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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.

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