By William Ysaguirre
Belizeans living in coastal areas will be learning to farm the sea, with the help of a US$5.53 million grant provided by the World Bank for conservation of Belize’s Meso-American Barrier Reef and marine eco-systems.
Some 203,000 Belizeans, almost two-thirds of Belize’s population, live in coastal areas and all stand to benefit from the US$7.31 million, five-year Belize Marine Conservation and Climate Adaptation Project, which Chief Executive Officer Adele Catzim-Sanchez, of the Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development, launched at the Biltmore Plaza Hotel in Belize City on Tuesday, March 17. In addition to the US$5.53 million grant, the Government of Belize will be contributing US$1.78 million in kind.
Farming the sea is an alternative livelihood to fishing, and will help to reduce the burden of wild harvest on Belize’s fisheries industry, and help the remaining fishermen become more sustainable by reducing the danger of over-fishing, explained Project Coordinator Sandra Grant at the launch. Communities which will benefit include Consejo, Sarteneja and Copper bank in the north, Belize City, and Dangriga, Hopkins, Sittee River, Riversdale, Seine Bight and Placencia in the south.
Grant said the project will have three components, with almost half the grant – US$2.45 Million being used to promote alternative livelihoods. Global demand for seaweed for use in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and as a thickener for ice cream is a billion dollar industry, and so far only one cooperative in Placencia has pioneered growing and drying seaweed for export. The project will help finance community based projects to create small-scale seaweed farms, which will include training the coastal residents how to farm the seaweed in the sea, start-up funding to buy equipment, and training in small business management and development.
Another option being considered is farming sea cucumber, a bottom-feeding animal which is prized as a delicacy and for reputed medicinal properties in many parts of Asia and China, and which fetched a premium price of up to US$150 per pound for the dried product on international markets. Belize exports about 400,000 pounds of dried sea cucumber per year, but this could be expanded, if the animal were cultivated, like shrimp or tilapia. Exporters report getting prices of about US$25 per pound, and presently only one cooperative has invested in the equipment to dry the sea cucumber and prepare it for export; the fishermen who harvest the sea cucumbers get paid $4.00 – $8.00 per pound for the wet product: the animal is 75 per cent water.
Other alternative livelihoods which could receive funding, technical support and business development assistance include aquaculture, agriculture and tourism. Learning to farm the sea can build Belize’s resilience to climate change, since the predicted sea level rise threatens to flood much of Belize’s coastal plain and significantly reduce Belize’s land mass over the next 100 years.
A second component of the project is to raise the sea-side folks’ awareness about the impacts of climate change, and US$560,000 will be invested to educate them about how climate change will impact their lives and the value of marine conservation. The project will explore and develop strategies to help coastal communities become more resilient to climate change, and will encourage community exchange visits to help the people learn how they can adapt to climate change.
Another US$2 million will be invested in a third component of the project: protection of marine and coastal eco-systems; prioritizing marine protected areas such as the Corozal Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve and the Southwater Caye Marine Reserve. This includes protection of the coral reef, the mangroves, and fish spawning aggregation sites like the Gladden Spit.
Just as pearl divers learnt how to plant a tiny grain of sand in oysters to grow seeded pearls, Belizeans can also learn to grow coral to help restore our Barrier Reef. The Fragments of Hope NGO in Placencia has already pioneered growing coral in nurseries and re-seeding the coral at new locations for the past eight years to help the reef to regenerate. This activity will be considerably expanded, with coral nurseries for the Turneffe Atoll and Southwater Caye reserves.
The project will also provide the money for a new Ranger Station and pier to be built for Southwater Caye, and for a long term Coastal Zone management plan to be implemented for the development of all coastal areas. The project will also finalize zoning maps for the three priority reserves.
All comes down to dollars and sense, explained environmental specialist Mr Enos Esikuri, Task Team leader for the Environmental and Natural Resources Global Practice unit of the World Bank. Belize has a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of about Bze$3 Billion or US$1.5 Billion, which divided by the population of 332,000, works out to about US$4,800 per person. Fisheries exports accounts for about 15 per cent of Belize’s GDP, with Belize having about 4,500 licensed fishermen and about 18,000 Belizeans directly dependent on fisheries for their livelihoods. Many more of the 203,000 Belizeans living in coastal areas earn their livelihoods from tourism, which accounts for almost 25 per cent of GDP. The barrier reef and its fish are a very important resource for this industry, so protecting it protects more livelihoods.