Covering the Mesoamerican Reef in Belize

Working together with Andrea Polanco, an award-winning reporter at Channel 5 News in Belize and a former Climate Change Media Partnership Fellow, Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) hosted a workshop in Belize for local journalists to learn about threats facing the Mesoamerican Reef, potential solutions and how to improve overall coverage of the reef and coastal management issues.

The workshop brought together 15 journalists from across Belize to hear experts from local environmental non-governmental organizations speak about the Mesoamerican Reef and discuss the Healthy Reef Report Card, a biennial evaluation that assesses the reef’s health and makes recommendations for sustainable management.

Janelle Chanona, the vice president of Oceana Belize, an international organization focused solely on saving the oceans, and Nicole Craig, the Belize coordinator for the Healthy Reefs Initiative — the initiative that monitors, assesses and shares important science-based findings on the Mesoamerican Reef — laid the foundation for the workshop by explaining what challenges the reef currently faces and what environmental organizations in the area are doing to conserve it.

Craig also explained to the journalists how the report card monitors the health of the reef, specifying various threats, topics and stories surrounding the reef in a way that the general public can understand and relate to. During a breakout session, one group mentioned that the topics in the report card would help them understand which issues they should begin investigating to ensure the reef becomes a more prominent part of conservation discussions.

Jeanelle Mencias, one of the participants joining the workshop from the GOB Press Office, supported the report card resource, saying, “We need to highlight more of the positives, the best practices, because if you share the best practices, eventually people will start following suit as well.”

A roomful of people sit at tables working on laptop computers
EJN brought together 15 Belizean journalists and several partners to learn more about covering issues related to the Mesoamerican Reef in Belize.

In the second half of the workshop, James Fahn, EJN’s executive director, and Lucy Calderon, the editor for EJN’s Mesoamerican Reefs project, shared tips about how to report on the reef in a way that is new, interesting and designed to capture the support of editors and attention of audiences.

Journalists and NGO presenters alike latched onto the power of framing environmental issues in an economic light as a way to relate them to their audiences. These economic themes were reiterated during the afternoon panel that brought together Roberto Pott, Amanda Burgos and Valentino Shal and was moderated by Marleni Cuellar, a TV host and anchor for Channel 5 Belize.

During the panel, Pott, the Belize Marine Conservation Technical Officer at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), discussed the potential economic opportunities that could arise from protecting the reef and surrounding mangrove ecosystems.

“It’s not about locking up a reef, it’s about securing jobs for our people,” he said, explaining that conserving the reef can still create eco-friendly jobs and take advantage of Belizean natural resources.

Valentino Shal, a sustainable development consultant, spoke at length about the negative impacts of unsustainable tourism. He said that 70% of visitors to Belize go snorkeling, however, many local tourism companies are not ensuring environmentally friendly practices, which is causing major damage to the reef.

Chanona called attention to potentially disastrous development projects and said journalists needed to bring these issues to light in order to prevent negative consequences.

“Education is the empowering of the public, and education is where journalists play a key role in getting the information out,” said Amanda Burgos, executive director of the Belize Audubon Society, an environmental organization protecting and managing the country’s natural resources in a sustainable way.

Participants received some of their own on-the-ground education about the reef on the second day of the workshop during a visit to Sergent’s Caye, a sandbar off the coast of Belize City that had mostly disappeared following construction on the islet. They also visited Goff’s Caye, a small island and archaeological site at the edge of the Belize section of the Mesoamerican Reef that sometimes receives daily visitors numbering in the hundreds (mostly cruise passengers).

Reporters said the trip showed them just how much the mangroves and the reef can protect the lands of Belize.

“This [workshop] has been very helpful,” said Dion Vansen, a reporter from the San Pedro Sun. “It has given us more ideas, more skills… as we contribute to that effort… of environmental conservation through the country.”

(Banner photo: Mesoamerican Editor, Lucy Calderon, asks a question to Valdemar Andrade while the participants ride a boat to Goff’s Caye off the shores of mainland Belize.)