Protecting Reefs and Mangroves in Mesoamerica

I arrived in Roatán, Honduras, on a Sunday and hurried out to visit a few familiar snorkel sites before work with local partners began Monday.  It had been a few years since I visited this small island off the north Coast of Honduras, so I braced myself for change.

Corals and Blue Tangs, Sandy Bay, Roatán

A popular spot in West Bay is easy to reach from the beach and when I first found it some years ago it was teeming with fish and lots of beautiful coral.  This year it looked like a coral graveyard!  Other areas had changed for the better.

In the week ahead, I learned why.

Untreated sewage kills coral reefs.  The community of West End, comprised of residences, small hotels and tourism operations, joined together to design and implement a cooperative wastewater treatment system that is improving water quality in that area.

Unfortunately, large resorts on the island still discharge a much higher volume of untreated sewage into the ocean.

The pace of tourism development on Roatán is accelerating.  Powerful private interests operate outside the law, because laws are weak and not enforced.  New Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) rules in Honduras are a step backward, allowing for more development with less oversight.

NGOs and citizens in Roatán recognize the value of their reefs for tourism, fisheries, and community health.  They have taken action to protect corals — but absent effective regulation and enforcement of laws protecting the ecosystem, reefs will continue to decline.

ELAW partner Clarisa Vega and her organization, the Environmental Law Institute of Honduras (IDAMHO), represent local communities working to protect reefs and coastal ecosystems.  ELAW Staff Scientist Heidi Weiskel and Board Member Glenn Miller joined me at an IDAMHO workshop to talk with judges, prosecutors, and members of the Navy and Merchant Marine from the three Bay Islands, about the importance of enforcing Honduras’ environmental laws and protecting marine and coastal resources.

Later in the week, I worked in the town of Tela with a group of young professionals working to advance conservation of mangroves in the region.

MAR Leaders training 

The MAR Leaders Program is accelerating conservation in the region by building skills among young professionals who are working to protect coastal and marine resources.  ELAW partner Alejandra Serrano (Mexican Center for Environmental Law) and I helped the group refine their projects and communications strategies, and integrate law and advocacy tools into their project plans.

I am always inspired when I see the energy and commitment of local citizens who want to protect special places.

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