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Cigarettes, plastic bags, food containers, caps, plastic bottles, and more litter the beaches in Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. In a new report, ELAW’s science team found that inadequate management of waste at the local level poses a regional challenge.

“Waste management in Belize, Guatemala and Honduras is not just an aesthetic issue, it is a serious public health and environmental problem, says ELAW Staff Scientist Meche Lu. “Data from Belize indicate that approximately half of the waste there is not collected. Much of it is burned or disposed in waterways.”castaway (Print)

Elito Arceo, Chairman of Ambergris Caye Citizens for Sustainable Development (ACCSD) in Belize, concurs: “The amount of garbage that ends up on our beaches and reef is unbelievable. This is not what our tourists come here to see.”

ELAW’s science team recently published: “Ocean Waste in the Gulf of Honduras: Where it goes and what to do about it.” The report was a collaborative effort with organizations in the region working to turn the tide on ocean waste.

“This report shows that first of all we need to take responsibility for our own garbage,” says Arceo. “It’s time for all of us to change our habits. Education is the going to be the key.”

ELAW is helping local partners in Belize, Guatemala and Honduras hold community workshops to call attention to this problem and protect the Mesoamerican reef from further destruction.

Check out the full report here.

Maggie Keenan
Communications Director

Oil companies are running up against Belizean environmental organizations and their lawyers in their pursuit of oil off the coast of Belize.

Just over a week ago, ELAW partner Audrey Matura and her colleagues at Oceana won an important preliminary decision from a Belizean judge in their challenge of six contracts to explore for oil offshore.   The judge threw out the government’s attempt to have the case dismissed on procedural grounds.   The judge has one more preliminary issue to consider before the case can finally be heard on the merits.  This is a fantastic step forward for protecting Belize’s critical coastal ecosystems and the people dependent on them.

Earlier this summer, Audrey Matura and her colleagues had another legal victory that paves the way to protecting Belizeans and the Mesoamerican Reef from damage caused by oil exploration and extraction.  In June, a Belizean judge granted Oceana permission to proceed with its case against the government for improperly throwing out signatures on a petition to ask Belizeans to vote on whether to ban offshore oil exploration.  Audrey and Oceana, joined by a coalition of environmental organizations, go back to court on September 25, 2012 for a full hearing.

ELAW is supporting Audrey’s efforts and we congratulate her and her colleagues for the success so far on these ground-breaking cases!

Jennifer Gleason
Staff Attorney

Mangroves in Belize

The Mesoamerican Reef is shared by Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.  ELAW  is working with grassroots advocates in each of these countries on a coordinated effort to protect marine resources.

“Our partners in Belize and Guatemala are on the verge of permanently protecting hundreds of square miles of important marine habitat,” says Lori Maddox, ELAW Associate Director. “Their good work is creating a linked chain of diverse, biological storehouses that will help revitalize a dying fishery and sustain the flow of tourist dollars to the entire region.”

Lori and ELAW Staff Scientist Heidi Weiskel traveled to Belize this month for a workshop with partners to advance this initiative.

Read about their visit in Ambergris Today, a Belize newspaper.

Maggie Keenan
ELAW Communications Director

ELAW’s new Staff Scientist, Heidi Weiskel, is in Belize this week, working with ELAW partners to protect the Mesoamerican Reef. She is joined by Lori Maddox, ELAW Associate Director.

Watch the ELAW Spotlight for posts from Heidi and Lori in the week ahead!

Heidi brings valuable expertise in marine and coastal ecology to ELAW.  She received an M.S.  with honors from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and a BA from Harvard.  She is currently completing a Ph.D.  in Ecology from the University of California at Davis, where she studied the effects of nutrient pollution on marine species.

“I am thrilled to join the ELAW team,” says Heidi.  “I look forward to working with our partners around the world on strengthening protection for living marine resources and the coastal communities that depend on them.”

In addition to her field research experience, Heidi also worked on the staff of the Pew Oceans Commission to develop recommendations for Congress to improve national marine resource laws and regulations.  She also worked as an environmental policy research fellow at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague and has worked with scientists in Cuba, Panama, and Argentina.  She is fluent in Spanish, and also speaks some French and Russian.

Maggie Keenan
ELAW Communications Director

ELAW colleagues at the Environmental Law Workshop

I was fortunate to travel last month to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, for the first annual Festival of the Sea, held in conjunction with a Trinational Fisheries Forum and Workshops on Environmental Law and the Human Right to Water.  The Fisheries Forum was poignant, with roughly 20 fishers from Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras doing the difficult work of discussing limits on their fishing grounds, in order to restore the fishery.  Our Guatemalan partners are working with Guatemalan fishing communities in the Gulf and the Ministry of Natural Resources to help create  “recuperation zones” that would be managed jointly by the agency and the fishers in Guatemala’s waters.

The Gulf of Honduras is a complicated web of Guatemalan, Belizean, Honduran, Garifuna, and Maya culture.  Negotiations among fishers WITHIN countries is complex, and when we are trying to reach across the many layers of jurisdictions and ethnic culture present in the Gulf, the complexities are far greater.

Alongside the work, we celebrated the food, culture, and livelihood of fishing communities in the region at the Festival of the Sea on the waterfront.   Fisheries are vital to sustaining coastal communities worldwide, and the roughly 500km of coastline in the Gulf of Honduras is home to nearly one million people.  This relatively small area holds tremendous biodiversity, but both species and local economies are in decline.

Lori Maddox
Associate Director

I recently traveled to Belize to help a local lawyer who is working to develop a set of recommendations to strengthen the country’s petroleum laws.  During the 20-minute ride into Belize City, the taxi driver told me all about Belize’s morning talk shows on Love TV and Krem TV, two of Belize’s cable stations.  He urged me to watch the next morning, saying that viewers phone in to air their opinions on all kinds of issues.  “Interesting,” I thought, but I didn’t really plan to watch.  In my mind, I imagined a Belizean version of Regis and Kelly presenting cute news stories and bantering back and forth.  Little did I know how wrong I was!

Oil development has been controversial in Belize and several years ago, the government opened virtually the entire country, including offshore areas and protected areas, to oil exploration.  Long-term exploration and development contracts were forged with oil companies behind closed doors.  The Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage, which formed in 2010, has been very effective in educating the public about the petroleum industry and advocating for a ban on oil development in offshore and protected areas, such as national parks.  Earlier this year, the Coalition gathered enough signatures to allow the public to vote on a referendum about the future of oil development in Belize.

While I was in Belize City, fresh controversy erupted over oil exploration activities in Sarstoon-Temash National Park in the southern part of the country.  Word emerged that USCapital Energy was conducting seismic testing activities in the park.  Seismic testing is a process used to map underground rock formations to predict where oil may be found.  To create the map, explosive charges are set off along transect lines to create underground seismic waves that are recorded and analyzed.  The transect lines are cut into the forest, creating a scar many miles long – in this case stretching all the way across the park.  Seismic testing fragments habitat and is very disruptive to nearby Maya and Garifuna communities.  Poachers and illegal loggers use abandoned transect lines to enter remote areas to kill wildlife and remove valuable tree species.  SATIIM, the local indigenous environmental organization, sent a team out to monitor the exploration activities and posted a report describing the environmental damage and evidence of illegal logging that the team found.  

I was working one afternoon when ELAW partner Candy Gonzalez called and said, “Quick, turn on the television to Channel 51!”   It was Love TV’s rebroadcast of that morning’s talk show and the guests were Chief Forest Officer, Wilber Sabido, and Geology and Petroleum Department Director, Andre Cho.  They were there to answer questions about why they had granted permission for the seismic testing to occur in a national park and without prior evaluation of the potential environmental impacts.  The talk show hosts asked many pointed questions and frequently referred to calls that they had received from the public expressing concern about the exploration activities.  Sabido and Cho defended their decision and the hosts were rather gentle in their follow-up questioning, but it was nevertheless engaging and interesting to watch the interview.  I gained a new appreciation for this form of “talk show democracy” and will be sure to tune in the next time I visit Belize.

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney

And now for the third and final post about my exhilarating trip around Belize. I’m ending with the lively town of San Pedro. Read the previous two posts about Belmopan and Placencia.

The morning I was scheduled to leave Placencia, I woke up early and took one final stroll down the street, and watched the vendors put out their fresh fruit for the day’s customers. Did I tell you there was only one street? One street, that used to mark the edge of the lagoon, but where dredging has helped to increase the size of the peninsula. I walked back along the sidewalk, the only other paved strip on the sandy peninsula. I saw very few tourists at this time, mostly locals sweeping their steps and working outside before the temperatures got too high.

the view from Ak'Bol

The flight to San Pedro was not direct. I instead flew back to Belize City and then back and forth from the municipal and international airports. At times, it was only me and the pilot, and I could imagine what it would be like to take flying lessons. The view coming into San Pedro was breathtaking. Small islands, shallow waters, and reefs visible from the air signaled we were close to the main island.

After arriving, I found a water taxi and sped northward along the shores to the Ak’bol Yoga Retreat, a simple and stunning collection of cabins and rooms on the beach. I hastily swapped my luggage for a swim suit and inquired about snorkeling. One hour later a boat arrived to take me and four others to Mexico Rocks. Although I didn’t have an underwater camera, I have linked to photos online of some of the beautiful fish I saw there, like angel fish, trumpet fish, rainbow parrot fish, queen parrot fish, sergeant major, squirrel fish, barracuda, some kind of small puffer fish, and a green moray eel. I was so thankful to have such a great guide to point them out and who was capable of articulating each name with a snorkel in his mouth! (Later in the week, I stayed at the Palms, where I was much closer to town and could more easily wander around at night looking for fresh pupusas to munch on.)

ACCSD Office under construction

The following morning, my energy level was high and it was easy waking up early, renting a bike and riding 10 minutes into town to find the Ambergris Caye Citizens for Sustainable Development (ACCSD) office. When I arrived I found Coqui, the new Administrator, working hard to catch up with work after the long holiday. I received a very warm welcome and a tour of the new space. ACCSD is sharing the office with an architecture and design company, and although it was not finished yet, it was clear that the space would be fun and stylish. They have even found ways to incorporate mangrove plants into the design of the space. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when it’s done!

Coqui, ACCSD's Administrator, and I work together on a fresh look for the office and the web.

Coqui is using the move as an opportunity to give the organization a fresh look. When I was there, she was busy collecting and reorganizing files, useful documents, and maps. Currently, she and I are collaborating on a new website for the organization that should be launched soon, once the new logo is chosen. In addition to staffing the office and fielding calls and visits from concerned citizens, Coqui works closely with the ACCSD board members to achieve the goals of the organization.

ACCSD acts as a watchdog group, monitoring new developments and reporting any irresponsible behavior to the government. ACCSD is working towards a master development plan that would include ways for developers to better protect the local environment and be held accountable to the local community. They also work to increase the area protected in the Hol Chan Marine reserve.

I would have liked to stay in Belize longer, as I couldn’t see all the beautiful sites. I will just have to visit again – and when I do, I look forward to catching up with my new friends.

Lauren Ice
ELAW Office Manager

If you haven’t already, make sure you check out my previous post from Belmopan, Belize to get you up to speed.

View of the Belize coast line from the prop plane

So, after spending three days in Belmopan, where brush fires and forest fires were spreading like…well…wildfire, I was making plans to take me to my next destination. The smoke in Belmopan was heavy, and it was clear that the lack of rain and the extreme heat were contributing factors. Even the pilot at the Belmopan airport was expected to arrive late due to the poor visibility early that morning. However, boarding the 12-passenger plane didn’t take long, and I was back on schedule in no time – although “schedule ” is kind of a loose term in Belize.

The other half a dozen passengers and myself made our way southeast across the Maya Mountains, where large patches of burned forest were visible from the air.  The prop plan flew through the clouds, but not above them, which made for a bumpy ride and an incredible view of the countryside. After about 45 minutes, I spotted the coastline and the sparkling blue water off of Belize’s shores!

Many of these condos are still for sale. Other lots have been divided and sold, and now wait for investors.

Stop 2: I landed in Placencia and was met by another Candy, who sits on the board of the Placencia Citizens for Sustainable Development (PCSD). Placencia is at the southern tip of a long, narrow peninsula that runs down the mainland. This forms a beautiful and lively lagoon where people have played and fished for generations. Placencia is a very small community that is growing rapidly. Growth is partly due to an influx of Belizeans and foreigners attracted to the beautiful location and the relaxed pace, and who are often establishing full-time residency on the peninsula. Unfortunately, much more of the growth is in the form of tourism developments and condos for part-time residents and vacationers. This hasty development is particularly worrisome, as many of these developers do not live in Belize year-round and are detached from the local needs: the local community, the local economy, and the local environment. Although the recent economic crisis has slowed investments, Placencia is threatened by short-sighted development.

Adrian Vernon (like Amelita at BELPO) is the only staff member at PCSD. He offered to work on a Saturday by welcoming me to Placencia with a boat tour of the lagoon. Adrian’s family has lived on the peninsula for generations. His knowledge of the area and its ecosystems, particularly the valuable mangrove forests, has made him a well-known and highly-respected man in the community. Joining us on the tour was a member of the Placencia Town Council, the local government body responsible for approving proposed development projects, and students from Belize University studying cumulative impacts of tourism in Placencia.

Adrian (at the wheel) captivates his audience with knowledge about mangrove forests. You can see a mangrove buffer behind him.

Adrian was at home on the water. It was clear that he could talk for hours about the benefits of mangroves and sea grass, proper restoration techniques, the threats from development and dumping that are facing the lagoon, and the solutions he is promoting to help developers understand the value of protecting the local ecosystem. The group buzzed constantly with questions and answers. Before I knew it, we had been on the water for three hours and were on our way back to the dock. With the wind whipping by, I was enjoying the sun and proudly recalling memorable facts of the lagoon, when a sputtering noise signaled that the previous boat guide had forgot to refill the gas tank. We floated for only a couple of minutes until a gentleman, someone Adrian knew and recognized from at least 100 yards away, pulled up and offered us a gallon or two. I learned a new trick for siphoning gas, and only minutes later, Adrian and I were ordering lunch. What a great afternoon!

PCSD Office

Later that day and most of Sunday, Adrian and I managed to confine ourselves to the new PCSD office, where we collaborated on ways to make his work more efficient, since he is now sharing time between the office and the field. Adrian is also leading the campaign to organize community support for PCSD and ensure that the goals of the organization are determined and led by locals, who need a voice on proposed developments – a unified voice that will protect individuals and amplify their demands.

Adrian and I said good-bye on Sunday evening and I headed back to Dianni’s Guest House (which I would highly recommend) and prepared to leave Placencia on an early morning flight to San Pedro. I planned to take the day off and go snorkeling!! No underwater photos, but I have managed to remember many of the names of the gazillion fish I saw, so check back soon.

Also, check out our Facebook page for more photos from the trip.

Lauren Ice
ELAW Office Manager

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 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

World Water Day was established at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. It is a day to focus international attention on the factors contributing the world’s safe drinking water and sanitation crisis.

This year’s theme, Water for cities: responding to the urban challenge is highlighting the staggering increase in urbanization among the worlds poorest population, and how lacking city infrastructure is not meeting the clean water needs of communities.

According to the United Nations:

“Today, one in two people on the planet live in a city. 93% of the urbanization occurs in poor or developing countries, and nearly 40% of the world’s urban expansion is growing slums. The central problem is therefore the management of urban water and waste. Piped water coverage is declining in many settings, and the poor people get the worst services, yet paying the highest water prices.”

According to the Coalition for World Water Day“one out of every eight people lacks safe drinking water and two out of every five people lack adequate sanitation.” We all know water is fundamental to life and that access to clean water is a basic human right. And while some contributing factors are certainly related to poor sanitation, we must remember that there are other reasons that people around the world do not have access to safe drinking water.

Gold mine tailings disposal

Over the years, ELAW has worked with partners around the world to perform water quality tests that provide communities with the information they need to seek justice and win access to clean water.

Last year, ELAW worked with partners in Panama to test water quality downstream from a large gold mine.  ELAW partners in Belize are fighting to protect the Macal River, a source of drinking water, from the effects of a large dam. With surface water quality analysis, ELAW partners in Guatemala, are helping community members understand the science behind community health problems associated with nearby mining activity. ELAW worked with partners in the Philippines in 2008 to close illegal connections to a storm drain that were allowing raw sewage into drinking water. As in other parts of the Amazon, multinational oil companies have been drilling for oil and dumping by-products into Peru’s Corrientes River since the 1970s. ELAW helped perform the first independent water quality analysis, and in 2006, the largest offending oil company signed an agreement to stop dumping in the river and invest in cleanup.

Achuar march for clean water (PHOTO: FECONACO, Racimos de Ungurahui)

These are just a few examples of how numerous industries and multinationals are polluting and privatizing our earth’s freshwater supplies, and many times, in poor communities where regulations are weak and access to clean water is already at risk.

ELAW joins communities around the world calling for swift access to clean water for everyone. We will continue to support the work of local advocates who are fighting for the right to clean air and water for everyone.

Lauren Ice
Office Manager

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