Bring a camera when you travel in Belize and you’ll return with enough unbelievable screen-saver shots to make you long for the soft sand and twinkling blue Caribbean every day of the year. For a little variety, and to pay homage to the most important plant species in Belize, focus your lens on the spindly mangrove forests that grow along the shore.
Mangroves are a group of salt-tolerant trees that adapt to a wide variety of water conditions. They perform a vital role in keeping the Belizean coastline intact. Like nurturing mothers, mangrove trees continue to offer unconditional protection, even when mistreated. And these trees are enduring abuse – at the hands of local fishermen who continue to do things as they’ve always done and irresponsible developers trying to quickly capitalize on the growing tourism industry in Belize.
People living in Belize’s coastal regions have been harvesting mangroves for generations. It’s ingrained in their traditional fishing culture. Fishermen use the trees to build lobster traps, to make fishing nets, and to burn as fuel for cooking food. In the past, these practices have not had as detrimental an effect on the coastal forests, but as Belize shifts from a fishing-reliant economy to a tourism economy, mangroves aren’t being replanted as often or as carefully.
The demand for homes and travel accommodations in Belize is growing, and the screen-saver paradigm is wreaking havoc on the vital mangrove forests. Based on the (potentially flawed) logic that coastal property owners prefer a sandy beach to a maze of trees humming with life, developers routinely clear vast expanses of mangrove wetlands to create stretches of bare sand. It’s difficult to justify this practice when so many of today’s travelers are seeking authentic experiences immersed in unspoiled natural environments. With ecotourism on the rise, and sustainability at the forefront of so many travelers’ minds, responsible developers such as Amble Resorts are making sure to preserve the mangrove forests on Belize’s beautiful cayes. But too few other builders are following suit.
Damage done to the environment from mangrove deforestation is often irreversible. Barefoot wanderers may like the look of barren stretches of sand, but the artificial beaches on many caye resorts in Belize (created by bulldozing the coastal mangroves) don’t feel as good underfoot as you might think. Such beaches require a containing wall to be constructed a few feet out from shore so that the island does not begin to wash away into the sea. These containing walls prevent the sea from replenishing the sand, so it begins to feel hot, stale, and desert-like, instead of soothing to the feet as you wade into the tide. Unlike mangroves, these still sand traps do nothing to preserve the coral reef systems that make diving in Belize such an incredible experience.
The Belize Barrier Reef is the largest in the western hemisphere, boasting a plethora of exotic plants and diverse marine life. Adventure-seekers travel to Belize year-round to dive and snorkel this incredible reef, and many return again and again for an underwater experience you can’t find anywhere else in the world. Avid scuba divers know the importance of those behind-the-scenes mangroves that grow along the seemingly endless coastline and on the shores of Belize’s cayes.
Mangrove forests have an understated beauty. They don’t get glamorized like the vibrant coral reef environment, but when you look closely at the inner-workings of a mangrove ecosystem, you can better appreciate these magnificent trees. Mangroves have unique adaptations that allow them to filter out salt from brackish water before they absorb it into their leaves; they also expel salt through tiny pores on the surface of the leaves. These abilities, along with the mangrove’s rapid growth (2 feet in the first year; compare that to famously fast-growing bamboo, which grows 3 feet per year) make mangroves a truly one-of-a-kind species in Belize. Everything a mangrove does to support its own growth has positive consequences for the entire surrounding ecosystem.
Wherever mangrove forests grow, they forge a link with coral reef systems that thrive in the waters nearby. It’s a symbiotic relationship: mangroves flourish in briny, nutrient-rich water, while coral reefs favor unclouded, nutrient-poor waters. Mangroves purify water of pollutants and human waste, providing a buffer zone to keep this pollution from reaching the sea, thus protecting coral reefs from harmful substances.
These mothering trees also provide a safe haven for an array of marine animals such as lobster, manatees, crabs, and many types of fish. A mangrove forest gives refuge to organisms both above and below the water line. Bird species rely on the boughs and branches of mangroves for nesting, and crocodiles hunt around the exposed roots.
The submerged roots create an ideal habitat where young reef species can grow up unmolested by predators until they are large and strong enough to enter the coral. Many species feed, reproduce, and spawn among the mangrove roots. So long as these trees remain the nurturing mothers of Belize’s coastline, healthy populations of Belize’s diverse aquatic species will continue to exist.
Providing structure and protection (like any good mother does), mangrove forests shield the cayes from erosion and storm damage. The deep roots of mangroves trap sediment and soil that would otherwise wash away from the coastline and out to sea. Mangroves act as a first line of defense during tropical storms by holding back wind and wave damage.
If irresponsible human activity continues, mangrove deforestation will eventually lead to the destruction of everything that makes Belize a nation of natural wonder. Belize’s Department of Fisheries is working to prevent this from happening. The department has created regulations that forbid the clearance of mangroves without a permit; unfortunately, these laws are insufficiently enforced. Responsible, sustainable development is the key to lasting beauty in Belize.