In February 2016 we were fifteen fortunate students from the ETH Zurich to participate in a ten-day course in Belize, Central America. The main objective of the course was to identify the main drivers of changes of the natural resources in Belize.
The course took place in the heart of the Shipstern Conservation and Management Area (Corozal district, Northeastern Belize). This 88 km2 area containing forests and marine habitats is protected by the local non-governmental organization
Corozal Sustainable Future Initiative (CSFI). Thanks to the CSFI’s staff, we had the honor to meet and interview local stakeholders whose activities were connected to the protected areas. Why would someone protect natural resources in Belize? The country is currently subject to extensive changes in land use, consisting mainly of conversion of forests into agricultural land.
“Farmer”: a mighty big word in a country like Belize!
Belize still struggles to define its own national identity due to the differences in languages, religious believes and ethnical roots which exist between the people. This translates into strong differences in the farming practices and leads to a landscape fragmentation by agriculture.
The most striking example is the so-called little Belize: a region which looks more like a European meadow than central America. Located in the North of the country, it is home to a Mennonite community (a Christian traditionalist group). Most Mennonites live without electricity and have very limited access to modern technology. Their agriculture relies on sugar cane, citrus, bananas, papaya, water melon and soya bean production. In fact, the Mennonites form the basis of Belize’s economy as they carry out most of the large-scale agriculture in the country. In this way, they are the main food providers in Belize and also export their crops abroad (e.g. the Caribbean).
The farming practices of the Mennonites largely correspond to intensive agriculture. For the interviewed Mennonite farmers, the use of chemicals represents innovative tools to increase their production and fight against pests.
On the other hand, chemical inputs also seem to be common among other types of farms. We visited five other farmers and noticed many contrasts between these farms. For instance, we met with a smallholder from the local community “Fire burn” who mostly practices subsistent agriculture. This small farmer proudly emphasized that he was (merely) using herbicides – the Mennonites had instructed him – but no other kind of chemicals. Another smallholder mentioned using only organic fertilizer and pesticides (a mix of garlic and lemon). Interestingly, he was the only one who mentioned having attended a seminar promoting organic farming practices.
Belize: deforestation in progress
Belize is a very young and dynamic country. According to the FAO, about 40 percent of the country is still covered with natural vegetation, a fair percentage compared to neighboring countries such as Guatemala or Honduras. In fact, deforestation in Belize has increased dramatically in the past few years and this is mainly due to the Mennonite-efforts to seek for new land in order to extend their fields and increase the production.
Belizeans view this massive deforestation process critically. Apart from its emotional as well as cultural value, the forest was mentioned by the farmers themselves as central to the preservation of the water quality and as an important natural shelter for wild life. Indeed, human-wildlife conflicts are a growing issue as animal herbivores enter their fields and damage crops or attack farm animals due to the disappearance of their natural habitat.
A fish industry in decline
We also conducted interviews in and around the coastal village of Sartaneja, where fishing supports most livelihoods and is entrenched in the local culture. We have noticed a gradual, but definite tide change: the fishing business is no longer perceived as a lucrative activity. Several reasons were mentioned by former fishermen, such as the reduced area allowed for fishing or safety issues (pirates and drug traffickers). We also noticed the presence of dead fish floating at the surface, with no apparent marks of attack by predators: “The cause of death could be a net, but it is not obvious and we could assume this is due to the use of chemicals on farms” (conversation with one of the CSFI’s ranger).
A golden mine for further investigations
My main interest in this course was to investigate to what extend agriculture could be a driver of change in a tropical country like Belize. Although 10 days was a very short time we could successfully identify some of the key mechanisms by which Belize’s landscape is shifting. This was a rewarding and meaningful experience for me and I wish I could investigate further the impact of agriculture on the natural resources of the country. Looking for solutions together with the local farmers in order to mitigate this impact may be an interesting area for research.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Benjamin Costerousse is a PhD student from the ETH Zurich working within the ZOMM project (Zinc Biofortification of Wheat through Organic Matter Management in Sustainable Agriculture). The ZOMM project aims at developing agronomic measures to increase the zinc concentration of wheat grains. Benjamin also studies bacterial processes controlling soil zinc solubilization, and how much these processes are affected by organic matter inputs.
“As a PhD student, I spend a lot of time working on very specific issues and processes but this course offered me the chance to expand my horizons! I am very thankful to the Ambassador Program for giving me this unique opportunity. I would also like to thanks Dr. Claude Garcia (the organizer of this course; Forest Management and Development, ETH Zurich) as well as Dr. Chris Kettle (Ecosystem Management, ETH Zurich) for their excellent teaching. Many thanks to the CSFI’s staff without whom this whole experience would not have been possible.”