Belize 2

Ron Von Burg leading a discussion with Masters in Sustainability students. Photo Credit: Scott McCullough

Like many Wake Forest students who head off to the sunny beaches of the Caribbean for spring break, students in the Masters in Sustainability Coasts and Climate Change course spent their spring break in the jungles and coasts of Belize. However, they were not there to simply bask in the picturesque natural surroundings or the remarkable hospitality of the Belizean people. The students had a more pressing task of working with the Belizean Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute (CZMAI) to help ensure the Belizean coasts remain healthy and beautiful. Haphazard development, unclear regulation, and sporadic enforcement threaten the fragile Belizean coastal ecosystems. In 2014, CZMAI finalized an Integrated Coastal Zone Management plan (ICZM), an ambitious legislative effort that seeks to address such problems by balancing economic development and environmental protection. In an effort to assist the ICZM plan receive approval from the Belizean Cabinet, CZMAI tasked the students with developing recommendations for a monitoring protocol that identifies the key indicators for Plan success.

The course offered students a firsthand opportunity to conduct field research, hone interviewing practices, draft policy reports, and engage clients—the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the CZMAI—to develop a coastal zone management monitoring system with real world policy implications. To that end, three faculty members accompanied ten students—eight members of Masters in Sustainability program, an undergraduate Politics major, and a Documentary Film student with support from the Visual Storytelling Consortium—to Belize where they interviewed numerous stakeholders about their response to the Plan, soliciting stakeholder responses on what are the key indicators necessary for the successful implementation of the Plan.

Students prepared for the trip by conducting extensive background research on other coastal zone management plans, existing monitoring protocols for coastal ecosystems, and the individual interviewees. The interviews took students all across Belize. Students traveled to Belize City, Belmopan, Placencia, and Lighthouse Reef to visit affected areas and meet with government officials, researchers, conservationists, and economic planners. The responses from the interviewees were quite enlightening, demonstrating that efforts to promote sustainability are as much a political, social, and cultural challenge as they are a matter of science. The students presented their initial findings are part of the CZMAI Seminar Series, receiving feedback from both members of the CMZAI staff and other interested stakeholders. The responses were overall very positive and provided essential advice that will vastly improve the final recommendation report.

But the trip was not all hard work and no play. Students were able to enjoy many of the natural wonders of Belize, including a river tour to Mayan ruins, a visit to a baboon sanctuary, a tour of a banana farm. The students spent the final weekend on Long Caye at Lighthouse Reef, joining with students and faculty from the Wake Forest University Coral Reef Ecology course. The opportunity to mix business with recreation helped solidify the reason the students headed to Belize, to help play a role, however small, in promoting sustainable development and preserving Belize’s natural beauty for future generations to enjoy.

By Ron Von Burg, Assistant Professor, Communications