In Belize, UA students help preserve the world’s most biodiverse ecosystem.

By:    Date: 04-10-2017

By Mary Shannon Wells

Picture a calm beach with translucent water surrounding white sand. That’s what you would see on a cruise ship or tourist trip to Belize. University of Alabama students enrolled in GY 450/NEW 450 Conservation Field Studies in Belize experience that as well, but they do much more than sightsee during their two-week adventure in the Central American country.

In 2010, Dr. Michael K. Steinberg, an associate professor in UA’s geography department and New College, began sharing his passion for all aspects of Belize – from its environment to its culture – and his 25 years of research on the country by creating a course dedicated to conservation and humanitarian efforts there.

Service projects have included coral-reef rehabilitation, beach cleanups, fish and coral-reef diversity data collection for the understaffed and underfunded Belize Fisheries Department, work at Mayan village schools and reforestation efforts. Steinberg says he shows his students “a different side of Belize and the tropics than they would get off the side of a cruise ship.”

Monica Standohar, a junior from Tuscaloosa majoring in geography, had never been outside the United States before traveling to Belize with the group.

Students learn about handmade crafts in the remote, rainforest village of San Pedro Columbia.

“Being in a very different cultural setting can be overwhelming and a bit scary, but it also forces you to challenge yourself and open yourself up to new experiences,” Standohar says. “Learning about some of the challenges Belize faces in regards to the conservation of natural resources really helped reinforce what I’ve learned through my classes at UA. We were able to see firsthand some of the efforts that are going into protecting the lands and its resources. Issues like mangrove destruction, riparian deforestation and an overall lack of environmental awareness and education within communities can all have serious impacts on resources and ecosystems.”

GY450/NEW450 Conservation Field Studies in Belize is held annually, during May Interim. In May of 2016, 17 students enrolled in the course planted 100 trees along a major river, cleared trails in a national park, surveyed the health of seagrass beds in Belize’s largest marine reserve and built artificial reefs as habitat for sea life.

Students interacted with Mayan people in the remote, rainforest village of San Pedro Columbia. They sampled locally prepared food, learned about villagers’ handmade crafts and planted trees on the banks of the nearby Columbia River in partnership with the Toledo Institute for Development and the Environment.

Students help prepare and taste local cuisine.

“It felt really good to be able to learn about, and work personally with, some of the local communities,” Standohar says. “It was truly a great learning experience.”

The Toledo Institute for Development and the Environment, or TIDE, manages both terrestrial and marine protected areas, including (in partnership with the Belize Department of Fisheries and Forestry Department) more than 160,000 acres in southern Belize. TIDE also operates education and outreach projects in the communities surrounding the areas it manages.

Many people from San Pedro Columbia use the nearby Columbia River for bathing, washing clothes and swimming. During the past 20 to 30 years, landowners have cleared a large portion of the trees lining the river’s bank, mainly to plant crops. National laws, which aren’t enforced, prohibit tree clearing from the river’s banks because it leads to erosion that affects both villages along the river and coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea.

“Erosion makes the banks unstable, so the river gets silted in, which can make it more shallow and muddy,” Steinberg says. “It can also lead to more dramatic flash floods events because there are fewer trees intercepting rainfall. These flash floods can lead to further erosion and, in some cases, they can destroy bridges downstream.” Erosion also affects the water table, which can impact villagers’ wells.

Students planted trees along riverbanks to help prevent erosion and improve water quality.

TIDE works to educate individuals who ignore the law about why clearing trees is bad for their villages. It also organizes volunteer groups to replant trees.

“By reforesting along riverbanks, you are increasing water quality both in the river and farther downstream as far as the coral reefs,” says Caroline Oliver, a TIDE expedition manager who oversaw the UA students’ project. “Tree planting really is one of those activities that has a ridge-to-reef benefit.”

When water-borne sediments settle onto corals, they decrease respiration and available sunlight, effectively smothering the corals.

Students planted mango, sapote, soursop and breadfruit trees. In addition to helping prevent erosion, these trees will be a food source for villagers.

The class also helped park rangers in Paynes Creek National Park clear and maintain trails. This project increased recreation opportunities for locals and tourist and made patrolling the trails easier for rangers. Students used machetes to clear the trails.
Kristen Marrapodi, a freshman from Skillman, N.J., majoring in metallurgical engineering, says she was a little intimidated by the machetes at first, but the park rangers helped her and the other students learn how to use them.

“I was really impressed by the technique and skill level that they had,” she says. “It’s a lot of hard work.”

During the second part of the trip, students collected data about seagrass around South Water Caye, an island inside South Water Caye Marine Reserve, Belize’s biggest marine preservation area.

Students snorkel to gather research data near the Belize Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef in the Northern Hemisphere.

Students snorkeled nearly every day to gather data near the Belize Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef in the Northern Hemisphere and a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site. Coral reefs are among the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, and seagrass plays a vital role in sustaining the entire coastal environment.

Seagrass beds provide a feeding ground and reproduction habitat for countless marine species, act as sediment filters and protect people and cities from storm surges by serving as breakwaters, says Brad Bates, a geography graduate student and the teaching assistant for the course.

To monitor coral reefs and seagrass beds, satellites take pictures of coastal areas. The data students gather is called “ground-truth data” because it’s taken off the ground to verify that dark spots that look like seagrass in satellite images actually are. Bates and the other students dove into the water with GPS units and cameras to conduct their work. Bates is writing his thesis on the health of the seagrass in the marine reserve.

Because seagrass has such an immense impact on the environment and marine life in Belize, it has a similar impact on Belize’s economy as well.

A satellite image showing areas that possibly contain seagrass.

The country’s economy is driven by marine tourism, which accounts for almost a third of total employment in Belize, according to the 2011 National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan of Belize, and for more than a third of the country’s gross domestic product, per the World Travel and Tourism Council’s 2012 report.

Bates plans to present his research to the Belizean government in an effort to heighten conservation efforts. Preliminary data and mapping suggest major and moderate seagrass degeneration in some areas during the past few years. “It takes a really long time for seagrass to pioneer,” Bates says. “It takes about seven years to regrow depending on the species, so it’s important to make the investment to figure out why we are seeing changes.”
Each year, students also build artificial reef from dead coral rubble and cinder blocks. The activity shows them how quickly certain species colonize a new habitat, Steinberg says. He says the project has become a competition to see if the current class can out-build the previous one.

As part of the GY 450/NEW 450 course, each student keeps a daily natural history journal over the course of the trip. “This is an old fashioned sort of exercise where students record, describe and sometimes draw things they see,” Steinberg says. “For example, they need to use field guides to learn the different species of fish and birds that they see. Students learn more by actually drawing and describing the species they see.”

Students also complete reading assignments and attend lectures on coral ecology and the reef ecosystem. The class holds nightly discussions focused on readings, the students’ journals and the day’s activities. Students prepare short reflection papers based on the readings and their questions.

“The class provided an in-depth understanding of the role of local culture in sustainable conservation,” Marrapodi says. “As an engineering major, this is a very relevant topic because future engineers will be responsible for designing systems that are efficient, yet protect the environment and preserve natural resources.”

For more information about GY 450/NEW 450 Conservation Field Studies in Belize, contact Dr. Michael K. Steinberg at 205-348-0349 or mksteinberg@ua.edu.