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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
Current Issue: April 28, 2003
Volume 38, Number 18

UNM-Taos team studies tropical ecology

By Carolyn Gonzales

UNM-Taos Instructors Phil Alldritt, far left, and James Rannefeld, far right, with three of the students who took part in the spring break field trip in Belize. The students, from left, are Elisa Welch, Chris Williams and Rachel Welch. Photo by Carolyn Gonzales.


UNM-Taos Dean of Instruction and Oceanography Professor James Rannefeld and Phil Alldritt, adjunct professor of archeology and scuba instructor, recently took 10 students to Belize to study and experience first hand the environmental effects of global warming and the effects of overpopulation as illustrated by the Mayans.

Taos Meets Belize

At first, it may seem that Belize, a small English speaking nation lying south of the Yucatan Peninsula, would have little in common with Taos’ high desert mountain region. “Just four miles outside of Taos, you can find a profusion of marine shallow water fossils,” said Rannefeld. “Three hundred million years ago, the Taos Trough formed and warm inland seas covered this area, leaving behind sedimentary rocks that are similar to those forming in Belize today. Taking the students to Belize was a way to show them the importance of tropical and marine environments and our connection
to them.”

The trip was prompted by an Oceanography course Rannefeld taught last semester. He is teaching an environmental science course this semester called “The Blue Planet,” and students from these two courses formed the core of students in the “Tropical Ecology of Belize” course. These courses are designed to help students understand nature’s delicate balance and the importance of the earth’s ecosystem to humanity.

Alldritt, an archeologist for the Museum of New Mexico, has participated in archeological field studies in Belize for 15 years. “At the height of Mayan civilization, peaking between 800 and 900 AD, 25 million people lived in the region,” said Alldritt, “Today, barely half that number are living in the area.”

After excursions to Cahal Pech and Lamanai, one student participant, Chris Williams said that he was struck by the complexity and extent of the earlier Mayan civilization in the area, while the people living there now barely subsist. “I not only experienced culture shock, but I could see how the population crashed because they couldn’t support themselves. The fall of the Mayans blew them back 500 years,” Williams said.

Tourism's Boon & Bane

Tourism is about the only industry in Belize, but it damages the sea and tropical ecosystem from which the Belizeans take their subsistence. “Caye Caulker is an area in transition from the lobster fishing villages I saw in 1987 to an area that now has five dive shops taking tourists out,” said Alldritt.

Nine different ship lines are bringing mass tourism into the area, which is taking a toll on the ecology. “We see the impact because we have to go further and further out to find pristine dive sites,” said Alldritt. “Belizean are interested in developing eco-tourism. They would like to see tourist damage minimized by keeping them in one area where they see fish and wildlife, like some Mexican resorts that have built artificial systems so tourists can have the experience in a way so that neither the economy nor the ecology suffers.”

The group was careful to use Belizean, mostly Mayan, tour guides in order to support the native population. “Cruise ship lines pay a lot of money to dock there. But with many layers of bureaucracy from the national to the village level, the money does not trickle down to the locals. They build facilities for the cruise ships, but they aren’t supporting the local people,” he said, adding that Belize has a population of only 250,000.

Tourism is one of the major factors damaging coral reefs in the region. “Tourists kick sediment on the reefs (smothering them), stand on the corals (killing them) and take coral from the sea as souvenirs,” said Alldritt. “Reefs are critical early indicators of problems with the ecosystem. It takes hundreds of years for the reefs to recover from the damage caused by human activities that are accelerating global warming effects, leading to coral bleaching and El Nino events,” said Rannefeld.

Psychology student Rachel Welch also participated in the field course. ”The trip opened up the world to me. I saw how important the coral reefs and the rain forest are,” she said, adding that she was particularly touched by the plight of the manatees.

“Manatees are being killed by speedboats despite the fact that the area has been designated as sanctuary for them. Manatees keep the sea grass alive and the sea grass keeps the coral reefs healthy,” she said.

Global Warning

“Here, in New Mexico, we see drought as evidence of global warming. In Belize, the evidence is rising sea levels and more destructive storms as the polar icecaps break up,” said Rannefeld. “Ecological damage from pollution has resulted in high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the oceans. The oceans and the shrinking rain forests normally serve as reservoirs, but they are not able to keep up with the carbon dioxide that is building up in the atmosphere.”

“Encouraging farmers in the region to move toward ‘slash and mulch’ conservation practices instead of ‘slash and burn’ land clearing methods would also have an ecological benefit,” said Alldritt. Belizeans raise corn, beans, squash, bananas, oranges, cashews and sugar cane, but with unfertile and a thin topsoil, more deforestation is taking place in order to continue growing crops. Most foods are consumed locally, said Alldritt, although they do freeze-dry some foodstuffs. Since ships cannot dock close enough to load cargo efficiently — thanks to the reefs — Belizeans are not able to export their agricultural products.

Another student Elisa Welch, Rachel’s daughter, said she was struck by the people. With languages such as English, Creole, Spanish, Garufina — an African dialect — and Mayan spoken in the region, “Everybody’s a minority there. There’s a feeling of equality. They don’t treat you like a tourist,” Welch said.

“The students saw biodiversity we don’t have here. It’s important for our students from Taos to see other parts of the ecosystem in order to develop a balanced perspective about humanity and its effect on the environment, and vice versa,” said Rannefeld. “This is experiential education at its best— an adventure in learning.”