July 12, 2013

The Bay Islands Coastal Cleanup (BICCU): Giving Its Ocean Blue a Splash of Green

For those not familiarized with the Central American country of Honduras, this mostly agricultural, impoverished nation lies right in the middle of the American continent. Lately it seems like it’s been on the news quite a lot, usually being linked to such negative phenomenon as political instability, gang violence, and having some of the world’s most dangerous cities; not a facet Hondurans would like the world to see, yet despite this negative reputation, tourist arrivals continue to add up, perhaps not at the accelerated pace tourism officials would like to, and definitely not uniformly throughout the entire country, but certainly at a moderate pace in a few focal areas. One destination in particular which is capturing the attention of tourists worldwide while generating positive headlines in the process is the Bay Islands, an island archipelago made up of three larger islands and a few lesser cays found off the northern coast of Honduras in the Caribbean Sea. These islands are home to an extensive, varied, and well preserved section of coral reef, part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System or (MBRS), the second largest barrier reef system in the world next to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia; consequently, abundant marine life with idyllic aquatic scenery can be found all around, add some postcard-worthy beaches, and this diver’s paradise has the potential to be the newest hotspot in the Caribbean. On the other hand, these islands are also plagued with problems of their own, such as climbing energy costs, indiscriminate immigration, and increasing criminality. In response, local authorities have had to make do with the limited resources available in an attempt to tackle these adverse social issues; but regardless of how difficult this uphill battle has been for these relatively small island communities – local government, NGOs, expats, and residents of the Bay Islands are still finding time to set aside and think about environmental protection.

local school kids in search of trash on the streets ofROATAN

volunteers getting to those hard to get mangroves viaTUGBOAT
it wasn't just on land, the cleanup was alsoUNDERWATER
Nowhere are these efforts more apparent than in the island of Roatan where some of the most proactive and dynamic members in the community led the way and executed during 2012 a noble cause which has gone down in the Bay Island’s history books as the first annual Bay Islands Coastal Cleanup (BICCU), in reference to Ocean Conservancy’s, International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) – an internationally recognized initiative dating back nearly three decades which usually takes place during the month of September, and where millions of volunteers from around the world collect and properly dispose of trash from our seas. This is in fact the world’s largest volunteer effort to clean up the oceans, so in the spirit of the original event, a local activist by the name of Dawn Hyde (who is the founder and head organizer of BICCU), together with other devoted environmental crusaders, sent out invitations and began planning this large scale, collaborative effort to collect as much trash as possible from the surrounding coastlines of the islands of Utila, Roatan, and Guanaja; even seeking trash below the water’s surface (I have to give special thanks to the Roatan Marine Park and Enomis Divers for letting me tag along and photograph their contribution to this cause). 

Just like most first time events, the organizers initially had a hard time getting people involved and literally had to knock on doors of major businesses, decision makers, NGOs, and community leaders to sell the idea and to get them to join the cleanup. They could either help by donating materials such as gloves and plastic bags, logistics such as trucks and boats to haul the garbage bags to specific pickup points and subsequently to the municipal dumpster, and/or volunteers for the much needed manpower. The response was so impressive the first time around that the event is now being held twice a year (June and October), with plans to make it a once a month venture. Furthermore, for the first cleanup of 2013 which took place this past June, the organizers decided to give the event a little twist by turning it into a two day outing, with one day geared towards local school kids and another day left for the communities, churches, businesses, expats and tourists to do their part. Another reason why this second event was such a great success story can be attributed to the availability of extra hands which allowed for the cleanup to be expanded to cover new sites, including some hard to get mangroves and cays located in the south side of Roatan which had never been cleaned in years. Overall, between the three islands combined, the 2,000 plus volunteers collected close to 265 full truckloads of garbage: clearly an incredible accomplishment. 
teenagers happy to be a part ofBICCU!

FILLit up!
trash, trash, and moreTRASH!
More importantly, the event appears to be leaving a much longer lasting effect, as it has raised awareness for future solutions associated with the correct disposal of trash, an activity not traditionally embedded in Honduran culture. Some of the plans include the execution of educational programs to be taught in schools where the children can learn at an early age why trash is so easily found almost anywhere in their communities, its consequences, and what they can do to stop this flow of trash at the source, before it has a chance to reach the water. It also has been about letting businesses and adults become aware of the negative impacts associated with trash in our oceans, how it affects human health, the fragile ecosystems, and the economy – considering their large dependence
on tourism for their livelihoods. The municipality in particular has also been very receptive and began contemplating a series of actions to be implemented, such as applying fines to those owners of abandoned property lots who are not keeping them clean, as well as fines for pedestrians or car drivers who throw litter out on the streets, both linked to laws which already exist but which have not been followed through and enforced. There are also plans in the making to have an “adopt a beach-front program” as a way to encourage businesses to make a piece of land their own and keep the premises litter-free. There is also talk of a much anticipated action-plan to completely revamp the use of the municipal dumpster and have it running as a properly designed and well managed landfill.

trash collection awareness starts with theFUTURE=KIDS!
Seeing firsthand how this event has transpired, and the enthusiasm with which the participants shared their experiences, it is fair to say that the Bay Island’s Coastal Cleanup has had a positive influence on the inhabitants of these islands. It is obvious that the adoption of such a renowned initiative like the International Coastal Cleanup made perfect sense as way to sensitize a more often than not indifferent community when it comes to disposing of its trash; definitely a groundbreaking event without precedent in the Bay Islands, and definitely something that needs to be reproduced urgently in the rest of Honduras.

theAFTERphoto of a section inBRICK BAY, ROATAN,where strong currents usually build up trash in large quantities