The pleasure I had on Blackbird Caye a few months ago to bask for almost a week on sandy shores near turquoise, azure, navy blue waters, and to soak in the feel of nature’s elements as I learned about the island’s ecology was a rare treat. There is a way in which such environments hug with peace and awakens the senses to reconnect with nature and self.
Nestled on the southeastern margin of the Turneffe Islands about 30 miles east Belize City, Blackbird Caye and its surrounding waters is home to an impressive variety of fish and marine mammals including bottle-nosed dolphins, three species of whales and manatees. Various species of birds, crocodile, hawksbill sea turtles and other wildlife make the island a pristine paradise for tourism and marine research.
Far away from the hustle and bustle of Belize City life and its crime saturated news, and with no radio, TV, internet, blaring music or honking of cars, one could savor the swishing of the wind, the chirp of birds or the happy laughs from the kitchen as the cooks prepare meals.
The windy cabana on the edges of the shore, moon lit nights, glow of star lit nights, busy hermit crabs, crashing waves on the reef, sight of playful dolphins, and the delicious surprise of every meal all add to the deep appreciation of Belize’s tremendous beauty. It is no wonder that hundreds of thousands of tourists flock from foreign countries each year to enjoy Belize. And also to own a piece or chunks of this paradise that is beyond the reach of most native Belizeans.
Indeed the vast majority of Belizeans cannot afford to visit the islands of their own country to directly experience the marine environment. In a country with an high poverty rate of near 50% and its resulting socioeconomic problems, a large number of Belizeans cannot even afford to leave their communities visit other parts of the country, if family members are not there. It was not that I could afford a week of tourist style living either.
I realized that my presence as a visitor must have been a rare sight for other tourists too. One morning as I walked along the beach, one asked if I was in charge of maintenance. Later, another suggested that he and his wife would need some help with their luggage and asked if I worked on the boat. That’s what Belize has become. In their frame of mind, it wasn’t expected that a dreadlocks Garifuna man in shorts and sandals, was a “tourist” himself. Not surprisingly, this has been the reality of tourism. The visitors and the natives are not only vastly different but their perceived roles are different.
Belize not only draws several hundred thousands of tourists each year to enjoy its terrestrial and marine environments, but among these are students from high schools and universities all over the U.S. who come to learn directly from the vast natural and cultural resources. Throughout each year, several groups of students from abroad swarm various Belizean sites for stays from one week to a full semester of field based learning experiences.
Ironically, while an increasing number of visiting students gain tremendous life changing experiences from Belize’s environment, Belizean students are still mainly sitting in classrooms in often uninspiring and boring passive learning most of their lives, hardly being exposed to the very environment around them.
Many argue about resource constraints. However, without a clear vision of change, school leaders can become so locked into past ways of teaching that there is hardly commitment to directly utilize the environment for transformative learning processes. In this old paradigm of education, one could grow up near the sea or forest and hardly learn about its ecology. Likewise, through the school system one might hardly learn about their own self, their culture, their country or the value of their resources.
Consequently, by their very practices many schools nurture a disconnection between self and nature, between self and culture, and between self and inner self. At a broader society level, this vast disconnection and divide are bound to result in the same economics of destruction, of selfishness, silent compliance and fear, lack of respect for nature, and poisoning of natural resources, society and self through various behaviour and habits as we are seeing today. What we often see in the individual, community and national consciousness is really only the tip of the iceberg of these underlying values that are cultivated.
If more Belizeans are to appreciate, protect and preserve their environment, country and self, approaches to schooling must change. As Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer noted in their book, Leading from the Emerging Future, “The quality of results produced by any system, depends on the quality of awareness from which the people in the system operate…Which means that the success of our actions does not depend on what we do or how we do but really from the inner place from which we operate.”
One of the most effective ways to empower and engage Belizeans in protecting, preserving and sustainably utilizing our resources in to ensure that the youths are directly exposed to learn from and to appreciate these.
It was a constellation of reflection, intentions from that inner place and connections that eventually led to my visit Blackbird Caye as a participant observer of a field based marine ecology program involving students from the U.S. Having organized and directed various educational experiences for university students abroad, and having realized the transformative value of field based education, I had always longed to engage more Belizeans and schools.
My intention to start a field based ecology program for Belizean youths wasn’t without its challenges. Apart from resources, this includes resistance by a few high schools that I approached about eight years ago. Even with a few conservation organizations, I hardly gained traction in trying to convince them to establish a program to involve Belizean youths in field based learning about the environment.
Thanks very much to my good friend and former student from Montana, Frank Carter IV who, in realizing my long held vision, connected me EPI’s headquarters in Montana. I am also grateful to Dr Rachel Graham, one of Belize’s leading marine scientists, for her active encouragement towards making this a reality. Thanks also to Mrs. Margery Laing a dynamic Belizean from the diaspora whose keen interest and insights keep my mind fired with new ideas for program development. Their encouragement reminds me of Paolo Coelho’s reminder in The Alchemist that “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
Recently, I partnered with Ecology Project International (EPI) to organize and manage a program that will provide field courses in Marine Ecology for Belizean students. With donor funding from Oak and Angell Foundations, EPI Belize is targeting about 150 Belizean students this year from various high schools, junior colleges and community groups to participate in five day marine ecology courses. We plan to have a similar number of youths each year.
With groups of about 15-20 students and two chaperones each, these courses will be based at Oceanic Society at Blackbird Caye; UB Marine Resource Institute on Calabash Caye, World Conservation Society at Glovers Reef, and later at UB Marine Institute at Hunting Caye. Except for a very small donation that we ask of participants the course cost covers room and board, instructor fees, learning materials and boat transportation all from donor funds. Following the courses, students and their chaperones can further their learning experience through the formation of eco-clubs.
It is hoped that as more Belizean youths become exposed to the marine environment and later terrestrial environment through this rigorous, hands on, learning opportunity that engage students also in scientific research, data collection, snorkelling, discussion groups, this learning experience will not only nurture their appreciation of these resources but also empower them to make meaningful decisions for their and future generations. That’s what education is also about.
We look forward to every support to enable more Belizean youths to achieve life changing benefits from this unique educational experience that was formerly available mainly to foreign students and visitors to Belize. Given the tremendous challenges in Belize’s socioeconomics and education system, and the lack of opportunities for Belizean youths to learn from their own environment, we hope that the business community, various organizations, interested individuals and Belizeans in the diaspora will also support this venture. For more information about this program follow our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/EPIBelize.
If you would like to donate to enable more Belizean youths to participate please visit http://www.ecologyproject.org/donate/ and specify “Belize program”.
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