Mesoamerican Reef

The Rule of Law and Public Participation to Protect the Mesoamerican Reef

Buried by Trash

Waste covers the Motagua watershed in Guatemala.

Fed up with mountains of garbage, the Mayor of Omoa on the Caribbean coast of Honduras suggested filing suit against Guatemala for its failure to keep waste from flowing out of the Motagua watershed and onto Honduras’ beaches.

The mayor’s statement captured the public’s attention. Commentary filled Guatemala’s newspapers and government spokespeople scrambled to respond. One Guatemalan journalist remarked, “Fortunately, the Belizeans don’t have any reason to hate us because, thanks to the currents coming from the Sarstún River [in Belize], the garbage from the Motagua is directed at the coastline of Honduras.”

The Motagua watershed is just one of the many natural resources threatened by human-based pollution in the Mesoamerican Reef region. Untreated waste and sewage from urban and rural communities flow through the Motagua River into the Gulf of Honduras, endangering the health of the people and the reef.

The Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW) provides extensive support to half a dozen environmental law and citizens’ groups near the MAR, which in turn help local people fight for their right to a healthy environment.

The Motagua watershed. Credit: ADA2.

ELAW’s grassroots partners in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico work to enforce the law and empower citizens to protect vital marine and coastal resources. They include the Environmental Law and Water Alliance (ADA2) in Guatemala, the Mexican Center for Environmental Law (CEMDA), and the Environmental Law Institute of Honduras (IDAMHO).

These organizations use legal tools to win consequential victories for conservation and human rights. They educate judges, prosecutors, and other government workers about law enforcement; show communities how to advocate effectively for conservation; and advise public agencies and local governments on how to fulfill their duties to protect people and their natural resources. When necessary, they litigate in court to enforce the laws that governments fail to uphold.

In Guatemala, ADA2 is tackling waste in the Motagua from the bottom up, working closely with the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP) and the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) to analyze the problem and craft realistic, scalable solutions.

ADA2’s collaboration with the Department of Solid and Residual Waste Management at MARN and other civil society actors led to a new national policy for Integrated Waste Management. Municipal governments have authority for managing waste, but given the scope of the problem the national government retains oversight and will ensure that the policy is implemented.

Municipal leaders in Guatemala agree to address waste in the Motagua River watershed.

Locally, ADA2 has been working with the three largest municipalities at the bottom of the watershed. Municipal leaders from Los Amates, Puerto Barrios, and Morales signed a formal agreement to clean up their waste management and set a new standard for the Motagua Basin. They aim to eliminate illegal landfills, ban the most offensive plastics by municipal ordinance, and establish infrastructure for separating and marketing materials that can be recycled or reclaimed.

“We are working to support the rule of the law , and our collaboration with municipal authorities and community members holds real potential,” said Jeanette de Noack, Executive Director of ADA2.

Help for Fisheries Through No-Take Zones

School of porkfish

A healthy coral reef ecosystem includes large dense schools of fish. Credit: Keith Ellenbogen/iLCP

Overfishing, weak enforcement of regulations, and lack of coordination across national borders threaten the survival of fisheries along the Mesoamerican Reef.

Across the region, conservationists are promoting no-take zones to rebuild fish stocks and restore declining ecosystems. As fish do not recognize national borders and fishers often cross country lines themselves, no-take zones need to have rules and management practices that align across the four MAR countries.

The Mesoamerican Legal Strategy Group, comprised of advocates at ELAW, IDAMHO, ADA2, and CEMDA, brings together a regional coalition that works to harmonize no-take zones and ensure they are effectively enforced and managed.

Building up regional enforcement capacity would be an impossible task without a strong justice system empowered to enforce environmental laws and regulations. In Honduras, IDAMHO has been taking the lead to educate judges, prosecutors, naval forces, merchant marines, local police, and communities about Honduran environmental law and the ways in which citizens can support enforcement. Tapping into the power of community outreach, IDAMHO conducts workshops and publishes a bi-monthly “Green Gazette” to inform the public of developments in environmental law in Honduras.

“We drive change by educating Hondurans, inside and outside government, about what’s at stake and how together we can enforce the law,” said Clarisa Vega, Executive Director of IDAMHO.

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