By Payal Chandiramani
Jon Derksen uses his passion for teaching to help solve the problems caused by ocean trash in Belize. Photos from Jon Derksen.
High-school teacher Jon Derksen has a passion for both teaching and environmental conservation, and he often blends the two. Every year since 2005, Jon has traveled to northern Belize with students from Collingwood School in West Vancouver, British Columbia, to clean up trash on beaches.
Jon launched these 3,000-mile expeditions because he saw the need for students from Canada to be exposed to the social and environmental realities of trash, pollution and wildlife habitat destruction in developing countries. Belize, a peaceful country where he has family, seemed like the perfect place to start.
The trips have expanded to include cleanups of nearby turtle nesting sites and reef study in the Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve. When they arrived in 2005, the park was already established as a loggerhead, hawksbill and green sea turtle nesting site.
"The impressive thing was that the turtle nesting site and protection of the area was initiated by the local fishermen," Jon said. "They realized their fish stocks were being depleted. They knew that there was money to be made through tourism and the chance that they could move from fisheries to something more sustainable was very appealing."
Jon had heard it was a mess, though – that currents were bringing garbage and open-ocean waste into the lagoon, the mangrove forests and the beach. "I thought, how bad can the garbage be? And can we do something about it?"
Jon and his student teams began to categorize the garbage they found – much like Ocean Conservancy does during the annual International Coastal Cleanup – to figure out where all the trash was coming from and how they could stop it. They learned amazing things about the profile of the garbage: hospital waste from Mexico and Honduras, plastic bottles and human waste from cruise ships, tires of all shapes and sizes, and, curiously, hundreds upon hundreds of shoes.
They were knee-deep in trash in some areas, and they saw the threats it posed to its sea turtle inhabitants who would get entangled in the debris to the point where they could no longer lounge freely in the lagoon or easily swim out of it into the open ocean. And sometimes, they would mistakenly eat the plastic bags.
"We are just a small group of people who decided to make Belize our cause, but this doesn’t mean we’re ignoring other areas," Jon said. "It’s all about raising awareness and doing something. I love the idea of people taking it into their own hands."