Visiting Belize in December impressed upon SMC student McKenna Bowdish what she learned fall semester in Deirdre Kurtis’s Southwestern Michigan College environmental science class.
“Belize was an amazing place with fantastic people,” Bowdish said. “While I was there I thought about our environmental science class many times.”
“Besides the warm weather and beautiful scenery” in the nation nestled between Guatemala, which they ventured into one day, and the Caribbean Sea, south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, “one of the first things I noticed was the trash,” Bowdish said about her first day in Belize City.
“There was garbage scattered all over the roads, fields, everywhere. Belize only has trash systems in their big cities, which there are not a lot of. They do, however, have a bottle bill of some sort. I noticed signs for recycling in a few larger stores.
“Belize does acknowledge their trash issue and although their land is littered, their waterways are taken much better care of,” Bowdish said. “I was told almost every animal in Belize is endangered or close to it and that crocodiles are one of the most protected. With all of the trash and plastic making its way into the waterways, crocodiles were swallowing it, then starving to death because they could not digest it. They now focus heavily on waterway cleanup and tagging crocodiles to track their health.”
Snorkeling “was one of the greatest things I have ever done,” she said. “I was able to get up close and personal with many sea creatures, but it was also eye-opening. We snorkeled at two different locations. One was protected (Belize Barrier Reef, the world’s second-largest coral reef). One was not.
“The location that was not protected was filled with little pieces of plastic,” Bowdish said. “It was easy to see how sea turtles confuse plastic for jellyfish, as I did the same thing. There was a moment where all I could see was little pieces of plastic around me. At that moment our guide warned us to look out for jellyfish. They were not the kind that sting. After taking a second look around I realized that among the plastic there were in fact a few jellyfish! It was sad and incredible all at the same time.” Bowdish said the guide informed them plastic came from cruise ships at least 20 nautical miles from port being allowed to dump trash overboard.
In addition to the cruise ship dumping, Belize's environmental problems also come from its lack of development. “End waste (from producing sugar cane) is burned to create energy,” she said. “If Belize was more developed, it could use sugar cane for ethanol, but hybrid cars are too expensive for them.” Golf carts are popular because gas costs “about five American dollars.”
Don't doubt that Bowdish's experiences were all depressing. “Although I saw so many environmental issues, I also got to see many fantastically preserved Mayan ruins, interact with many locals — all of whom were so nice — and immerse myself in a new culture. An experience of a lifetime!” the Constantine resident said. After all, Bowdish, studying accounting at SMC through Ferris State University while balancing her job with the Michigan Milk Producers Association, snorkeled with jellyfish and a nurse shark, cradled a crocodile, toured a chocolate factory and saw sugar cane growing “like corn in the Midwest.”