As our NSF REU Site fieldwork in Belize comes to a close, we’ve asked our undergraduate students to share some of the main lessons they’ve learned working together with communities this summer. Here are their reflections as told in their own words. We head back to the USA on Wednesday, July 3rd for analysis, processing and writing. We’re really proud of this group’s hard work, passion, depth, and commitment to communities.

Blog written by Ari Ortiz, Jana Clevenger, Kayla McClendon, Tyler Love, and Zayna Flowers. 

The REU crew on Laughing Bird Caye, June 2019

Collaborative research is as rewarding as it is difficult. This work in and of itself has been fraught with the physical and emotional labor that comes with community-based research; bringing scientists from different backgrounds with different perspectives together as one cohesive unit is no easy task. Teamwork requires communication, compromise, empathy, and humility no matter the circumstances and we managed to accomplish just that. 

Each and every member of the team had to have a strong and unified foundation in the values and reasons why we were doing this work. Our group decided early on that we were passionate about being able to set an example of citizen science in an international community to bridge the gap between communities and research. Regardless of the obstacles, with our sights set on our goal, we persevered and are all very grateful to each other and the communities we have the privilege to work with in this beautiful country.

The REU crew on Laughing Bird Caye, June 2019

Little people, big ideas. Throughout our time in Belize we have been to various places where we have encountered many children who are passionate about their environment, maps, drones, and their communities. In Hopkins Village we had the annual Maps, Apps and Drones Youth Academy, where children in the community came to the local library and flew mini-drones through a self-made obstacle course and learned about maps and drone imagery. The library was filled with excitement, joyous laughter, and as you can see from the photos there was a lot of teamwork. Additionally, we brought the mini-drones to Monkey River Village and Belmopan to the University of Belize where children participated in much the same way. The future is strong!

Hopkins Village youth in the maps, apps and drones tour stop, June 2019

Much like the corals being rehabilitated by our community partner Fragments of Hope, children are always trying to adapt to their ever-changing environment. They are eager to learn and are willing to  teach us adults a thing or two if we are willing to listen. There is an added layer of depth, intrigue, and curiosity that the drones give to our work that leaves each group of students ready to see more. The lasting impact of these interactions, whether it be through the Youth Academy, boat rides out to the cayes to explore (much like we did at Laughing Bird Caye), or simple conversations in passing, are not lost on our team.

Belmopan youth at the University of Belize maps, apps and drones tour stop, July 2019
Youth from Monkey River Village part of the maps, apps and drones youth academy, June 2019

Our perspective grew with each new person we spoke with and each new place we visited. We realize that like any story, the stories here are a culmination of many different lived experiences and perspectives. Each person we spoke with added something new to the narrative and each place we visited was affected by different variables; all adding to the mosaic of change we are trying to represent in our work with Belizean communities.

Field interviews on the cayes, June 2019

Moving from location to location within the country has allowed us to “take in” other cultures and landscapes; thus enhancing our commitment to our research, community partners, and community members. Perspectives that lack such diversity have a habit of creating single-sided narratives that more often than not privilege voices that are already being heard loud and clear. Our unique research opportunity has allowed us to immerse ourselves in many different island/coastal locations with the goal of listening intently to the experiences of communities that may have gone unheard or unappreciated in the past.

Field interviews on the cayes, June 2019

Community partners are essential to accomplishing our goals. We had the opportunity to learn many different things from working with various community partners in Belize. 

From the Southern Environmental Association (SEA), we had the privilege to see and map different cayes that they co-manage off the coast of Placencia. Arriving to Laughing Bird Caye for example, we learned that the caye is a ‘no take zone’ which means that nothing dead nor alive can be taken from the caye. The caye was also declared a National Park on December 1st, 1991 and that caye was named after the laughing gulls which breed there seasonally. 

Monkey River Village with Fragments of Hope, June 2019

We also had the opportunity to partner with SEA and Fragments of Hope for another trip to Laughing Bird Caye where members of the team were able to snorkel and see the beautiful marine life that exists on the reef. We witnessed first-hand the hard work that it takes to manage such a diverse array of marine life and could sense the passion and urgency with which the work is being done by Fragments of Hope. It became quickly evident that the conservation and restoration efforts on this caye are not going to waste and are much needed.

Another partner that we worked with on our trip was Miss Bertie’s Hopkins Community Library. They were essential in reaching out to as many children in the village as possible for the annual Maps, Apps and Drone Youth Academy. Nearing the end of our trip we partnered with both the library and Hamanasi Resort to take about 20 children in Hopkins Village to Carrie Bow Caye where we all learned about the Smithsonian MarineGeo field station. The field station is located on the Meso-American Barrier Reef and it has different research scientists collaborating with them to conduct research on the biology, ecology and geology of the coral reef systems. 

Without these partnerships the ability to complete our tasks, reach our goals, and include as many adults and children as possible within our research and education efforts would be greatly inhibited. We are especially thankful for their on-going generosity and participation. 

Laughing Bird Caye with Fragments of Hope, June 2019

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