From time immemorial, the natural environment and its various elements have been a sustaining lifeline to the survivability of the human creature. But at times, the natural environment rebukes the dominion of the human creature via hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, cold, heat and drought. Some civilizations learned to coexist in a mutual agreement between themselves and the natural environment, while others attempted to subdue and abuse the natural environment. It is with this backdrop in mind that I would like to talk about an island that once existed in Belize, called “Black Bird Island.”
During this holiday period when traditionally Belizean families head out to the various cayes and countryside for vacation and enjoyment, the memories of Black Bird Island are illuminated in the recesses of my mind. Black Bird Island formed a part of a panorama of mangrove cayes that enveloped the shallow blue/green waters off the coast of Belize City. The stretch of hundreds of mangrove islands that dotted the coastline formed a natural breakwater barrier that protected the mainland from hurricanes and storms. In addition to serving as a natural habitat for a wide variety of birds and marine life, Black Bird Island was the largest of three mangrove cayes located immediately behind Government House, forming a narrow channel that runs along Albert Street extension, Craig Waterside, Wesley College and Yarborough football field. Today, two of the original islands have completely vanished, leaving behind the unrecognizable Bird’s Isle, and irreversible ecological damage to the entire area.
The original islands were a sanctuary to a vibrant bird population that numbered in the thousands. Predominant among them were the native black bird, pelican and the john crow. Hence, the early human settlers of the area dubbed the island “Black Bird Island”. These are the sights and sounds the newly arrived slaves must have seen and heard, as they were dragged down the mouth of the Belize Old River deep into the forest to cut log- wood.
The sea water that formed the narrow channel between Black Bird Island and the mainland was blue/green, and literally transparent, filled with different marine life of fish and crabs that locals would be seen catching in the early mornings or late evenings. At sunset the birds would gather in droves, settling down for the night amidst the cool breeze, and the sound of waves that caressed the surrounding islands could be heard in the distance.
In its shadow neighborhood children would play and swim in the blue/green waters of the channel off Black Bird Island, boys played football on the adjacent Yarborough Green, while the famous Heusner brothers could be seen arriving with their daily catches of fish, conch and lobsters. How innocent, naïve and oblivious we were to the impending catastrophic and irreversible environmental damage that loomed.
I was only a child, and cannot recall the date or the year the workmen and their equipment arrived. Thus, the razing and dredging in and around Black Bird Island began. Within a few months, an island that must have been in existence for centuries, and withstood hurricanes and high tides, was virtually obliterated and decimated. Then the manmade wooden bridge construction began, connecting what was left of Black Bird Island to the mainland. The workmen would stand waist deep in the water and hammer piles deep into the sea bed, dislodging anything and everything in its path.
As the work progressed, so did the transformation of the once blue/green transparent water into a dark, mud-filled mix, that no longer enticed the swimmer to indulge. The sunset harmonies of a thousand birds singing were silent, and the majestic mangroves that crowned Black Bird Island was permanently destroyed. No longer could we swim and fish in the waters in the channel that separated the island from the mainland. Suddenly something that was native became alien to us. Erected in its place was a manmade park void of all its indigenous inhabitants.
As the years went by, we witnessed and enjoyed musical concerts, sports and conventions on what became “Bird’s Isle,” but only this time its was humans that congregated on the island. But was it worth what we lost in Black Bird Island? Could we have enjoyed these events elsewhere without destroying these native habitats? Belize is not pressed for land space like some of her neighboring countries. Our population remains relatively tiny comparable to our land size. Despite this reality, our myopic vision and disjointed land and environmental policies make us an accident waiting to happen.
Belize remains extremely vulnerable to future environmental catastrophe. Today the water channel between where Black Bird Island once stood, and the mainland no longer exists. The birds and other wildlife have long disappeared. As a child I felt that something irreplaceable was taken from me, and as an adult I am saddened that future generations will never witness and experience Black Bird Island in all her natural glorious state.
In 2012, as Belize continues to be inundated with land speculators, oil exploration and deforestation, we must pause and ponder whether or not there must be boundaries as to how far we go in the exploitation of our natural environment, and the preservation of our irreplaceable inheritance. Amandala