clean by filtering out sediment and acting as nurseries for juvenile fish.

But as more and more mangroves are cleared for development, it’s clear that not many of the developers have given much thought to their value either.

There are exceptions, though, and we met with one – Stuart Khron a developer and the director of the Placenica-Belize Tourism Industry Association.

Stuart understands the benefits that mangroves provide – he used to be a TV news reporter and he saw first-hand the damage caused by mangrove destruction.

Crumbling sea wallMangroves do more than support wildlife - they protect the land against erosion and flooding, unlike this crumbling sea wall. © WWF-UK / Rebecca Absalom

So maybe that’s the key – education. It’s something Nadia is working to improve. As we talk with Stuart I have no doubt of his strong conservation beliefs, but he’s also obviously a very astute businessman.

Yes, keeping mangroves intact is good for the environment, but leaving them standing is also a lot cheaper than building a sea wall, which we saw in other locations doesn’t last very long, or repairing a property damaged by flooding.

To recognise this good stewardship Nadia has developed the Mangrove-Friendly Development Challenge, highlighting and encouraging developments and community activities, such as Stuart’s, that conserve mangrove habitat.

A good development that works with the mangroveThis development works with the environment - these pathways allow holidaymakers to get the most out of their sea view without damaging the mangrove. © WWF-UK / Rebecca Absalom

Stuart took us to see his development site, which differs from the many others on Placencia peninsula in that the natural mangrove buffer remains along the water’s edge. The wall of vegetation is punctuated in a few places to make way for a jetty leading to the water so holidaymakers can still get that all-important sea view.

I personally find the mangrove beautiful, providing a lush green wall that makes the whole place feel much more private and tropical. And I can also disprove the argument that mangroves encourage mosquitoes. As a walking mosquito magnet – bitten and swollen so much on this trip I was dubbed WWF’s ‘elephant woman’ – I can honestly say my time spent in the mangroves resulted in no greater war wounds than the beach front of Placencia Town. So there you go, that’s that argument scientifically refuted.

Later that day we took a tour of the Placencia Lagoon with Mary Toy and Adrian Vernon, director and programme director of the Placenica Citizens for Sustainable Development (PCSD).

Our first stop on the tour was ‘Crimson Park’ – an area that the communities allowed a private firm to develop, as they promised plots for both private and affordable public housing (the latter very much needed locally).

A bit of a sad for sale signThis 'For Sale' sign is now all that remains of a lagoon, hastily filled with sediment that is unsuitable for building on. © WWF-UK / Rebecca Absalom

The developers used sediment to fill in the lagoon to create the land, and while the private housing part turned out OK, the public housing section was not built properly and is now subsiding. Like a giant, empty concrete car park, all we saw was a rather pathetic ‘For Sale’ sign surrounded by an awful lot of pooled water.

The PCSD was formed following a similar disappointment when the government threatened to develop a cruise ship port close to the peninsula. It would have meant tourists would stay on the boats, giving all the revenue to international companies rather than local hotels and restaurants. The community galvanised together, 80% voting against the ship port, and it was successfully opposed – for now at least.

Mangrove developmentThis development isn't following environmental safeguards by building outside of the mangrove wall. © WWF-UK / Rebecca Absalom

As our tour continued around the east side of the lagoon we witnessed an illegal development happening right before our eyes.

A digger was excavating sediment from the lagoon floor and using it to build up a marina. Not an entirely illegal activity, but the fact that it was building outside the mangrove wall and not using any ‘silt curtains’ (which catch the loose sediment) meant it wasn’t following the environmental safeguards.

This was the first Mary and Adrian had heard of this development – and it’s because of things like this that the PCSD is lobbying to make the Placencia Lagoon a National Park. Then all developments will be required to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment and Public Consultation.

It means the community will be made aware of all proposed developments and be better able to ensure environmental safeguards, like silt curtains, are adhered to.

Nadia has been supporting the efforts of the PCSD, as well as joining with other NGOs and organisations to lobby for improved mangrove legislation from the government.

Mangrove forest above the waterMangrove forest proves habitat for many species - including other plants, such as bromeliads. © WWF / Marianne Fish

WWF-Belize has also funded a national mapping exercise to calculate Belize’s mangrove cover. Photos from 1980 to 2010 have been analysed and show that 2% of mangrove cover has been removed, mainly around tourist and residential hotspots like Placencia. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s calculated that mangroves provide about a quarter of Belize’s GDP, so any loss has a significant economic impact.

So, as we took a break from our lagoon tour for lunch – and enjoyed an outstanding lobster coconut curry courtesy of Adrian – I felt comforted that the future of mangroves in Belize is not all doom and gloom.

Yes, there is an exceptionally large mountain to climb, but I couldn’t think of more inspiring or action-orientated people for Nadia to climb it with than Stuart, Mary, Adrian and the people of the Placencia peninsula.

Coming up next, I’ll be visiting Belize’s amazing coral nurseries – and seeing the positive effect that these nurseries are having.

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