Malaspina's Belize Connection

September 30, 1997 - 5:00pm

Three years ago, microbiology instructor Dr. Bill Eaton had a dream of using the rainforests of Central America as a classroom for Malaspina biology students. Only one year later, after a lot of hard work and planning, his dream was a reality.

For two years now Malaspina has been offering a course in tropical biology (Biology 395), taught by Eaton and botanist Dr. Ed Van Zinderen Bakker. This year, ecologist Dr. Matthew Hoch joined the team into the jungles of Belize.

Belize is a rapidly developing tropical country in Central America that still has large tracts of pristine jungle and coral reef habitats. Located on the Gulf of Mexico, Belize is the first country south of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. It is highly regarded by scuba divers for sharing the world's second largest barrier reef and by archeologists for its Mayan ruins, a large number of which remain buried by the rainforest.

Last summer, Eaton and Van Zinderen Bakker took four Malaspina students into the jungle to work with two Belizean students on rainforest ecology. This year, 12 Malaspina students worked with all three instructors studying the chemistry, nutrient cycles, and microbiology of the soils and dominant plant species in different habitats of the rainforest and freshwater tropical lakes to find out how biogeochemistry, microbiology, and botany interact to determine the characteristics of different types of rainforest habitats that exist in the tropics. Next year, a tropical bird identification and ecology component will be added to the course.

The students spent one week at the University College of Belize Marine Research Center, on Calabash Caye, learning about coral reef, turtle grass, and mangrove forest ecology. The course also coincided with a Mayan archaeology field school at the jungle site to excavate the Mayan city of Chan Chich under the direction of Dr. Brett Houck, University of Texas, San Antonio. This summer the students helped uncover a Mayan ballcourt and a pre-classic Mayan burial site.

In 1996, Eaton and Van Zinderen Bakker began a research project on the Macal River in the Cayo district of Belize. The Malaspina instructors and students have been demonstrating that increased nutrient levels exist downstream from a poorly constructed dam in the Black Rock region of the Macal River.

"The dam appears to be causing an increase in heterotrophic and photosynthetic cellular biomass in this part of the river resulting in sediment/slime deposits developing on the river rocks," said Eaton. "We've examined water from the Macal River upstream from the dam and from four different rivers that feed into the Macal River. None of these water sources shows evidence of high nutrient loads."

Eaton said that extensive amounts of forest debris left behind the dam during its construction may be slowly decomposing and releasing high levels of nutrients into the river. Further study is planned and will be conducted this winter.

The information generated so far is being shared with the University College of Belize as the government is discussing the construction of a second dam further upstream on the Macal River within the even more pristine Chiquibal Rainforest.

"We hope that this information combined with that collected in the future will help convince the Belize government to conduct a proper evaluation of the potential consequences of a second dam on the river," said Eaton.

In addition to the Macal River research project, three Malaspina University-College biology students got a start on their fourth year research projects (Biology 491). Julian Sturhan, Grace Sumampong, and Cameron Weighill collected and analyzed samples from a variety of habitats to demonstrate various parameters of microbiology, chemistry, and botany in either the rainforest or the coral reef habitats of Belize.

The Belize connection has recently become even more involved. Eaton and Sheila Swanson from Malaspina's International Education department, wrote a proposal to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) that was recently approved which gives Malaspina $380,000 to help the University College of Belize develop a water quality monitoring program to check the water from the rivers out to the coral reefs of Belize for elevated nutrient levels, cellular biomass, and enteric pathogens as indicators of water quality. The Macal River project will continue as part of this larger project.

As part of the project, Malaspina foresters Michel Vallee, Barry Ostrand, and Doug Corrin, will instruct the Belizeans on how to monitor the quality of their forest habitats as part of a long-term assessment strategy, and three Belizean faculty will spend eight weeks at Malaspina for training.

The funding will also help pay the way for two students to travel in Fall 1998, Fall 1999 and Spring 2000, with the Malaspina faculty to take courses at the Belizean college, help with the set-up of the new facilities, and to conduct research projects of their choice.

Eaton said that this grant represents almost three years of work developing the trust of the Belizeans, initially, and then writing the actual proposal together.

It is a four-year project that, along with the Biology 395 course, will result in the University College of Belize (UCB) being able to train their students to monitor their own environment for damage. It will also provide for joint UCB and Malaspina research projects, and establish Malaspina as one of the Canadian leaders in education in Central America…not a bad result for something that started as a dream.

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