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A few weeks ago, I was asked to visit partner organizations in Belize for one week. I reluctantly left dreary and wet Oregon for a week in the tropical paradise of Belize. Of course I was thrilled!! The visions of Mayan ruins and picturesque beaches were calling my name. More exciting for me was the opportunity I had to meet the members of our partner organizations, with whom I had been working over the past months via email, and who are doing fabulous work in Belize! Electronic tools and web-based work makes collaborating across continents easy, but the face-to-face meetings cannot be replaced. And now I was headed to Belize for a whirlwind tour of three organizations in three towns in nine days!

Amelita Knowles, BELPO's Administrator

Stop 1: I was met at the Belize International Airport by the Administrator at the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO), Amelita Knowles. Mel was warm and welcoming, and I settled in easily for the 45-minute commute from Belize City to Belmopan, Belize’s capital and home to the BELPO office. We shared stories about our families and our background, particularly how we got into environmental work.

Belize is a tiny country, with a unique history and strong ties to both the Caribbean and Central American regions. Although small in size and population, Belize is growing quickly. The diverse population makes for some interesting dynamics among its people. Not unlike the US, these dynamics are highlighted by environmental and social issues affecting local communities.

BELPO office in Belmopan, Belize. See the avocado tree peeking out from the backyard?

We arrived at the BELPO office, painted with bright colors, like the other houses in the neighborhood. Amelita showed me the avocado tree in the backyard with dozens of small, very green fruit. I expressed my envy and we bonded over our mutual love for avocados in the summertime. I met Candy Gonzalez, the President of BELPO with whom I have been in the closest communication with over the past year, and it is like we’ve met before. I assisted Candy when she published the Guide to Public Participation in Belize and have collaborated with her on other leaflets and newsletters meant to raise awareness of environmental issues among the local communities.

BELPO focuses on four main issues: the Macal River, Indigenous Rights, the Belize Barrier Reef, and Coastal Development. Being in the country’s capital gives them access to the Belize Parliament and other law-making and enforcement bodies, with whom they are in regular communication. Amelita is the only full-time and paid staff person at BELPO. While together, we worked mostly on ways to increase the impact of BELPO, with only her time and energy. Two main strategies emerged: volunteers and web-based communication tools, both of which are very exciting ideas for Belmopan and fun for me, as I got to draw from my background in community organizing.

Mel envisions a strong, committed group of student volunteers who will be trained to give presentations in local schools and at community events regarding environmental concerns and how public participation can help ensure that local input is taken into consideration. Mel also recognizes that the BELPO website and Facebook page could be improved to offer more dynamic information and ways to engage interested community members.

Check out the current BELPO website at www.belpo.org. I hope to post the updated website and Facebook page soon, so check back often! I’ll also be posting more about my second and third stops in Placencia, working with the Placencia Citizens for Sustainable Development, and in San Pedro with the Ambergris Caye Citizens for Sustainable Development. I promise photos of the gorgeous Belize coastline that these three groups are working to protect.

Lauren Ice
ELAW Office Manager

Last June, ELAW helped partners at the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO) publish a guide  to help citizens in Belize participate actively and effectively  in  decision-making processes that impact the local environment.  In other words, if a concerned citizen sees a fancy new beach resort under development, and is curious about what impacts the project will have on the area, the Guide tells them where to start and how to get the information they need. Or if a citizen notices illegal activity, such as the destruction of a mangrove forest or the dredging of a protected lagoon, the Guide gives them agency contacts for reporting illegal activites and tips for holding government agencies accountable for enforcing the law.

The Guide focuses on three laws in Belize that were written to give the public a stronger voice in policy: the Freedom of Information Act, the Ombudsman Act, and the Environmental Protection Act. The Guide also provides sample text for letters, complaints, and press releases.

A main goal of the Guide’s author, long-time ELAW partner and BELPO President Candy Gonzalez, was to design a guide that is accessible to the majority of people in Belize. Candy said she pictured something that was “informative but not intimidating or condescending.” Plus, the Guide is free!

Talk about accessible to the public! You can pick up a Guide from BELPO’s office, or from Candy, or download it from the BELPO homepage.

Since its publication, the Guide has received positive reviews and Candy’s supply is running low – a clear indication of the demand that exists in Belize for this simple, yet effective tool. BELPO worked hard to make this valuable information accessible to the public and decided the only thing left was to have the Guide translated into Spanish.  The Spanish version will soon be printed, as will a second run of the English version.

Congratulations to everyone at BELPO. There is something so satisfying about seeing the product of your hard work being used and achieving tangible results! And congratulations to the citizens of Belize, who have embraced this new tool and shown the rest of of us that public participation is possible and it works!

Lauren Ice
ELAW Office Manager

Since I began working with ELAW in September, 2000, I have been looking for ways to help the organization and our international partners use open source software to improve the network’s information technology systems and save money compared to proprietary software licenses.

For those unfamiliar with the term, Wikipedia says:

“Open source describes practices in [software] production and development that promote access to the end product’s source materials.  Some consider open source a philosophy, others consider it a pragmatic methodology.”[1]

I have believed for years that the open, collaborative nature of open source software development is a perfect match for the NGO world.  Based upon this belief, I have steered ELAW’s technology use toward open source projects such as the FreeBSD operating system[2], the Sympa mailing list manager[3] and the Apache webserver[4].

FreeBSD and the Apache webserver along with the Drupal content management system (CMS)[5] were at the core of a recent redevelopment of ELAW’s website.  ELAW is using our experience gained by deploying our own website on the Drupal CMS to help other international NGOs build or refine their web presence using this tool, for example:

BELPO Board President Candy Gonzalez (left) with other BELPO members and supporters.

The Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO) is a non-profit, non-governmental organization founded in 1995 by professionals in the fields of law, education, science, natural resource management, and grassroots organizing. BELPO is working to address serious and growing environmental problems, to ensure better management of the environment and natural resources, and to safeguard public health now and for future generations.

ELAW Technology Circuit Rider Miguel Peirano helps Green Advocates President Alfred Brownell with the first version of the Green Advocates' website during a 2004 outreach trip.

The Association of Environmental Lawyers of Liberia (Green Advocates) is Liberia’s first and only public interest environmental law organization. Green Advocates is dedicated to protecting the environment; advancing human rights protection and advocacy through sound environmental practices; and giving voice to rural, indigenous, and tribal people, who historically have been denied access to benefits accruing from the extraction of timber and other natural resources from their tribal and ancestral lands.

The Grand Slam Alliance is a collaboration between Peninsula Citizens for Sustainable Development, Ambergris Caye Citizens for Sustainable Development, and the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide. The alliance is working together to ensure that tarpon, permit and bonefishing habitats are preserved and protected from unsustainable development practices.

Each of these sites enables non-technical members of the host organization to modify and publish the contents of the site using point-and-click tools similar to a standard office word processor — a major improvement over sending content drafts to a single “webmaster” to mark up in HTML and post to the site.  This allows the NGOs to maintain a much fresher and relevant site.

I believe that Content Management Systems that allow NGOs to safely distribute content authorship tasks to a variety of staff and volunteers is a key component of any strategy to raise awareness in this globally-connected age.

Glenn Gillis
ELAW Information Technology Manager

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[1] See the Wikipedia articles on “Open source” and “Open-source software” at “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opensource” and “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-source_software” for more information about the open source software movement; [2] “http://freebsd.org”; [3] “http://sympa.org”; [4] “http://httpd.apache.org”; [5] “httpd://drupal.org”;

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