Investment in human, economic and technical resource development essential for sustainable coastal resilience management

Photo: Working on the second phase of the Mangrove Reforestation and Coastal Management Initiative under the Pan American Development Foundation’s Community Preparedness and Resilience Project in Belize.

As I enter the third month of my internship, my exposure to the socio-economic, political, environmental, religious and cultural dynamics has helped me better understand the challenges in Belize, especially when it comes to climate change adaptation. The overlapping jurisdictions of governing bodies, a lack of enforcement and accountability, in addition to weak civic engagement and awareness all hinder progress toward sustainable coastal community development here.

Belize is already beginning to experience adverse changes in rainfall patterns, with increasing and volatile temperatures, more intense hurricanes and potential for coastal flooding from storm surges and rising sea levels. Changes in the global landscape such as: increasingly volatile weather patterns, urbanization, migration, political instability, demographic changes and persistent intergenerational poverty, to name a few, demand efficient management mechanisms. While jurisdictions such as Vancouver Island boast stronger foundations of resiliency, Belize faces the adverse impacts of a changing global environment in fast-forward, with limited resources that inhibit national adaptation.

The Garifuna communities with which I am working, and who reside mostly along the coastline, are particularly vulnerable to the increasing pressures of global climate change. Changing social conditions are also posing challenges. For example, the pride and self-identity of Garifuna youth is under threat as more youth deny self-identification. One of my projects here in Belize is designing, funding and facilitating a summer camp in Dangriga Town, Stann Creek. The camp is designed to motivate youth to practice environmental stewardship and build civic pride within the Garifuna culture. It has been a massive learning curve for me, writing countless grant proposals to local stakeholders, networking in the community and deciding what activities will foster lasting impacts on the youth. The aim is to introduce a revival of interest in Garifuna traditions.

Building resilience of the Garifuna culture will play an integral role in managing coastal resilience issues in Belize. The Garifuna traditionally operate in a subsistence economy, living close to the land and sea. The elevation of today’s generation will be crucial to sustaining cultural integrity. However, the introduction of a wage-labour economy has contributed to the dilution of Garifuna traditions; weak infrastructure along with limited domestic capacity and underutilized resources further compound the problem. And without strong communities, persevering in the face of environmental threats caused by climate change will be difficult.

If things continue at this rate, the low-lying coastal town of Dangriga and Hopkins Village will be underwater due to rising sea levels, flooding or a hurricane. But the reality of threats to the area are not fully understood. Garifuna elders have told me they would rather perish with their homes than move inland because they would feel lost, losing everything for which they have worked so hard. Belize is one of the top 10 countries most at risk and the most threatened in all of Central America. If this doesn’t provide a reason to fight against climate change, I don’t know what will. My first-hand experience here, getting to know the people who will be most severely affected by climate change has intensified my already devoted passion for sustainability, here, there and everywhere!

Yet Belize lacks effective coordination, knowledge-sharing mechanisms and data collection to help tackle the impending crisis. Growing competition for natural resources in an increasingly interdependent global environment demands the development of holistic, sustainable and efficient knowledge-sharing systems. Technological advances and investments in research and data collection will benefit small island developing states like Belize and others in the CARICOM. Educating communities on local ecosystems and forming mechanisms for inclusive community representation in contingency planning for preventative measures, planning and preparedness of extreme weather events will help to achieve productivity gains that fuel sustainable economic development. If everyone does their small part, we can achieve a more balanced global environment. How can you help? I strongly urge those of you in Canada to make yourself aware of the small alterations you can make in your daily lifestyles that will help countries like Belize fight against sea-level rise and climatic disasters that threaten to wipe out entire communities.

Kala Mackintosh, Global Studies, VIU