© 2012 Margaret Sands

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Island

The GPS crew passing by one of the piles where some debris is burned when the wind is right.

This week has been fairly consumed with the planning and preparation of an island wide beach sweep that we’ve organized for next week.  While we were using the GPS to map a perimeter of the island we noticed that many of our points were named things like “trash pile #1,” “abandoned tire pile #2,” and “flip flop on a stake.”  Talking to locals revealed that we weren’t the only ones who thought it was time for the island to get a good scrubbing (something they have done a couple of times before).  This threw us into the exciting world of garbage accumulation and disposal on Tobacco Caye.

One phenomenon we’ve noticed since our arrival is people’s apparent obsession with raking here.  Each of the lodges has an employee hired to do general maintenance and and upkeep, but their main daily job is raking the sand around the lodge.  They do this several times a day to the point where I can’t help but be reminded of Zen monks maintaining their rock gardens.  This is apparently to keep the sand neat (which makes it very hard to walk around the island somewhere since everywhere has that just-raked look) as well as gather up any trash that may have been discarded.  The trash and other debris are gathered into small piles around the lodges.  Trash cans seem to be in short supply and most of the trash just seems to stay in piles until it is either burned, buried, or sent off island.  Most of the burnt trash is dead palm fronds and coconut husks, with the occasional old tennis shoe thrown in, most of the rest of the trash is taken “off island.”  Unsure what this phrase really meant, we dug deeper into the smelly world of Caye waste disposal (thus far I’ve resisted posting about our research into the septic tank system, you’re welcome).

During our travels to the mainland, we saw some of the Belizean “landfills” on our bus rides between cities.  Mostly they were just enormous trash piles, not contained or separated from the street or people.  Of course this was a less than ideal solution to the issue of waste disposal, but it’s better than garbage ending up in the oceans so this is where we assumed people were taking TC trash.  As it turns out, this is not the destiny of Tobacco Caye garbage which instead goes out to “the range.” The range is visible from Tobacco Caye and is a larger island that consists almost entirely of mangroves.  Although at first we were told that it was uninhabited, as it turns out it is home to one celebrity (Marie Sharp,  hot sauce maker extraordinaire sort of like Belize’s Martha Stewart) and one island maker, Gerald.

The Paradise beach, ,everything from the tree to the water was created in the last 5 years with Gerald’s encouragement.

Gerald works at Paradise Lodge as the general handyman/all around Mr. Fix It, he has a knack for figuring out how things work, from boat motors to solar panels, and how to fix them.  His other talent is extending land where there was none in a method he describes as “helping nature along.”  On Tobacco he’s done this at Paradise using “wings,” lines of sandbags jutting out from the land encouraging currents to build sand up creating a beach, the only real beach on the island.  Apparently he’s also been busy on the Tobacco Range filling in low swampy spots with a layer of glass bottles and cans, then a layer of mud, then cardboard and plastic bags, then mud, then a layer of bagged garbage then sand.  In the end he says he ends up with solid land that he can plant coconut trees on.  He strategically places t-shaped PVC piping to release the methane gases (we’re looking into biodigester cooking set ups to suggest) and lines the areas more thoroughly than the mainland landfills (according to him).  Although at first we environmentalists were thrown by the idea of taking trash to wetlands, as he explained his method it started to make sense and we realized that what he does is probably no worse and perhaps even better than using gas and risking spillage to take the trash all the way to the mainland.  We’re still somewhat wary though and are trying to get some second opinions before we send our trash off with him after the beach sweep.

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