The entire Belize City will be submerged by an encroaching sea in under 7 decades. That was the initial reply from Director of Health Services (DHS), Dr. Marvin Manzanero, when we contacted him today to ask what, if any interventions, can be done to help the community of Monkey River, grappling with shoreline erosion which now threatens to wash away the community’s cemetery, where villagers are still being buried.
Whereas climate change is forecast to submerge many islands and seaside communities around the globe in the decades ahead, the community of Monkey River—like no other seaside community in all of Belize—has been seeing their village of approximately 250 residents shrink over the past 20 years, but the erosion has been much more aggressive in recent years, and since February of this year, the encroaching seas started to eat away at the community’s cemetery.
Leonardo Castro, vice chairman of the village, told Amandala that erosion has submerged their football field and the main street, and has now made its way to the grave of Vida Arzu, who was buried there in the 1990s.
On Tuesday, May 2, Jessica Cuevas posted some photos and videos on Facebook of what has been happening to the village graveyard, decrying the lack of government intervention to address the problem.
“…We have to move our grandparents’ remains. If you have your family here, you should be worried,” she said.
The DHS warns, though, that graves should not be exhumed without the right procedures being followed, firstly because there are laws that have to be followed and secondly to safeguard against the wrong remains being dug up. He told us that the police ought to be informed and a permit is required for exhumation of bodies for reburial at new locations. He also noted that there could be legal implications and penalties for violations.
The DHS told us that they have been aware of the erosion problem in Monkey River, and he undertook to liaise with Public Health officials of Stann Creek, who may have been looking into the matter, and he will provide us with an update at a later time.
“We would need to look at what can be done for each individual grave,” said Manzanero.
Castro told us that the adverse impacts of erosion have been massive over the years.
“There have been over 20 lots lost and over 15 houses. Right now, we have four or five houses immediately threatened by the erosion,” Castro said.
At the burial ground, it is just hitting the first tomb, he said.
According to the vice chairman, they started to observe the encroachment there just a few months ago, around February.
Before erosion struck this part of Monkey River Village, the main street and a football field separated the burial site from the beach. Today, all that has been lost. The football field was lost about 5 years ago, he said, and then the front street was lost last year.
The erosion has displaced over a dozen families, and one elder is living in a house which stands partly over the water. That elder is Claude Murray, who had moved to that location 7 years ago because erosion had displaced him from another location in the village. Evidently, he will have to move again—despite a drive initiated on his behalf last September—One Sand Bag at a Time—to help save his home. The Belize Social Security Board and the Belize Electricity Limited were among the agencies which contributed to the cause to provide sandbags. Castro said that despite the outpouring of support for Murray, the intervention has not really stopped the problem.
“It is very frustrating to have to live through this,” said Castro, whose sister has also been displaced, and who now faces growing concerns that they may meet the same fate again.
As for the cemetery, Castro forecasts that, “…within a year won’t have it for sure!”
There is talk now about the need for the remains of loved ones buried in the village to be relocated.
“We would probably have to look at land on the north side of the village…” Castro suggests.
Some of the villages feel that they have been abandoned by their political leaders on both sides of the political divide.
They are still hoping for intervention from official circles, but for now, villages on the Monkey River basin have put their hands to the wheel to try to address the menacing problem.
The Monkey River Watershed Committee, comprised of people from 10 villages from the watershed, such as Bella Vista, Trio and Monkey River, was recently registered. They are asking for funds for Monkey River, and they recently received funds from the Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT) to help combat the erosion and to lobby for aid from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
It is community effort that’s making the difference now; they have been trying to seek out engineers to see what the best solution is to address the problem, Castro said.
Beachfront erosion continues to plague Monkey River. In April we told you about the City Council's Monkey River Tire initiative. Well, the last update we got is that the City Council just has to decide on a date to take the tires down South. But this certainly isn't the first attempt to try and alleviate the effects of the coastal erosion in that village. So far nothing has substantially helped the situation. So to try and find a long term solution for these Monkey River residents Courtney Weatherburne put together an investigative piece on what really is contributing to the erosion and what kind of investment and effort has to be made to save Monkey River. Here is that story.
We will keep you updated as to when the Council will take the tires down to Monkey River and we will also keep looking into what long term solution can be implemented.
Eight days ago, we told you that our Courtney Weatherburne had won the top prize for a journalism course on environmental reporting. Her story was about Monkey River - which has experienced massive coastal corrosion - enough to make residents really question whether the place they call home will survive the vagaries of climate change.
Tonight, in honor of that first place, we are repeating her story called "Environmental Catastrophe, Social Calamity: Monkey River and the Swallowing Sea":
Claude Morey, Monkey River Resident "If things get worse that I can't handle or that I can't live then I got to move. That's for sure."
Courtney Weatherburne reporting
That's the last thing Morey wants to do. He has been living in Monkey River for over 10 years. But his home is slowly collapsing as the harsh waves pound against the stilts.
The floor boards are rotting beneath him. Now he is forced to live out of barrels and boxes on one side of his home - hoping that it won't all collapse into the sea.
Courtney Weatherburne "Over the past 20 years Monkey River residents have been suffering from severe coastline erosion and its only getting worse. If you look behind me to the septic tank there was a property there and the beachfront extended that property. According to the residents they have lost over 500 feet of beach front. Now the residents have received assistance from the government to build these baskets, they act as an artificial barrier in place of the sand bar that should be forming here but none of these short term solutions seem to be working."
Many residents have struggled for years to find a way to cope with the erosion. 66 year old Enelda Garbutt has stacked rocks and sand in her yard to keep the water from flooding her out.
Enelda Garbutt, Monkey River Resident "Before the rocks were put when I came down one night water was right at my step, my step out there, it ran from there and it went, yeah."
Other residents are despairing and don't have many options.
Kazerine Garbutt, Monkey River Resident "Well I live on the other street so it's in front of me right now and all I will do is watch it if nothing happens and it just continues to erode, I will just have to watch it and see how much I can take."
And really, there is not much more Monkey River can take. Residents have already lost large chunks of land: homes, a clinic, the Roman Catholic Teachers Quarters and even a football field have all been devoured by the erosion. And it is all caused by a disturbance in the natural process called accretion.
Rudolph Williams, Hydrologist "The natural process is it rains, the water runs over land, it picks up some of the sediments and transports it to the river, the river transports it to the sea when it gets to the sea there is sedimentation or deposition of the sediments that are transported."
According to Chief Environmental Officer Martin Allegria, the operations at the Banana Farms have altered the flow of water in the Swasey River - disrupting the deposition of sediments along the Monkey River coastline.
Martin Allegria, Chief Environmental Officer, DOE "In this case we have had a situation which has been exacerbated about 2 decades or so ago when the Banana Industry expanded such that they diverted water from the river to the canal system that fed water to the Banana Farms and hence reducing the energy and material source going downstream into the sea."
But according to the General Manager of the Banana Growers Association Sam Mathias, "The operations at the Banana Farms along the Swasey River has nothing to do with the coastal erosion in Monkey River." Mathias says when they extract water from the river it is only "during the dry season which only lasts 4 to 5 months. "
And while the Banana Growers say it's not them, there are other possible causes.
Mario Muschamp, Resident "One of the major causes right now is the mining, gravel mining that is taking place right now on the same river, the Swasey branch of the Monkey river that supply the sand that replenish the beach here, we know that we need to build and do certain things but there has to be some sort of regulations in terms of the how mining is done on these water shed and the capacity, how much it can support."
And Inspector of Mines Michelle Alvarez says there are regulations in place. A person must have a permit or a license depending on the volume of material they want to extract. Although Alvarez says there aren't any large operations on the Swasey River, she admits that the extraction practices are not the most environmentally friendly.
Michelle Alvarez, Inspector of Mines, Mining Unit "I am not going to say that no no no it is not mining's fault, in some instances I would say it is poor extraction practices that could contribute to additional issues."
"I'm not saying that it is contributing to the erosion in Monkey River either because Swasey is so far away and as I said the extent of which extraction is going on it is seasonal."
While no one really wants to take responsibility, something drastic has to be done to save the shoreline, like rebuilding the beach or dredging. But residents believe the government isn't willing to invest in this disappearing village.
Celso Cawich, Conservation Manager, Projects Abroad "I think Monkey River needs a lot of help and it is sad to see when there is no financial gains to be made the wheels of development turn very slow, I think if there was something to be gained here like financial profits things would move faster."
Recently the villagers have been trying to uplift themselves financially by pushing into the tourism market.
Caroline Oliver - Sales & Marketing Mgr, TIDE Tours "Up in Monkey River we've help to develop their nature trail, improving the pathway there, building boardwalks and a wharf."
But still, these residents need more assistance from the government. So far there isn't any long term plan for Monkey River. Allegria says to get there, it must be a coordinated effort.
Martin Allegria, Chief Environmental Officer, DOE "We have even gotten involved in dialogue discussion with policy decisions makers in terms of the long term, the absolute long term solution that is needed again that is a balance you need to strike on the economic development perspective and the social good and economic good of the locals."
While all the stakeholders work on that joint plan, the residents must try to survive, try to preserve what they have left for themselves and for their children.
As Garbutt and her family and friends page through an old album, they reminisce on the life they had before, the joy they once knew on their full sandy beach - but these memories aren't just nostalgia, they're hope for an uncertain future.
We're still waiting to find out when the city council will take the tires it has collected to Monkey River.