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From a Gentlemans’ Agreement to Effective Governance: A Retrospective on a Cross-Border Alliance leading to Healthy Fisheries in Belize and Guatemala

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Traditional transportation—a family navigates the area

After six years of hard work and perseverance of Guatemalan and Belizean fishing communities, and support from the Oak Foundation, EcoLogic’s project, Cross-Border Alliance for Healthy Fisheries, has reached a series of major milestones. As we plan with our local partners, and write proposals to potential funders, we wanted to paint a picture of the important progress to date and share the successes of the project and all of the people involved.

This project is located in the lower Sarstoon (Sarstún) River Basin and adjacent coastal-marine area on the border between Belize and Guatemala—the Amatique Bay. There is a combined total of over 50,000 hectares of terrestrial wetland conservation areas. This incredibly unique ecosystem is imperative to biodiversity as well as to the livelihoods and cultures shared by fishing communities (Garífuna, Maya Q’eqchi’, and Mestizo) on both sides of the border. However, a decades-old international boundary dispute has created barriers to cooperation, integration, and trust among border communities.  Furthermore, both Belize’s Toledo District and Guatemala’s Izabal Department suffer from some of the highest levels of poverty and malnutrition in their respective countries.

The goal of EcoLogic’s project has always been to ensure the sustainability of both indigenous fishing communities and marine ecosystems that straddle the border between Belize and Guatemala along the Sarstoon River. Given the context, this project was initially approached delicately, and we decided to “start small” with relatively modest aims. EcoLogic’s initial priorities were to establish sustainable fishing workshops and binational management plans, aimed to serve as agreements for seasonal and zonal closures. Initially, we anticipated around 16 participants in these workshops and hoped to include a handful of local leaders, committees, and NGOs.

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Committee members designing project plans

In reality, EcoLogic’s efforts and community far exceeded our expectations and we saw that there was an opportunity to do much more. The desire to collaborate among fishing communities and institutions on both sides of the border was palpable and much stronger than anticipated. They understood very well that their livelihoods were dependent on a shared fishery that naturally extended across boundaries and was impacted by actions that occur on both sides of the border. What fishing communities needed was simply the opportunity to productively work together. EcoLogic was able to build on this shared understanding and interest.

By 2012, with our partners, Mayan Association for Well-Being in the Sarstun Region (APROSARSTUN) and the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM), we helped convene workshops with over 200 attendees participating in a variety of learning exchanges linked to sustainable fishing. In 2013, we helped convened a series of roundtables that involved a total of 150 people from communities and NGOs (103 from Guatemala, 47 from Belize). We made great headway on themes like seasonal closure calendars, protected area co-management, sustainable fishing techniques, threatened species, and drivers of overfishing.

EcoLogic also brought in outside expertise to develop a workshop series on fishing regulations and enforcement, using watersheds as the proper unit of management, leadership, resilience, and disaster risk mitigation planning. These were led by the Alianza de Derecho Ambiental y Agua (ADA²) and Fundación Guatemala, which to us, indicates the expansion of important networks and resources that have the potential to lead to landscape-level change.

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A community group organizing to begin a participatory activity, Sarstún, Guatemala

For three years between 2011-13, EcoLogic and our partners organized an annual binational soccer tournament between fisherfolk communities of Barra Sarstún, Guatemala and Barranco, Belize. We utilized communities’ shared love of soccer as an entry point to break down walls of misunderstanding and mistrust and conducted workshops with participants on issues of sustainable resource management and conservation.

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Sarstun Girls’ Team

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Barranco Girls’ Team

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Sarstun Boys’ Team

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Barranco Boys’ Team

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A board meeting getting ready to begin, Livingston, Guatemala

After this initial phase of trust-building and stakeholder assessment, by 2014, the project had shifted toward the development of collaborative conservation and sustainable livelihood plans and strategies. In 2015, to help identify viable economic alternatives that fishing communities could engage in to help take pressure off of depleting fish resources, we commissioned a technical Ecological and Economic Zoning (EEZ) study, a combined market and ecological analysis of the region. The EEZ study, was a series of 8 interactive workshops with fisherfolk. The final results and next steps were presented to regional fisherfolk associations in January 2016. Fisherfolk association representatives in attendance expressed their excitement at the opportunities for economic growth presented, since past groups working with fisherfolk in the area had suggested fishing closures without proposing sustainable livelihood alternatives.

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Budding ecotourism: a potential livelihood alternative, Río Dulce, Guatemala

Over the years, it’s safe to say that the estuarine ecosystem of Amatique Bay, its coastal lagoons, mangrove forests, herbaceous wetlands, flood forests, marine grasslands, nursery habitats, harbors, countless species of fish, mollusks, and shellfish, coral reefs, and fisherfolk communities have been able to successfully build resilience and create impactful, positive change with the help of EcoLogic.

But there is still work to do.

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A street sign that the community lives by and is proud to put up! Barranco, Belize

EcoLogic other actors in the region have made solid initial strides to reverse unsustainable trends and built interest that a groundswell of local communities have used to gain momentum for their cause. The process to reach this point has not been swift or easy, but EcoLogic’s strength, based on twenty years of experience in Central America, is tapping into the overlooked knowledge, talents, and determination of rural and indigenous people to ensure that they have the tools, incentives, and networks they need to participate in and benefit from the protection of nature. In the coming years, we hope to involve more communities and fishing cooperatives into the projectm, pilot some of the economic alternatives that communities are eager to test, and improve governance and regulation of fisheries and fishing practices.

We are inspired to maintain this momentum and enhance our impact in this critical region and very much want to thank everyone who has been involved over the years.

We are proud of our efforts and your continued commitment to partner with EcoLogic as well as the people of Belize and Guatemala!

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