Sep 14, 2012

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Conserving natural resources is one of the most important things to do and advocate for in life. However, when one wishes to balance the conservation of nature and the needs of a community ’s livelihood, the solutions may not be simple and the approach cannot be uncompromising — especially when there is no alternative source of income for most of the poor coastal communities other than that derived from available natural resources. EcoLogic’s work in the trans-boundary area of Sarstun and Amatique Bay is in some ways a typical situation, but it is even more challenging because there are two communities with distinct social, cultural, and political identities, in this case Belizeans and Guatemalans.

A busy sea 

It was a typical maritime trip across the Belizean and Guatemalan border, sailing on a boat rented from a local fisherman known as Wicho. Wicho is a Guatemalan national but grew up on the Belizean Coast, and so he is fluent in English and Spanish.

The sun was setting, but the sea was getting busier. Many men and boys from the lower Sarstun River down to the San Juan village, often in teams of 2 or 3, were tending their nets. “Nowadays a family may need to have more than one net to supply their basic needs since the catch is not as good as before,” explained Wicho.

As the day winds down, the fishing speeds up.

The tides weren’t as high as they normally are when we travel in the afternoons. As we got closer to the Barra Sarstun community, two young children (about 7 years old) came out sailing on a little pirogue – a kind of small canoe – on their own without any adult. I was amazed and asked Wicho how parents can allow their children to sail on deep water like this without any adult with them or life jackets in case of emergency? Wicho explained that this is their home, their road, and play ground. They are already used to it.

Children sailing their pirogue in their backyard. 

This statement sounded exaggerated but it also seemed to be true when we learned that, the many people in Sarstun community don’t have land. Most of their houses are built right above the water. Some homes may be 30 feet off the edge of the river, because all the lands beyond that line are private properties. The people who reside here depend almost entirely on fishing and have no other livelihood alternative. This has caused marine resources in the region to deplete at an alarming rate.

The mission of EcoLogic here is to promote sustainable fisheries management, so there will be healthy fisheries for generations to come. As a way to build trust with the communities and a follow up to our ongoing technical assistance, EcoLogic staff participate regularly in the meetings of Fisherfolk Committee. 

Aquaculture initiatives allow for fisherfolk to sustainably harvest bluegill fish.

What is a “Fisherfolk Committee”? 

Also known as “Comite de Pescadores” in Spanish, the Fisherfolk Committee is a community association of fishermen who decided to come together to solve conflicts and form a body that represents the community before the local authorities and other stakeholders. In a general sense, fisherfolks are looked at as either people or a group whose lives depend on fishing. Whether you are on the Belizean or Guatemalan side, fisherfolks present quite different features:

Sarstun-Guatemala: the Sarstun region was traditionally populated by native indigenous people; however, land scarcity has pushed many other ethnic groups to migrate towards these coasts in search of livelihood opportunities, making this area a mix of Maya Keq’chi, indigenous and Ladinos. According to the “Comite de Pescadores,” their fish stock has declined to almost five times less than what used to be their catch per unit effort in the nineties. As the human population increases, the fish stock decreases. This pushes many of the fisherfolk to cross the border and fish in the Belizean waters, which triggers ecological concerns and resentment from the Belizean side.

Barranco-Belize: traditionally known as the major fishing community in southern Belize, Barranco fisherfolk are people of African origin known as “Garifunas”. Fisherfolk here are mainly descendents of the Garifuna who relied mainly on fishing for their subsistence. But since the fishing stock declined, most of the youth left the country to look for jobs in the United States, while others try to cope by combining fishing and farming. 

A look down the Sarstun River showing just how close the two sides can be at certain points 

The fisherfolk’s issues 

Over the last decade, there have been tensions between the two communities of Barranco and Sarstun. The first accuse the second of crossing the border illegally and depleting their resources. Not only fish are concerned here, but also the illegal extraction of timber and non-timber products in the Sarstoon Temash National Park, a Belizean protected area designated a Ramsar site due to the critical importance of the wetlands and their resources. The Sarstun fisherfolk on the other hand, find it nearly impossible to avoid fishing in Belizean waters since the stock in their shores can no longer suffice to feed their fast growing population. “If we don’t cross the border, how will we feed our kids?” explained one of the fisherfolk in Barra Sarstun.

What are we doing at this “hot spot”? 

EcoLogic has been working together with local communities and non-governmental organizations to conserve these precious natural resources while helping them solve their disputes through dialogue. Given the socioeconomic and political context, EcoLogic has recently reviewed its strategy to combine conservation tools with finding alternative, ecologically friendly livelihoods for the concerned communities.

Phew - that's the project in nutshell! We are ready to tackle this project head on and so are the communities.

- Jean Claude Mbazumutima, Coordinator of the Belize-Guatemala Binational Project
As coordinator, Jean-Claude oversees EcoLogic's efforts to promote sustainable ecosystem management and cooperation for a binational project spanning the Guatemalan and Belizean communities on either side of the international border along the Sarstun River.

Sep 6, 2012

Adventures in Agroforestry, Part 2

Since early June 2012, two recent Harvard University graduates, Julian Moll-Rocek and Janie D’Ambrosia, have been visiting EcoLogic’s agroforestry plots in Guatemala to observe, gather data, and provide “tips and tricks” to our EcoLogic field technicians and community farmers on ways to measure and track the progress of their agroforestry efforts. 

Hi again,

It's Janie this time. The last time we wrote Julian and I had just arrived in Ak'Tenamit, a vocational boarding school composed largely of students from the Q'eqchi Mayan communities of the Sarstun region of Guatemala. We received an incredibly warm welcome from APROSARSTUN, an NGO located on the Ak'Tenamit campus and EcoLogic's partner on the ground, and we were finally able to meet the two students with whom we would be working for the next two months. The students, Roland and Matteo, are both in their sixth and final year at Ak'tenamit, and working with us is how they will complete their "practica" -- a two month long field project required to graduate.

This was our private home for a few, magical weeks!

We rented one of the bungalows on campus for the week as we prepared for our 4-6 week trip to the field. Originally, we thought three days would be more than enough to finalize our field methodologies, plan our route, and pick up supplies. As much as we had prepared, our first chat with Rolando and Matteo revealed just how much we still had to learn, including community structure and dynamics, cultural norms and taboos. As biology majors in college, we felt comfortable taking soil samples and measuring tree diameters and soil cover, but evaluating project impact through interviews and community activities was a new experience for us.

During our first one-on-one interview, it became apparent that farmers do not keep reliable track of crop yield, so there was no easy way to quantify the benefits of agroforestry in terms of production. We had to think on our feet and developed a mini-workshop on important numbers for farmers to keep track of during different plot stages. During the coppicing (trimming) of the trees, they can measure how much wood is produced. During harvest, how many ears of corn are harvested. During fruit harvesting , how much fruit is collected. We created a “cheat sheet” to distribute to the farmers with important dates relating to the plot (planting, coppicing, harvest) and the important productivity measures related to each.

This is an agroforestry plot. Those stumps are what the Inga looks like after pruning and the leaves are scattered on the ground to eventually turn into a source of organic fertilizer.  

By far the most important part of our work here has been speaking with agroforestry farmers about why they participated in the project, and finding out what problems they have had related to their plots, and about the help they've received from Ecologic and APROSARSTUN. Their answers are as interesting as they are diverse, ranging in subject matter from community politics to group dynamics to land tenure issues. Overall, the project participants and communities have received us with great warmth and openness. Discussions are often lively and insightful and never so serious that there isn't time for a good laugh and playful banter.

 When we aren't in plots or interviewing project participants or doing community-based work, Julian and I are enjoying the beauty of the small villages, learning how to cook Q'echi-style, and, most importantly, taking an occasional break! After our last meeting in Cerro Blanco, we invited the community to a ukulele jam session (Julian and I both play) as a thank you for their hospitality.

A delicious meal shared with friends.

The evening of ukele strumming was wonderful. A whole mélange of people showed up-- men straight from the field, women and children taking a break from household chores, and young people who wanted to learn chords. By the end of the night, we had young boys singing "Drop, baby, drop" (a Hawaiian favorite)  , and translated "Eight Days A Week" for a sing-along. One of my favorite moments was when a farmer asked, "So what talk do we have to listen to?" We were able to say "No talk, just music and a bit of fun. We hope!" It seemed the least we could do in light of the kindness we'd been shown by the entire community.

 Now we're off to our next community -- Sarstun Creek. The adventure continues!


Julian Moll-Rocek has done research in the Amazonian rainforests of Madre de Dios, Peru and Janie D’Ambrosia has previously worked on a national reserve in Southwest Kenya. Both Julian and Janie have degrees in organismic and evolutionary biology, a field that looks at the function, evolution and interaction of organisms—or in this instance, how crops and trees can work together and integrate beneficially into the broader natural ecosystem. They are also showing our field staff techniques to use new technology (such as GPS) to create more accurate maps and georeference the agroforestry plots of the farmers we work with.