USF PIRE Social Science Research Team conducts Pilot Season of Research on the Placencia Peninsula, Belize

A team of four USF anthropology researchers recently completed a five week pilot season of research from May 26 – June 30, 2013 at the Caribbean coastal site of the Placencia Peninsula of Belize. The social science field research team included Dr. Christian Wells (co-PI of the PIRE project), Dr. Rebecca Zarger (PIRE Senior Personnel), Maryann Cairns (Doctoral candidate, Department of Anthropology), and Eric Koenig (MA student, Department of Anthropology), in partnership with Dr. Linda Whiteford (PIRE Senior Personnel) and Dr. Jim Mihelcic (PI) in Tampa. Previous to the summer fieldwork, in December of 2012, Drs. Wells, Zarger, and Whiteford conducted initial site visits in Belize to ascertain the appropriateness of two sites for the PIRE research project aims, and Placencia was selected as the best fitting location. The pilot season of research, as part of Section B.3 of the PIRE project research plan, sought to develop and test cultural and social data collection methods to investigate culturally-specific strategies of wastewater collection, treatment, and reuse systems in Caribbean coastal algal-based lagoon settings undergoing tourism development.

Our team conducted a series of 21 semi-structured interviews among a cross-section of key stakeholders including local elected officials, environmental NGOs, national government officials, and tourism industry representatives to understand perceptions of tourism development and wastewater management, and reclamation technologies. We also administered over fifty targeted, short digital surveys to residents, migrant workers, and tourists in order to gauge local and external perceptions of water and wastewater practices, management, and possible resource recovery technologies on the peninsula.  Questions in the survey also focused on relationships between tourism development and coastal environmental health. As part of our effort to inform an integrated wastewater resource recovery innovation and adoption systems model for tourism-dependent Caribbean coastal lagoon settings – ‘a socioecological metabolism model of tourism’ – we conducted participant-observation at local events and locations to understand flows of people, materials, and energy around the peninsula and set up numerous informal meetings to listen to local perceptions. We derived two sets of research questions about viewpoints and strategies relating to these issues at the household and institutional scales organized around our over-arching research frame: ‘In what ways and to what extent do wastewater management and perceptions of wastewater enable and constrain sustainable relationships between tourism, local livelihoods and wellbeing, and coastal health?’

Typically one, two, or three chamber septic tanks are used by Placencia Peninsula residents to collect sewage.

Typically one, two, or three chamber septic tanks are used by Placencia Peninsula residents to collect sewage.

In late May, we arrived just as a change in management of the local water system—from locally-run water boards to a government-backed private company, the Belize Water Service Limited—took place. This transition was one of the initial steps in a long-term project supported by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Caribbean Regional Fund for Wastewater Management (CReW) and the government of Belize to install a wastewater collection and treatment system on the peninsula. Listening to the concerns and viewpoints of various research respondents and community partners, we recognized that issues of water and wastewater management on the peninsula are highly politicized, especially in the context of tourism. Through these discussions, we found that many residents have concerns about water supply and quality in light of the plans for an integrated wastewater treatment and collection system the peninsula, especially concerning aquifer water supply with increased tourism demand (Wells et al. 2013).

The Placencia Water Tower, previously managed by the Placencia Water Board, receives water pumped across the lagoon from an aquifer near the village of Independence. Local politics are a critical aspect of water and wastewater management practices on the peninsula.

The Placencia Water Tower, previously managed by the Placencia Water Board, receives water pumped across the lagoon from an aquifer near the village of Independence. Local politics are a critical aspect of water and wastewater management practices on the peninsula.

Most residents we spoke with had septic tanks as their primary wastewater collection and disposal systems, but recognized the need for a large-scale wastewater system with increasing population and development. Many of the concerns that were raised about the implementation of the wastewater collection and treatment system centered on limited local transparency and accountability of project aims and discussions. Also, revenue loss from previous local management of the water system that had funded community programs and services was noted as a concern. Specific to the over-arching PIRE research question, we found that although wastewater was perceived by residents and tourists as dangerous, most of the people we interviewed and surveyed would be open to using reclaimed wastewater for irrigation and energy with adequate information (Wells et al. 2013).

Clearing of mangroves and dredging of the lagoon are common practices associated with tourism development on the Placencia Peninsula.

Clearing of mangroves and dredging of the lagoon are common practices associated with tourism development on the Placencia Peninsula.

From community members and tourists, we heard several concerns about impacts to the coastal environment surrounding the Placencia Peninsula relating to current development practices and weather events. The Placencia Peninsula is situated west of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system, extending south from the mainland of Belize as a narrow spit of sand. Spanning 24 km north-to-south between the main coastline and the peninsula is the Placencia lagoon. The lagoon is a shallow estuary with a maximum width of 3.4 km, has a perimeter of mangrove forest that provides critical habitat for marine and estuary species, and is fed by the drainage of three creeks from small coastal watersheds (Boles et al. 2011). This coastal lagoon setting is threatened by development practices associated with tourism, farming, and natural resource extraction. Residents, migrant workers, and tourists noted dredging and filling practices, mangrove clearing, the spread of garbage, shrimp farm effluent and seepage of septic tanks contributing to algal blooms, beach erosion, and decline in wildlife populations as major impacts of these development practices. Study participants also expressed concern about the threat of hurricanes and warmer sea temperatures to coastal environments and resident livelihoods. Since recreational activities associated with the coastal environment are a major draw for tourists and because many residents depend on the “health” of the coastal environment for their livelihoods, most local and regional stakeholders want additional information about the status of the aquifer, changes in coastal and municipal water quality, and about the specific effects of development activities impacting the coast (Wells et al. 2013).

Local infrastructure projects, like the Placencia Municipal Pier and Plaza, are often funded in partnership with international development agencies to promote a program of sustainable tourism development in coastal and inland tourist destinations in Belize.

Local infrastructure projects, like the Placencia Municipal Pier and Plaza, are often funded in partnership with international development agencies to promote a program of sustainable tourism development in coastal and inland tourist destinations in Belize.

Our preliminary results from the pilot season of research were presented by Dr. Rebecca Zarger at the Belize Archaeology and Anthropology Symposium in San Ignacio, Belize in July of 2013 (Wells et al. 2013). Analysis of data collected through semi-structured and informal interviews, targeted digital surveys, participant observation, and photo indexing during the pilot season of research is ongoing. Grounded theory coupled with a mixed methods approach is being used during the 2013-2014 academic year to identify patterns and themes relating to coastal health, tourism, and water and wastewater management by exploring, coding, memoing, and examining the data using qualitative, quantitative, and spatial analysis software programs including Dedoose®, IBM® SPSS, and ESRI® ArcMap. Types of exploratory analyses we will be performing during this phase of research include correlation, cluster, and correspondence analyses. We are submitting a paper based on our preliminary analyses, highlighting the political dimensions of local water and wastewater systems and their management in relation to the impacts of tourism development on the Placencia Peninsula, to the Journal for Cleaner Production by the end of November 2013.

After analyzing data collected during the pilot season, our next phase of research during the summer of 2014 will focus on “scaling up,” refining, and expanding the scope of our data collection and survey instruments as well as adding educational outreach components to the research project in collaboration with Elma Kay and students from the University of Belize.

With refined data collection instruments tested over an expanded area, results from the 2014 field season will be used to revise the complex systems model of ‘socioecological metabolism of tourism’ to better understand the social, cultural, economic, political, and environmental contexts influencing wastewater treatment and reclamation technologies on the Placencia Peninsula. This revised complex systems model will then be generalized to assist with modeling practices of wastewater disposal, collection, treatment, and reuse and adoption of sustainable wastewater reclamation systems in appropriate social and cultural contexts for the other PIRE Caribbean coastal field research sites of Progresso, Mexico; St. Thomas, USVI; and Tampa, Florida.

-Eric Koenig, PIRE Student

References

Boles, E., A. Anderson, R. Cawich, V. Figueroa, J. Franco, D. Grijalva, D. Mai, K. Mendez, A. Peralta, L. Requena, M. Rodriguez, and E. Sanchez.  2011.  Rapid Assessment of Effects and Issues Related to Development in the Placencia Area, Dry Season 2011. NRMP 4552 Integrated Coastal Zone Management, Course Project. Belize City: University of Belize, Natural Resource Management Program. http://www.pcsdbelize.org/placencia-assessment.pdf, accessed February 5, 2013.

Wells, E. Christian, Rebecca K. Zarger, Linda M. Whiteford, Maryann R. Cairns, and Eric S. Koenig. 2013. The Impacts of Tourism Development on Perceptions and Practices of Wastewater Management on the Placencia Peninsula. Presentation at 11th installment of the Belize Archaeology and Anthropology Symposium, San Ignacio, Belize, July 2-5.

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