Program Goals and Activities
During the Belize Program, team members will study the principles of tropical ecology and conservation, acquire new field method skills, investigate the fascinating ecosystems of Belize, and examine both the government’s role in protecting wildlands and the various roles that cultural groups hold within Belize. Students will engage with members of different ethnic groups on a personal level, observe local conservation ideals, learn individual personal histories, and record language and dialect dictionaries. Lectures and discussions on the cultural histories of Belize will serve to enhance our understanding of modern Belize, and give team members the chance to develop a relationship with the people.
In Belize, team members will study key ecological research and wildlife monitoring techniques such as rapid ecological assessment of streams and rivers, watershed successional patterns, wildlife transects, scientific observations, and human impact patterns. Traversing the country from mountain to coast, we will study the ecology of Belize’s principle terrestrial ecosystems: rainforests, coastal mangroves, lagoons and riparian zones. We will also assess the effectiveness and long-range sustainability of resource management strategies for Belize’s protected nature reserves.
Off the Belize coast exists the second largest barrier reef in the world. Studded with mangrove and coconut palmed cayes, and guarded by atolls to the east, the 180 mile long reef is ecologically complex and intimately tied to the rainforests through its many water courses that deliver nutrients to the sea. In this system, dazzling numbers and varieties of plants and animals are supported: thirty to fifty coral species, sea turtles, manatees, and over 250 varieties of fish. Snorkeling through the reef environment, we will study the ecology of the system, collect evidence of human disturbance, and assess the impact of increased human use.
Another focus of the program will be a field assessment of management techniques for private (independently owned and operated, in some instances by foreign nationals and institutes), government (held in trust for the people of Belize by the central government), and communal (locally owned or overseen by native peoples) conservation areas. We will consider the physical size and location of each, levels of diversity, ecosystem complexity, permitted uses and restrictions, degree of human impact, types of management plans employed, levels of operational efficiency, funding requirements and sources, and environmental and economic impacts on the local economies. Finally, we will evaluate the relationship of the conservation areas to the local cultures in terms of environmental and economic benefit or injury, and the enhancement or degradation of people’s sense of history, place and home.
Our studies will expose us to Belize’s various cultures, and at times we will find ourselves as their guests. We anticipate staying in Maya villages, Creole and Mestizo communities, and Garifuna towns. As we travel we will conduct informal noninvasive interviews and collect personal histories/perceptions of Belize from these various ethnic groups. Our team will discover how the different cultures see themselves in relation to the land and how the concepts of conservation and stewardship vary across cultural lines. Topics we will consider include histories of ethnic diversity in Belize, ethnic harmony/tolerance, equality/access to advantages, isolation/assimilation, women’s roles within the communities and government, and cultural ecotourism. To frame our studies of the relationships between people and the land, we will visit a select few ancient Maya archaeological sites situated in the rainforest.
Throughout the program, through writings and individual projects, we will monitor our evolving impressions of the tropics and our deepening relationship with the rainforest. Each team member will gain an enriched sense of connection to the remote and establish a sense of place within the foreign.
All field methods and data gathering techniques will be taught in Belize. No prior research experience is required, but we expect participants to arrive excited and prepared for a rewarding field study experience. Our backcountry activities will be supplemented by field seminars led by Wildlands Studies staff, Belize government officials, and community/conservation organization leaders.
Belize offers our participants unique opportunities to hike through huge tracts of old-growth rainforest and along stunning mountain watersheds into isolated Maya villages and abandoned ruins, attend local music gatherings in remote Garifuna and Creole settlements and investigate mangrove forests by interlaced coastal waterways. The richness and diversity of the flora and fauna, and our ability to study it via low-impact traveling, provide an experience rarely available these days. Far from the cushioned ecotourist travel packages offered by high-end companies, we shall experience Belize both intimately and practically. We look forward to you joining us this summer.