Celebrating a Sustainability Win in Belize

Thirty years ago this month, I went on my first SCUBA dive on a reef off of the Dominican Republic. I wasn’t even certified. The “resort course” involved a half-day in a pool learning and then diving, but only to 30 feet. I will never forget the feeling of flying underwater, the beauty of the vibrant coral, and thousands of colorful fish. Instantly, I was hooked. I got certified two years later in Hawaii. Diving played a central role in a nine month travel adventure before business school, exploring underwater everywhere from the Red Sea in Egypt to small islands in Indonesia.

Ask anyone who has been diving for 30 years about the changes underwater and expressions grow grim. The coral is now often bleached and dead. You don’t see nearly the same quantity of fish. The larger species are rarer and rarer. It can be really depressing, especially when you know what it used to be like. Diving, and divers themselves, can be part of the problem. But it’s primarily the impact of rising ocean temperatures, overfishing, oil exploration/drilling, on-shore development, and poor sewage/stormwater management of waterways that feed into the reefs.

Modern conservation can save our blue planet

Which is why diving last week in Belize was such a refreshing surprise; and a real testament to the power of modern conservation methods that range from grassroots activism to innovative Wall Street finance methods. The reef was vibrant, colorful and teeming with fish big and small. We dove with dozens of sharks, turtles and rays. It was the best diving I’ve done since the late-nineties. And it filled me with incredible hope that there is the knowledge and capacity to save our blue planet. The only question is whether we have enough time and collective will.

Belize, formerly British Honduras, is a tiny country that sits in between Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. Along its coastline is the Mesoamerica Reef, the second largest reef system in the world. It was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996, but was placed on UNESCO’s “danger list” in 2009. From that low point, Belize kicked into action. In 2018, they celebrated being removed from the list.

Conservation takes a broader community approach

How did they do it? First, they took a “ridge to reef” conservation approach, recognizing that to protect the reef, they needed to protect not just the reef, but much of the land along the waterways leading to the reef. The Maya Mountain marine corridor covers about 17% of Belize and 75% of it is now protected. Engagement with local communities enables economic growth by leaving the forest intact, including agroforestry, beekeeping, eco-tourism, and sustainable forestry. I can vouch that the eco-tourism in the jungle, from Mayan ruins to caves to small lot cacao farms with chocolate factories is top-notch.

Interconnected regulations have greater impact

Second, they have used regulatory approaches, including a moratorium on off-shore oil exploration, banning trawlers and spearfishing, protecting specific fish species who play an important role in reef health, and most recently, phasing out single use plastics. The volume of reusables and compostables at restaurants, in the airports, on boats, and in the markets was palpably different from my experience in other Central American countries.

Innovative financial approaches paid off

But what they’ve done leveraging innovative new financial approaches might be the most fascinating. In 2021, Belize did the largest debt conversion for ocean conservation in history. The innovative financing, known as a “blue bond,” will reduce the national debt by 12% and drive $180M back into marine conservation, a mix of annual operating funds and establishing an endowment to sustain ongoing funding. Belize has also been a leader in conservation projects that create high-quality carbon offsets providing revenue to conserve, rather than clear, the forest.

Belize still faces a myriad of economic and development challenges and no one country can combat climate change alone. But in 2012, 96% of Belizeans voted in favor of a referendum to protect the reef, and I experienced a culture of sustainability distinct from anywhere else I’ve been. It was a rejuvenating reminder that all the sustainability work that companies, start-ups, not for profits, communities and nations are doing can, and will, make a difference. We just need to keep the momentum going.

Quote of the Week:  “We still have 10 percent of the sharks. We still have half of the coral reefs. However, if we wait another 50 years, opportunities might well be gone.”

Sylvia Earle

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