team studies tropical ecology
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.
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.
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
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 natures delicate balance and
the importance of the earths ecosystem to humanity.
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.
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
couldnt support themselves. The fall of the Mayans blew
them back 500 years, Williams said.
Boon & Bane
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.
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.
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 arent supporting the local people, he said,
adding that Belize has a population of only 250,000.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
student Elisa Welch, Rachels 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, Everybodys a minority there. Theres
a feeling of equality. They dont treat you like a tourist,
students saw biodiversity we dont have here. Its
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.