One woman’s mission to protect mangroves in Belize

Over the past several decades, conservationist Allison Ifield has been on a mission to protect the mangroves of Caye Caulker. Photo by Rachel Wilson, courtesy Cari-Bois Environmental News Network, used with permission.

This story, which was done with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations, was first published on Cari-Bois Environmental News Network. A version of the post appears below as part of a content-sharing agreement.

By Marco Lopez

On the Belizean island of Caye Caulker, Allison Ifield is affectionately called “Mangrove Mama” due to her connection with mangroves and her unrelenting determination to protect them.

Born and raised in Canada, Ifield first visited Caye Caulker in the late 1990s and decided to relocate after developing a love for the area's natural heritage. As she learned more about the island and its mangrove ecosystems, Ifield became interested in not only educating others about them but also in volunteering to upkeep their beauty.

In addition to becoming a tour guide, she would often randomly plant mangrove seedlings wherever she could, and care for them.

While Ifield initially didn’t plan to start a mangrove restoration project, this all changed around 2018 when she saw mangroves on the island, including the ones she planted, being cleared:

We came around the corner one day, and I saw some of the trees that I had planted 15 years before were cut down. I swore, ‘This is it, man, I’m gonna give up tour guiding [and go full time into mangrove restoration].’

Making this decision, Ifield committed to supporting mangrove restoration on the island and got support to start the Caye Caulker Strong Mangrove Project.

Since then, this nature-based solution to protect the island’s mangroves and contribute to its climate resiliency has become a sense of duty to Ifield.

From tour guide to ‘Mangrove Mama’

After seeing the mangroves she planted being indiscriminately cut down, Ifield dedicated herself to their conservation and restoration. Photo by the Belize Mangrove Alliance, courtesy Cari-Bois Environmental News Network, used with permission.

With the assistance of volunteers, Ifield has been able to plant hundreds of mangrove trees thus far on a private portion of beach leased by a resident in Caye Caulker.

As her efforts have increased, news of Ifield’s work has also received more attention and she has seen support for her initiative grow:

In 2020, I got the opportunity with the MAR Alliance and the Denver Foundation to do the Caye Caulker Strong Mangrove Project, which I originated. It was meant to employ people during the COVID-19 pandemic and also work with restoration.

The project has also received support from local businesses.

Through a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and the PEW Charitable Trusts, Ifield has also served as a facilitator with the responsibility of teaching others the intricate techniques of mangrove planting.

Over the past several years, Caye Caulker has seen an influx of developers who have constructed new resorts and hotels. In some cases, mangroves have been cleared to facilitate these development projects, but because mangroves provide many key ecosystem services, removing them can have ripple effects, making mangrove restoration work pivotal to Caye Caulker’s future. Ifield explained:

We [Caye Caulker] are a high-impact weather event island. We have a lot of rain runoff because no one is collecting rain anymore, so there are no gutter systems, and everyone is cutting down their green, which used to suck up the water.

We’re not only getting rain wash erosion, but we’re also getting high impact wave erosion on the other side because we’ve removed all our mangroves and continue to do it with impunity.

Belize’s mangrove regulations

Members of Caye Caulker Strong during a mangrove planting activity. Photo by Caye Caulker Strong, courtesy Cari-Bois Environmental News Network, used with permission.

In Belize, a landowner must receive a permit from the Forest Department to remove or make any alteration to mangroves.

Landowners are mandated to undergo an application review, cannot remove more than 50 percent of mangroves along the waterfront, and must erect a sign indicating approved mangrove “alteration” or “selective trimming” is in progress.

Nadia Bood, Belize’s Senior Program Officer at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said that these regulations aren’t effectively enforced:

Much more can be done. The Forest Department has been issuing permits for mangrove clearance, but there are stipulations within the mangrove regulation that the land owner that gets that permit should follow.

For example, if they are given a permit to clear mangroves on a particular piece of land, the mangrove regulations call for that developer to put a 4×4 sign with a waterproof copy of the permit affixed. That will signal to community members, or anybody who may come across a particular clearance of mangrove, to understand whether that developer or that particular landowner has the necessary permit to do the clearance, so something simple as that is not being followed by the developers.

Bood shared that Belize’s Forest Department has said that they “are a little [cash] strapped to be able to monitor and enforce the full breadth of the Belizean Coastal Zone,” which includes Caye Caulker.

While the area enjoys the presence of the Department of Fisheries, there is no on-the-ground representative from the Forestry Department, which Bood considers a disadvantage:

They [Fisheries staff] are out at the reef, there’s no Forestry, there is no man on the street, there is nobody here to give something as reported. The police can stop [the illegal clearing of mangrove] but it’s really difficult, and then it’s difficult to prove.

The Belize Mangrove Alliance, of which Ifield is a member, has begun working with local communities to help ensure that reports from the ground are filtered up to the Forest Department, but Bood explained:

We’re not seeing that happening. The Forest Department says that if they are to effectively penalise a land owner or a land developer for infringing the regulation, they need to have that captured real-time [in order to] to have a successful legal case against them.

So that is a disconnect right now. Something has to be done to strengthen those processes.

The WWF has been working with the Forest Department to create a formalised watchdog system so communities can effectively make reports.

Belize’s mangroves are worth blue carbon credits

Juvenile mangrove planted near cleared wetland in Caye Caulker. Photo by Caye Caulker Strong, courtesy Cari-Bois Environmental News Network, used with permission.

In Belize’s 2021 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), the country outlined its intention to further tap into the blue carbon market to meet its low-carbon development strategy.

A study by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Centre revealed that mangroves are blue carbon sinks with four to five times the carbon sequestration capacity of tropical forests.

The study’s findings also estimated that Belize’s 58,000 hectares of mangroves store approximately 25.7 million metric tons of carbon which can generate significant blue carbon credits that can yield economic benefits to Belize.

It’s important to note that Belize has signed onto the second largest Blue Bond to date and benefits from a significant national debt restructuring in return for commitments to protect 30 per cent of the country’s marine space.

While Ifield said the country’s commitments and pledges are a good starting point, she is now calling on authorities to prioritise greater action:

If we really are serious about our Blue Bond commitment, there have to be boots on the ground now in Caye Caulker. This needs to turn around seriously, I am tired of this playing around, all this talk, let’s start the action part of the whole thing.

Minerva Gonzalez, an official at the Landscape Restoration Desk, said that the department does not have a physical presence in Caye Caulker, but visits sites considered hotspots. At present, the department does not do measurements and monitoring of small-scale mangrove restoration efforts but Gonzalez said it is something they intend to begin:

Restoration will not happen overnight, so monitoring is key to determining success through mortality and socio-environmental benefits received.

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