We were flying from Placencia to Punta Gorda in Southern Belize. Domestic flights in Belize are an incredible treat – and over the years I have enjoyed learning to recognize certain estuaries, towns and other features of the coastal landscape as if they are old friends. Local advocates use the opportunities of the flights to identify developments that may compromise coastal ecosystems. But on this day, what we saw was cause for celebration. As we passed over the Placencia Lagoon, Adrian Vernon of the Peninsula Citizens for Sustainable Development (PCSD) beamed as he grabbed for his cell phone to tell folks on the ground that PCSD’s work had paid off, once again.
“The manatees are back! I see FIVE resting behind Drunken Caye!”
Adrian’s roots are deep in Placencia – his great great grandfather — an Irish Admiral in the Royal Navy and a commissioned pirate, was one of the first to settle the peninsula in the 1770s. Adrian’s family spread across Belize, but some stayed put in Placencia – and became anchors in the community there. Adrian grew up playing among the mangroves in the Placencia Lagoon, which he says are like “botanical amphibians, with one foot on land and the other in the sea.” Manatees and other wildlife were abundant.
In the last few decades, the world has discovered Placencia. Although the village of Placencia itself still feels like a sleepy place, resort developers recognize the potential profits of developing this sparsely populated Caribbean paradise for tourism. Developments currently proposed would nearly double the population of the peninsula. This scale of development threatens not only the lifestyle and culture of the local people, but also seriously jeopardizes fragile ecosystems. Sedimentation from dredging and filling to “make land” in the Placencia Lagoon has literally choked out some species. Excess nutrient discharge from shrimp farms also suffocates plants, and changes critical habitat.
Adrian and colleague Tim Smith persuaded four large shrimp farms to stop discharging directly to the lagoon, and instead to plant mangrove buffers between their ponds and the lagoon. Mangroves naturally filter the nutrient waste from the shrimp farms out of the water. As a result, native seagrass has re-colonized the lagoon, and the manatees, dependent on seagrass for their survival, are back!