My wife Karen and I packed a lot into a week’s vacation in Belize.
We visited majestic Mayan ruins.
We went hiking and bird watching in the rain forest.
We canoed on the Macal River.
We toured an organic farm.
The snorkeling was spectacular, even when we came across some nurse sharks, which are also aptly named. They’re friendly.
During a morning of reef fishing, I caught a bunch of gray snappers and a mackerel…
…that became a delicious lunch.
All of this, of course, was made possible by nature.
Without a healthy environment—the rainforests, wildlife, coral reefs and beaches– tourism in Belize would grind to a halt. This would deal a severe blow to the nation’s economy. Formerly British Honduras, Belize is a small central American country (about the size of Massachusetts) with about 307,000 people and few natural resources. Good statistics are hard to find but tourism is estimated to bring in about $200 million in U.S. dollars a year. Exports, primarily sugar and bananas, are said to bring in about $500 million.
The importance of tourism is one big reason why you’d expect Belizeans to be committed environmentalists. History is another: The swift decline of the ancient Mayan empire, which collapsed about 1,200 years ago, is a cautionary tale about the consequences of deforestation, soil erosion and short-sighted decision making. Mayan ruins can be found all over Belize, and they are visible reminders that even an advanced civilization can collapse if it fails to conserve its natural resources. Between 90 and 99% of the Maya population disappeared after A.D. 800, according to this fascinating account by Jared Diamond.
So how are the Belizeans doing, when it comes to environmental protection? I didn’t undertake a thorough study (hey, it was a vacation!) but judging by the visible evidence, as well as conversations with guides and hotel-keepers, the picture is mixed at best.
Let me start with a few of the worries I heard. Some people in Belize still practice slash-and-burn agriculture, in which old forests are cut down and then burned to the ground, so that farmers can grow corn or soy or raise cattle. Along the coastlines, developers are destroying the mangrove trees that provide flood protection and rich habitat for marine species. Our fishing trip began with a stop by the mangroves, to collect sardines for bait. But Alberto, the guide, told me that he guessed about 25% of the mangroves on Ambergris Caye, the island where we stayed, had been destroyed during his lifetime.
More broadly, there didn’t appear to be much consumer consciousness about the environment. I didn’t see a recycling bin anywhere, and roadsides are, sadly, often littered with trash. Belize is a poor country (per capita income is about $3,820, before adjusting for purchasing power) and perhaps people feel like they can’t afford to worry about conservation; the truth is that people need to conserve clean air and water, protect topsoil and promote healthy eco-systems because all are essential to their survival.
On the encouraging side, since becoming independent in 1981, Belize has passed a series of environmental laws designed to protect biodiversity. About 40% of the country is legally protected from development. Belizeans told me that the laws are not strictly enforced, however, particularly when developers come along promising jobs. We spent several days on Ambergris Caye, which is very built up, and suffering from a slow winter season because of the U.S. recession. That’s the worst of both worlds–coastlines have been destroyed, and condos and hotels are empty or even abandoned.
Earlier in the week, we stayed at a fabulous eco-resort called Chaa Creek Lodge. It’s not only a beautiful place, but a model of sustainable tourism. The owners, Mick and Lucy Fleming, bought the place in the late 1970s when it was a farm, and they produced milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs, as well as two baby Flemings. (Without electricity or a road, they transported their produce to a market by canoe down the Macal.) They added a guest cottage in 1981, built a road a few years later, and in the late 1980s brought in electricity, hot showers and ice. Since then, the Flemings have expanded to include 23 cottages, a simple tent camp, and all sorts of amenities–horses, mountain bikes, nature trails, canoes and a butterfly breeding center. At the organic farm, they grow most of the food they serve at the lodge. It’s not always easy or cheap–“I’ve been accused of cultivating $75 cabbages,” Mick joked–but the results are delicious.
Over the years, Mick has become a passionate environmentalist. He worked with the NRDC in an ultimately failed court battle to oppose the government and the local utility’s effort to build a hydroelectric dam on the river. So he is doing what he can at Chaa Creek. Not just the food, but nearly everything in the luxe resort is locally produced by Belizeans–the cottages, the canoes and the beautiful mahogany furniture in the bar, restaurant and guest rooms.
For Belize, Chaa Creek Lodge delivers environmental protection as well as economic development. For the guests, it’s an opportunity to connect with nature as well as a reminder of its beauty and value.
The question is whether places like Chaa Creek can become the new normal, and make a clean break from the centuries long history of environmental neglect in Belize.
Jared Diamond puts it this way:
We do indeed differ from the Maya, but not in ways we might like: we have a much larger population, we have more potent destructive technology, and we face the risk of a worldwide rather than a local decline. Fortunately, we also differ from the Maya in that we know their fate, and they did not. Perhaps we can learn.