- On the tourism-reliant island of Roatán in Honduras, a homegrown environmental organization has allied with local communities to ensure the natural beauty that draws visitors remains safe.
- Roatán sits along the Mesoamerican Reef, and is home to rich corals and lush mangroves, which face threats from the tourism boom.
- The Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA) takes a three-pronged approach to its work, focusing on science, institutional support for the authorities, and community work.
- The group’s success over the years is unusual in Honduras, which routinely ranks among the most dangerous countries for environmental activists.
At seven in the morning, the sun rises over Sandy Bay on the Caribbean island of Roatán, Honduras. The soft light seeps through the mangroves and draws golden lines on the sand. Most tourists, the main source of income in the area, are still asleep. But the headquarters of BICA, the Bay Islands Conservation Association, is a hive of activity.
Egla Vidotto puts on sunscreen and a long-sleeved T-shirt. Luis Flores checks that their carrying case contains all the measuring tools. The two environmentalists follow a tight weekly program. On Tuesdays, they take water samples on the coast; on Wednesdays, they monitor, care for and repair the coral reef; on Thursdays, they reforest the mangroves. Vidotto is the coordinator of BICA’s conservation and monitoring program. Flores is a biologist from the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH), doing an internship with BICA. Their attention today is focused on water quality. They plan to take samples from a dozen points around the island. It’s a task that BICA started around 10 years ago, when German development bank KfW funded its mobile laboratory — the only one on the island.
“We always go to the same places and measure the pH level, the temperature, the dissolved oxygen, the enterococci, the coliforms and the algae concentration,” Flores says. BICA inputs the information into a database that the authorities in the islands and other scientific organizations can access. “With this data, we have strong arguments to influence political decisions,” Vidotto says.
The information they collect is vital for the care and protection of the Mesoamerican Reef, also known as the Great Maya Reef, that spans some 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) off the coast of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, including Roatán and the other Bay Islands. It’s the second-biggest reef system on Earth, after the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, hosting high marine biodiversity and serving as a natural buffer against hurricanes and strong waves.
The reef is the main attraction in Roatán. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the island received 1.9 million visitors every year, who contributed almost $1 billion dollars to the Honduran economy. But the tourism boom has also sparked a development spree that has put added pressure on the ecosystem.
Roatán’s population has increased fourfold since 2001. Deforestation and dredging for tourist complexes and beaches have impacted mangroves and seagrass meadows. Carelessly cast ship anchors and boating accidents have destroyed or polluted the reef. “It is a fight of many fronts,” says Irma Brady, a co-founder of BICA. “The islanders admit that without our work, the island would be in a much worse state.”
First step: Treating wastewater
BICA takes a three-pronged approach to its conservation work: science, institutional support for the authorities, and community work. Brady says this last point is very important as the local population needs to see the concrete benefits of conservation. “Only when each actor fulfills their role can environmental protection succeed,” she says. BICA, for example, took the responsibility of co-managing the Bay Islands National Marine Park with the government — the municipality, the merchant marine — and other environmental organizations.
Among these concrete results are the island’s two wastewater treatment plants. For a long time, there were none on Roatán. Hotels and homes alike had to install their own cesspools. Many communities dumped their wastewater into the sea, untreated. “After starting the measurements and explaining that beaches with these levels of pollution should be closed to swimmers, the authorities and businesspeople started to take action,” Vidotto says.
The local government, tourism entrepreneurs and the managers of Bay Islands National Marine Park got together to present joint projects for two wastewater treatment plants to the national government and international donors. That’s how they were able to build a treatment plant in Coxen Hole, the biggest town in Roatán. In 2012, they opened a second one in the West End, a tourist hotspot. The engineers who operate it answer to the local water council.
In both towns, 90% of houses and businesses are connected to the sewage network. When the West End plant opened, treating 730,000 liters (193,000 gallons) of water per day, “we started noticing it in our measurements,” Vidotto says, brandishing a small flask of water taken from the popular beach.
Since 2017, the water quality at West End Beach has met the safe swimming standards defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The beach also obtained Blue Flag certification, awarded by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) to beaches around the world that meet certain safety, quality and environmental criteria. In 2020, in a report on the state of the Mesoamerican Reef, Healthy Reefs noted that macroalgae decreased from 27% to 24% due to the reduction of pollution in the form of nutrients and wastewater.
First municipality to ban plastic
Once the sewage network was installed, BICA turned its attention to another problem: plastic pollution. “Empty plastic bottles were regularly obstructing our drainage and sewers,” says Fernanda Lozano, who heads the Roatán environmental department. Plastic waste on beaches and streets was also a growing concern for businesses, given the island’s economic reliance on tourism. In 2019, the mayor enacted a ban on disposable bottles and polystyrene packaging. “We were the first municipality in Honduras to take the step,” Lozano says.
The educational prong of BICA’s approach, including beach cleanup days with local children and talks about waste and recycling, helped win public approval for the ban on plastic bottles. “But it was the local Coca-Cola distributor who opposed,” Lozano says. The company said it was unable to recycle glass bottles and refused to accept them.
“That’s nonsense. When I was young, we only had glass bottles and that wasn’t a problem,” Lozano says. “But in a week, the glass bottles piled up on the island.” Joint pressure from residents, businesses, politicians, environmentalists and the media eventually forced the company to give in.
Since then, plastic waste has almost disappeared from the streets. But when it rains heavily, rivers on the Guatemalan mainland flush tons of trash out to sea, which drift on the currents toward Roatán. The worst-affected region is the southern part of the island, which faces the mainland. In the fishing town of Pensacola, resident Cindy Rivas stands next to a beach full of trash. “We cleaned everything here last weekend,” she says. “But last night the sea brought all of this garbage.” There are broken flip-flops, milk cartons, bottles, even underwear.
This has been a problem for years. Guatemalan authorities installed a fence to block the largest pieces of waste, but it doesn’t work very well. The Honduran government has complained about it, but has avoided a direct confrontation over the problem. In May 2021, a group of BICA experts organized a scientific expedition together with Rescue the Planet to assess the amount, size and origin of microplastics in six areas of the Guatemalan and Honduran Caribbean.
Microplastics, defined as particles less than 5 millimeters (three-sixteenths of an inch) in diameter. At this scale, they can easily be consumed by marine life, thus entering the food chain. They’re also visible to snorkelers and divers, who see them as multicolored raindrops in the water.
BICA and Rescue the Planet say they hope their study will make it clear that neither the Guatemalan fence nor the beach cleanup campaigns can adequately address the problem, and that there’s a need for integral policies that ban or tax single-use plastics.
A group of Honduran mayors, including Roatán’s, have announced they are evaluating the possibility of an environmental litigation against Guatemala, bringing the issue to the attention of the media and pushing the national agenda.
Education as a catalyst
Honduras has historically been a hostile place for environmentalists. Environmental protection often takes a back seat in the political agenda and receives little attention compared to large-scale economic projects such as oil palm cultivation or dam building. This has led to conflicts, often with deadly consequences: 123 environmentalists have been killed in Honduras since 2010, according to Global Witness. The most prominent case is that of Berta Cáceres, who was shot and killed in her house in 2016 for her opposition to a dam project. Global Witness routinely ranks Honduras as among the most dangerous countries for environmental activists in the world.
That hasn’t stopped BICA’s Brady: “I’ve decided not to be scared because that’s paralyzing,” she says. At 70 now, she has passed on the reins of the association to her daughter, Giselle, but still remains a font of wisdom for the islanders.
“When we created BICA, we were 45 islanders, all with good intentions but little knowledge about ecology,” she says. They got together to end the logging and burning that was devastating the island at the time, and they succeeded. But the concept of protecting the environment, particularly in Honduras, was still in its infancy.
Brady and her colleagues bet on education. In 1992, they published their first book on environmental education, adapted to Roatán’s ecosystems. The book explores coral reefs and sustainable fishing, the role of mangroves, and how to take care of sea stars. They prepared the book with great care, complete with pictures, graphics and tasks, and many teachers have since used it in their classrooms.
They also began organizing excursions, trash-collecting days and, since 2014, mangrove reforestation days. With funding from the regional initiative MAR FUND, made up of environmental organizations in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico to protect the Mesoamerican Reef, in 2014 BICA opened its first mangrove nursery. “We have planted more than 50,000 trees of different species to date,” Vidotto says. More than 700 volunteers have participated in this activity, trudging through the swampy mud under the scorching sun. Most of the volunteers are young people doing social work in their last two years of school.
The education of future generations is a key point for BICA. In 2019, it counted 4,285 young people participating in workshops and activities that it promoted. In 2020, due to pandemic-related restrictions and the difficulties of online learning on the island, only 299 people attended. But in 2021 there was a revival in activities, with 1,721 participants between January and September.
The approach is bearing fruit. Many of the young people who participated in the initial stages are now in positions of power. Trudy Hilton, for example, is in charge of community development in the town council. “I can apply much of what I learned then to what I do now,” she says. “For example, the workshop for women about making souvenirs and jewelry with plastic waste was very successful.”
Another project is the supply of drinking water. “The situation was chaotic,” Hilton says. The public utility set prices too low and let the infrastructure rot; many users weren’t registered and didn’t pay anything. Private suppliers came in to fill the shortfall, but they charged three times as much. In Roatán, many residents earn just the minimum wage of around $417 per month. To address the problem of access to clean water, BICA developed a pilot project in the town of Pensacola.
Nikita Johnson, BICA’s community development manager, was in charge of implementation. She sought advice from experts in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, and from abroad. Around 100 of the 500 families in Pensacola agreed to be part of the pilot program. The idea was to create a community system of water management. The neighbors not only helped to install the pipes, they later started to manage the system through the water council, which sets the price and guarantees the regular maintenance of the facilities. “The advantage is that everyone needs to be accountable, and suddenly there is a completely different awareness about the water resource,” Johnson says.
Banner image of a young man in Roatán carrying out mangrove reforestation as part of his community service under BICA’s supervision. Image by Sandra Weiss.