Wil Maheia, executive director, Toledo Institute of Development and the Environment (TIDE) in Belize and Néstor Windevoxhel, team leader, Coastal Zone Management Component of the Regional Environment of Central America Project (PROARCA/Costas)

The nonprofit conservation group TIDE works closely with fishermen and other residents of Toledo in southern Belize. After working very hard to earn the support of the community, TIDE successfully pushed to get the Port Honduras Marine Reserve declared a protected area. But with new restrictions come dilemmas, as executive director Wil Maheia describes below.

His extensive experience with PROARCA/Costas and IUCN has exposed Néstor Windevoxhel to similar situations, particularly in regard to coastal resources management at the community level. Maheia’s concerns and Windevoxhel’s response will surely strike a chord with colleagues. These comments have been slightly edited for clarity and with permission.

Maheia: TIDE continues to have community meetings, especially in and around the Port Honduras Marine Reserve. Holding the meetings was one of our commitments to the people before the reserve was declared. We meet with the communities to find out what is working and what is not working. We hear their complaints, and we inform them of training opportunities that arise. We continue to look for alternative income-generating activities and training in new and sustainable methods of fishing. We want our people to use the available marine resources but in a sustainable manner.

Over the years we have trained many families in alternative income-generating activities. These range from flyfishing to small guest houses, kayaking, and birding. One of the things we are most proud of is that all our rangers and managers for our protected areas are locals who have been trained by TIDE. Every one of them was born and raised in this area. In fact, during the last couple of weeks, TIDE took twelve local fishermen to Cuba, along with other conservationists, to look at the effective and sustainable way in which the Cubans handle their lobster industry.

We did this because after the Port Honduras Marine Reserve was declared, gill nets became illegal, and we promised to continue to look for alternatives, since many fishermen had to give up their nets.

At the meeting last week we got an earful. Many community folks praised us for the work we had done…. We pointed out that today there are more manatees, there are more lobster and most of all, there are more fish in this area. It is working, some said, but in the midst of this gathering there were some very vocal fisherfolks who were laying it on us. They said we promised that we would buy back their nets, and we did not. They claimed that they had invested thousands of dollars in their nets, and now we are telling them they can’t use their nets. Many claim that this is how they feed their families, and that is how they make money to send their children to school, and since we did not buy back their nets, they can not invest their money elsewhere — they have no choice but to continue using their gill nets.

Everyone agreed that the tourism industry is helping, but it is still too small for everyone to benefit, and besides the people who want to invest in the industry and change their practices do not have the capital to do so. Ms. Anna from one of the cayes said, “Look at me — I still have to set my net. I need the money for my daughters to go to school. I can’t fix up my caye — no one would give me a loan, and TIDE has not bought back one single net.”

While the open forum was getting louder and louder, some of the community members who had given up their nets felt it was not fair that they had to give up their nets while others were still setting theirs. We said that couldn’t be happening, because we have rangers out there doing patrols. They laughed at us and said that the net folks know every time the rangers leave the station. In fact, some of them yelled out that the rangers do not patrol at 3 am. The rangers were at the meeting, and they all took note. Almost the same thing was heard in every community we visited, and all the communities made the same remarkd about 3 am.

This morning, as I looked out on the newly built TIDE pier, all I could see was nets. The rangers followed the communities’ tip, and did their patrol at 3 am. They found a bunch of nets with all kinds of fish in it. Big fish, small fish, dead fish, and spoiled fish, along with other things nets destroy, and shortly after, the word was on the street that TIDE was depriving people of a living, that TIDE was not living up to their promises of buying back the nets. One of the net owners showed up at the office angrily wanting back his nets and claimed if we had bought back his net, this would not have happened in the first place. He said, “You guys are not living up to your promises.” I said that sure we are, we trained people in alternative income-generating activities like flyfishing and kayaking, and we market the reserve so that more tourists would come. He said, “But how many nets did you all buy? Wasn’t that one of your promises?”

My point here is that yes, with the help of the communities, we now have one of the largest marine reserves in the country. With their help, we knew what time to go on patrol. But at the same, we have got to continue to work with them and fulfill our promises, so that we can all be one happy family!

Windevoxhel: I carefully read your message and want to give you some of my impressions that I hope may be helpful.

First let me tell you that a happy family is based on trust, responsibility, and confidence.

If you promise something, people should know that it will happen — that’s real trust. Many organizations, like ours, believe in TIDE and recognize the hard work you do for conservation in southern Belize. We also recognize your commitment to work in a socially sensitive way. We are particularly pleased about this because we know that this is the only way to convince people that conservation is important.

As you mention, TIDE committed to helping the communities surrounding the Marine Reserve, and you did. The most important thing is to give precisely what you offered. You offered to help, but you did not offer to solve all the socioeconomic problems of all the communities in the area. This is obviously not feasible, nor is it TIDE’s mission or responsibility. Development and conservation are responsibilities of us all.

If TIDE did not promise to buy nets, you don’t need to even think twice about this. Just be clear about what your role is and what it’s not. If people know you well, then they trust and understand you.

But on the other hand, if you decide to pay for the nets now….. what’s next? When people spend this money….. what will they do next? And what can TIDE do with the nets? No, buying the nets is not a solution; rather it could cause a new problem.

The responsibility of conservation is very important to the future of the communities. At the end of the day, many conservation decisions will not affect you or me but will directly affect the local communities. You mention that people do recognize the improvement in the health of the fisheries as a result of the new reserve being declared. They are finding more fish and more lobster. The fact is that this improvement could affect the ecosystem as a whole, so that eventually fishing yields will improve in other areas close to the marine reserve. That means the communities can realize financial benefits from having a reserve nearby, as well as the new economic alternatives from tourism and sport fishing. All those benefits are for them.

Another approach is to say, Well, just go ahead and fish however you want….. and so what!! Well, for one thing, fishing would collapse in the future, and you won’t have any fish, you won’t have any tourism, you will have lost all potential for sport fishing, and so on. Who will be affected then??? The community itself.

So is the issue with the nets a problem for TIDE? No. It is the communities’ problem, and so it is their responsibility to find the right solution. We at PROARCA/Costas will be more that happy to help TIDE in this process, but we can not accept that this is a problem that we have the responsibility to solve. We are here to help them — that’s our responsibility and we accept that. But they need to understand their responsibility and accept that as well. This is what ADEPESCO in Panama did (a fishermen’s association outside Bastimentos National Park in Bocas del Toro), and it worked.

Confidence could be the most difficult goal for a community group. It is summed up in the expression, “We can do it.” We know TIDE can play an important role; in fact, you are doing so. We know the communities can learn and can change in order to improve their own relationship with nature. Many people in southern Belize have already demonstrated this. So there is no reason to be afraid……


  • Go and find new areas to fish without nets, and tap the potential provided by the marine reserve.
  • Try to find new ways to fish more sustainability.
  • Look to the government’s fisheries department for aquaculture opportunities.
  • Try to develop other new income generating activities inland.

All families have to face problems. We need to face them with the certainty that we can find solutions — not easy ones perhaps and not necessarily simple ones, but we have to have the confidence that we can do it, and we will do it for the benefit of most of us, both people and nature.

I really don’t know if my comments will help. I just felt a need to express my feelings about this, to tell you about my experiences in community management. The fishery is managed by the people who live there — we can be concerned, we can offer help, but in the end, it will be their own decision whether or not to have a healthy reef that can provide them with a living.

More About This PROARCA/Costas

More About TIDE


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