A Precarious Life in Placencia, Belize

The first thought I had as we drove onto Belize’s Placencia Peninsula was, “wow, what gorgeous geography.” The second was, “global warming is going to decimate this place.”

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The Placencia Peninsula is an eighteen-mile long strip of land – well, sand, really – that juts into the Caribbean Sea, creating a lagoon on its leeward side. While it measures one mile across at its widest point, at many spots the peninsula is less than three hundred feet from lagoon to sea. You can see both bodies of water at the same time because there is no topography to speak of. I’m guessing the highest point of land on the peninsula is the airstrip, where the land has been built up three to four feet to accommodate a runway.

It just doesn’t take much of a sea level rise to make a chunk of land like that disappear altogether.

Even without the looming possibility of a global sea level rise, Placencia is a precarious place to live. In 2001, Hurricane Iris hit Belize, damaging 95% of the buildings in Placencia in addition to altering the coastline and the shape and size of the lagoon. Shortly after this, real estate prices dropped dramatically, which, ironically, allowed investors to snatch up cheap land and fuel a development boom. Over 1500 condominiums have been built or planned for the currently sleepy peninsula, and “for sale” signs abound. I can’t imagine considering a purchase there, given the uncertain future of low-lying coastal land. Clearly other people are less concerned. Or, perhaps they’re figuring they should enjoy it while they can, and if they get twenty years out of their investment, they’ve beaten the odds; I don’t know.

Meanwhile, about 3500 people live on this peninsula. About 1000 of them live in Placencia Town, a quintessential Caribbean community at the end of the road that supports a number of guest houses, fish restaurants, coffee shops, dive shops, a pier, and a fisherman’s cooperative. Placencia Town has a concrete sidewalk running through it that lays claim to the title of “narrowest street in the world.” The four-foot wide and 4000 foot long walkway is the only means of access to some houses and shops, qualifying it as a “street” for the Guinness Book of World Records. The town is vibrant both in its coloring and in its attitude; perhaps this boldness is required to stand strong against the multiple weather perils it routinely faces.

Another 1000 people live in Seine Bight, a Garifuna community about halfway down the peninsula. The Garifuna are descendents of shipwrecked Nigerian slaves. The survivors moved in (and subsequently interbred) with Carib Indians on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. When the British took over governance of that island, they declared the darkest-skinned of the Carib-Nigerian mestizos to be evil and shipped them to Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras. After finding out that Roatan’s limited natural resources could not support them, the Garifuna successfully petitioned Honduras to live on the mainland, and today, they live in a smattering of communities along the Caribbean coast of Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize. The Garifuna are particularly well-known for their cuisine, their drumming, and their dancing, all of which can be experienced in Seine Bight. They’re also well known for being survivors – of a slave ship journey from Africa, a Caribbean shipwreck, multiple cultural immersions, and a forced exile. Given that history, slow and steady sea level rise must seem like a fairly benign threat.

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Fishing is the main industry on the peninsula, followed closely by tourism. Of course, the tourism there is as dependent on the sea as fishing is, since people come to Placencia to catch bonefish, tarpon, and permit, to watch manatees and dolphins, to sail, sea kayak, and scuba dive, and to simply sit next to the water.

As I participated in these very activities myself, it occurred to me that the very resource from which Placencia draws its life may kill it.

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Somehow I suspect that everyone there knows this, and I don’t think they’re living in fear.

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