Features — 05 October 2019
Our slow and silent death…

We have had so little time in Belize to collectively focus on living in a healthy environment and respecting our natural environment because we have been so busy weeping over the deaths of our brothers and sisters. This seems a more immediate threat, while Mother Nature plots against us as we have looted her to the point of her silent death. The earth is fighting back, and we do not even have time to recognize it and soberly deal with it, due to the immediacy of the killings at hand, the hardships of life and the never-ending scandals of corruption.

We also have not been able to address it because for many it is a fact that we are strictly in survival mode, as the reality on the ground is that many are barely able to eat, pay the rent, school fees, utility bills and the list of basic needs. The few privileged ones do not recognize it because they are living off the political largesse and nepotism and favouritism, to the point that the top echelons of society cannot empathize with the masses in survival mode.

To add to that, for the past week, I personally have tried to grapple with the sadistic disappearance and death of Adamir Choc, aka Mia; the broad daylight shooting of and double execution of 16-year-old Herman Valladares and his cousin 17-year-old Gruver Delgado in San Martin, Belmopan; and the brutal killing of 14-year-old Christopher Chi, who went missing in broad daylight in Orange Walk. The older folks are not spared and more women have become victims of crime. In more recent days, 58-year-old Mirna Young was at her house when she was gunned down by a man on a motorcycle. Just before that 69-year-old Ofelia Cruz was bludgeoned to death inside her house in the Salt Creek area of Sandhill Village, Belize District. The most recent case is that of 62-year-old Taiwanese national Ching-Sung Chen, killed inside his store in Camalote, Cayo District, after burglars broke into his store while he slept.

The silent killer

Admittedly, the streets, our business premises and our homes are deadly places to be, since not even being at home “safe” means that you are spared from the bullets. However, while we can barely cope with the magnitude of the crimes against each other, there is a slow brew that will slowly and silently kill us. Some may not even be paying attention, that the issues of climate change are ravaging our way of life and if we do not simultaneously address it while coping with everyday crime it will be deadlier than the street crime.

I say deadlier, because the actual effects climate change will have on us will come en masse.  For example, whether we want to recognize it or not the weather is warmer, and so are our territorial waters, rivers, lakes, and lagoons. We personally may not be keeping track, but our hydrologist and meteorologist would have the records to compare from year to year.  These are the signs of the silent killer, climate change.

Hurricane Dorian, which reached a massive category 5 and devastated the Bahamas, is the most recent example of the monster storms we have seen from year to year in recent decades. The fact that it was so deadly and has killed so many is testimony to the changing strengths and nature of hurricanes of late. I think soon there will be need to create a category 6 and 7 status to describe hurricanes.

In Belize the effects of climate change can be seen in the health of our marine waters, where we are battling the invasion of sargassum seaweed, which is affecting our daily coastal life and activities, as well as our economy, with tourism being a major money earner for Belize. Per scientists, the unprecedented bloom and washing ashore of sargassum is due to climate change and human activity. Typically, cooler weather slows down the algae’s growth, but water temperatures have been rising due to climate change, thus the seaweed is flourishing more and more, with the excess reaching our shores. Human activity, such as an increase in sewage wastes being washed into the ocean, is also fuelling the algae blooms.  But it is human activity that has been bringing about climate change.

At least, here in Belize, our political leaders are not in denial of the reality of climate change, unlike the President and his followers in the USA, who are adamant in continuing to promote human practices that cause climate change, such as unabated use of fossil fuels and coal. Sadly, some South American presidents have joined the non-believers in climate-change and done little to nothing to protect the rainforest, especially the Amazon. These are world events, but they are all connected to our existence here in Belize.

In Belize, while our leaders are not denying climate change, the practices that can help us to be a bit more resilient to the impacts of climate change are not being adhered to.

Protect the mangroves!

For example, a simple yet profound step would be to stop all mangrove-cutting from occurring and even to do reforestation of mangroves, which has a most critical role to play in us combating climate change.  Belize is home to 4 different species of mangrove, the red, black, white and buttonwood mangrove. Mangroves are so resilient and help store the carbon dioxide that is causing the warming of the earth’s atmosphere, which leads to the change in climate. It is one of our most valuable currencies, and instead of preserving it, we are cutting it down.

In a recent study Dr. Chandra Silori states: “The capacity of mangroves, sea grasses, and salt marshes to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is becoming increasingly recognized at an international level. Of all the biological carbon, also termed as ’green carbon’, captured in the world, over half (55%) is captured by mangroves, sea grasses, salt marshes, and other marine living organisms, which are also known more specifically as ’blue carbon’.”

Importantly too, Belize’s mangrove system and the Belize Barrier Reef System are connected to each other, as the barrier reef’s health is very much dependent on the survival of the mangrove coverage we have in Belize along our coast, and our atolls and cayes. Our mangroves are the feeding grounds and nursery of some 74 species of fish and 178 bird species. They have been known to provide habitat for at least 11 species of amphibians, 30 reptile species, and 40 species of mammals. They are the homes, shelters, and refuge for our faunas. Mangroves are a miracle remedy to the impact of climate change for Belize, yet even with the foresight we had, since Independence we have given mostly lip service, because despite the legislation passed to protect mangrove, it is not surprising to learn that the overall mangrove cover in Belize is decreasing, as the government keeps issuing permits to clear mangroves. This is a worldwide trend.

According to an article in The Conservation Journal, “Scientists estimate that at least 35 percent of global mangrove habitat was lost between 1980 and 2000. One recent estimate suggests that mangrove deforestation rates in recent decades have been three to five times faster than other forests around the globe.” Belize is following that trend, which is even more dangerous for us as we have coastal communities, such as Belize City, that are below sea level.

Connecting nature to life

I know that when our people have to make day-to-day decisions for survival, it is a life and death decision to cut down mangroves, especially as the poor fight for land as big landowners remain with prime property. They do not appreciate that the very same mangrove that is cut down would be their protection in time of storms, hurricanes, and flooding, and a remedy against climate change. But sadly, our masses cannot see this reality, and appreciate that their actual long-term survival is linked to the very environment in which they live and must protect.

Belize, I say, is in a unique position to help itself in this changing world of climate change.  We have the ability to harness solar energy to power our homes, and businesses.  Sadly, not one government has had the foresight to promote, encourage, and develop the use of solar technology to replace our present dependence on fossil fuel, and lessen the use of toxic hydro-dams that have poisoned our rivers.

The story of the Macal River leading to our slow death was predicted some three decades ago, and I was at the forefront of denouncing the hydro project because of all the negative impacts we have seen since it has come to pass. The basic fact of the fish being toxic to eat because of their lead content was shown as a reason not to proceed with the project, yet today we live with this reality as a given. The then justification for the dam was lower electricity rates, which has been proven to be yet another political lie, as electricity rates have only doubled since then.

We lack leaders who want to lead to see Belize develop in a manner that would improve the quality of life of its people living in harmony with the natural environment while benefitting from its bounty. Belize in the 90’s was the leader in this region of the buzz words such as “sustainable development”, “eco-tourism” and “eco-friendly”.  Today, those are only words, as our actions are adding to the climate crisis and our slow silent death and we no longer focus on anything “eco” in practice.

This past week, people around the world, especially youths, stood up with one voice demanding our leaders to take steps to combat climate change. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish girl, was at the forefront of the cry to world leaders to help save the planet for our children.

In Belize, not one child, school, or institution joined in this global voice. We are too preoccupied with just living day to day, while our youths are too traumatized processing the level of violence, to even lend their voice to the demands to protect the planet for their future, a future where they will pay the price for our reckless behaviour now! They are the designated victims of our slow and silent death.

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Deshawn Swasey

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