Jaguars to Jellyfish: Grappling with the promise and pitfalls of coastal development in Belize

Photo: With resources and help scarce, a Hopkins business is using old tires, stones, and other debris to protect what little shoreline it has left. Pictured in the top right just past the last tree is a waterfront ridge of rocks (groyne) that is worsening the situation.

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This blog post is one of the hardest things I have had to do during my time in Hopkins, Belize. Trying to positively interpret the interviews, surveys, and field observations I have conducted will likely lead to a distorted account of the reality in this small village. For a young country that was founded in 1981, Belize has strong legislation to protect the environment. While Canada safeguards 1% of its marine areas and 13% of its land, Belize boasts 13% and 30%, respectively. It possesses some of the densest natural beauty in its jungles and coastlines. For example, a country roughly two-thirds the size of Vancouver Island has the same bird diversity as the whole of Canada. Belize fosters strong tourism and similarly allows for easy ex-pat immigration and settlement – most properties pay a land tax of just $15 USD per year. I could speak about the countless crabs, fish, frogs, and insects that have amazed my Attenborough curiosity – or the brilliant people and cuisine I have been lucky enough to experience – however, doing so betrays the dire situation much of coastal Belize faces now and in the future.

While Belize’s natural allures fuel the potential for incredible growth, the crux of the matter is the style of development that is taking place. Hopkins is experiencing a trend familiar in the majority of coastal Stan Creek District. Garifuna (indigenous) villages, such as Seine Bight, are sandwiched between encroaching tourist and ex-pat developments – and just further south in Placencia, it has completely taken over. Don’t get me wrong, I love gelato stands, scuba diving, and the grandeur of beachfront properties. But this unchecked growth (wait, can it even be called growth?) disregards two facets of the triple bottom line: natural and social capital.

For example, this kind of waterfront development is substantially altering and removing coastline forests, such as mangroves. These saltwater trees established the sand and sediment to form land and sustain it in the first place. With Belize deforesting 1% of its mangrove population each year, the situation of coastal erosion is set to rise –  in tandem with the sea level. And while Belize has strongly-worded legislation, the enforcement of environmental law is resoundingly viewed in Hopkins as a failure. The local community is rarely consulted over new developments and shoreline construction, which mainly exacerbate coastal erosion and environmental degradation. Additionally, the village is abutted by a lagoon opening in the north and a river mouth in the south that pump sediment into the ocean. These act as a natural source of sediment and sand that deposit onto the beaches to replace the outgoing eroded particles. Conversely, up-stream water users are polluting the channels with surplus debris that interrupts this flow and adds to the issue.

The future of Hopkins is further muddied by the looming, yet abstract, dangers of sea level rise and tropical storm intensification. Hopkins is scarcely above sea level. It is surrounded by a lagoon and watercourses, and is predominantly a mangrove-free 5.5 kilometer stretch of beach community. Simply put, without strong enforcement of development rules, the village’s erosion susceptibility and storm disaster resilience is very exposed. Belize’s development is like a jaguar, beautiful, fast, and striking when big juicy meals are within reach. But, what is a jaguar without trees for protection? It’s not easy to transition a young country like Belize into another species. Something of a jellyfish maybe: transparent, slow and enticing its tiny meals. But how do you possibly transition a jaguar to become a jellyfish when other countries are no peach themselves? Okay, animal analogies aside, I’m learning that resilience takes the whole community – some just have more practice than others.

Taylor Alexander, Community Planning, VIU

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