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February 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 44, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Roatan Park Rangers Face Death Threats

during the fight to preserve the reefs

from the February, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

"I'm like one of those old-school gangsters," says Ralston Brooks, a park ranger on the island of Roatán off the coast of Honduras. "If you're going to do it, do it. Pop a cap."

The 37-year-old boat captain says he faces regular death threats from local fishermen because of his work patrolling the island for illegal fishing. "I have a lot of enemies. But you've got to suck it up: if we don't do this, the reef will be gone."

Roatán is home to dozens of resorts and receives more than a million visitors every year, thanks to its position in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system that runs north past Belize and into Mexico. Local residents, conservationists and dive shops are battling to protect the island's pristine coral reef from the threats of mass tourism, illegal fishing and the effects of climate change.

"The reef is what brings the economy to the island," says Brooks, who works for the Roatán Marine Park (RMP), a grassroots nonprofit organization founded by a coalition of dive shops in 2005 to patrol and monitor the reef. With dozens of scuba stores across the tiny island, diving is one of Roatán's main attractions, and with good reason -- according to a report from the Healthy Reef Initiative (HRI), Honduras has the highest coral cover of the whole Mesoamerican system.

Yet, the same HRI report found that Honduras had the highest levels of macroalgae (a fleshy algae often produced by untreated wastewater that can suffocate the reef) and concluded that "the rapid pace of tourism growth in Honduras ... has led to unsustainable practices that deplete resources and destroy important habitats."

In a country where environmental regulation is limited and funding is scarce, maintaining a healthy reef can be challenging work. "Politicians understand the reef is a resource to be protected because it's a goldmine," says Jenny Myton of the Coral Reef Alliance. "But the government just doesn't have the funds or capacity to help."

Protecting the reef has thus been largely left to local community groups like the RMP, supported by international non-profit organizations. The RMP has been able not only to monitor and protect the reef from illegal fishing, but also to improve marine infrastructure by setting up dive moorings and channel markers to prevent boats from damaging the reef. The organization has also developed honey production on the island, "to give the local community an economic alternative to fishing," says Eduardo Rico, RMP's executive director.

The Bay of Islands Conservation Association (Bica) is another local non-profit group working on reef conservation. Founded in 1990, Bica co-manages the island's marine reserve in partnership with the RMP, the municipal government, and other smaller NGOs. This year, the group is focusing on one of the island's greatest threats: climate change-- Honduras was one of the countries most affected by extreme weather from 1992 to 2011. To demonstrate the effects of climate change, Bica's Nidia Ramos has been taking local children on snorkeling trips. "You can see corals covered in macroalgae," she says. "In other parts, we see patches of coral that are totally white."

In September, unseasonably warm water temperatures led to coral bleaching throughout the Caribbean, with Honduras among the hardest-hit. To withstand the effects of such a rapidly changing climate, the reef needs to be in the strongest condition possible. "It's like if someone broke your arm -- you can't get into a fight with a broken arm," says Sam Arch, 23, who runs an ecological park with his family on the southern side of the island. "That's how the bleaching works: it starts in one little broken piece, and then it spreads."

Arch and his family have been fighting to protect the section in front of their marine park from illegal fishing for years. "We patrol it day and night," says Arch. "If we don't do it, it's basically a lost cause." The Arch family has also been pushing the local government to make the area a no-take zone, which would rohibit fishing activities entirely.

But in a country where more than 60 percent of the population lives in poverty, such initiatives can be difficult to accept for many locals who depend on fishing to survive. Like Brooks, the park ranger, Arch says his conservation work has made him deeply unpopular. "There are towns that I don't even go to because I have had so many threats," he says. "'We're going to cut your guts out,' they say. I have to take a 9mm handgun out with me on patrols."

Still, for Roatán's hardcore conservationists, such risks are worthwhile. "I love doing what I do," says Brooks. "It's not going to benefit me, but maybe my grandchildren, so they can still see turtles, sharks, conch. It's like I tell my rangers: we're defending Mother Nature."

(By Oscar Lopez. First published in The Guardian December 2017 and reprinted with permission. Undercurrent accepts all responsibility for editing errors. Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2017.)

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