Mesoamerican Reef

Working with Farmers to Stem the Flow of Chemicals into the Reef

In the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) countries of Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala, agriculture is vital to the national economy. While less important in Mexico, it still accounts for 4% of the gross domestic product. Yet commercial agriculture (“agribusinesses”), located in the watersheds that drain into the Caribbean, present a dire threat to the health of the Reef.

Soil erosion and fertilizer runoff from plantations can fuel the growth of macroalgae that compete with corals, or trigger algae blooms that choke seagrass, a prime habitat for marine life. And run-off from pesticides, insecticides, and other agrochemicals may cause corals to bleach at lower temperatures than they otherwise would.

Dead patch reef

A dead patch reef in Mexico covered in algae, sediment, and sand. Coral reefs are dying around the world from mining, agricultural, urban runoff, pollution, overfishing, disease, and more. Credit: Keith Ellenbogen/iLCP

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) works with the main agribusinesses near the MAR–banana, citrus, palm oil, pineapple, sugar, melon, and shrimp farms–to help them decrease their impact on coastal and marine ecosystems.

By working with multinational companies, such as Chiquita and Dole, and farmer cooperatives, WWF has contributed to measurable improvements on some of the biggest farms in northern Honduras, eastern Guatemala, Belize, and Chetumal, Mexico. To date, participating farms have reduced total pesticide toxicity by 55%, making them more environmentally friendly and cost-efficient.

WWF has introduced innovations such as:

Generating electricity with biogas waste: The Agropecuaria Tornabé farm (AGROTOR) in northern Honduras has captured gas emitted by tons of decomposing waste from its palm oil extraction plant. That waste used to be dumped into a landfill and nearby river that flows into a mangrove estuary connected to the MAR. The farm now uses that biogas to generate electricity, much of which it sells to a power plant, and recycles runoff from the plant to irrigate other parts of the farm, boosting palm growth. Luis Garcia, AGROTOR farm manager, reports that the company has significantly reduced its fertilizer bill and slashed its herbicide use by more than 70%. He also confirms that water tests from nearby rivers found very low nutrient levels and no pesticides. Because of these and other better management practices, AGROTOR has been issued the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification, spurring other farms around the MAR to implement better practices of their own.

Pesticide use on banana farms in Belize is being reduced.

Pesticide use on banana farms in Belize is being reduced. Credit: David Dudenhoefer

Using weather stations to save farmers money and protect the environment: Because rains can wash agrochemicals quickly out to sea and waste money, WWF has supported the construction of 70 weather stations on MAR region farms. Data from these stations is computer analyzed to provide advice to farmers on when to apply fertilizers and other agrochemicals, and when to plant and irrigate crops. The information also helps them decrease the amount or toxicity of  chemical inputs. This is especially important on banana farms, where crop dusters frequently douse banana plants with fungicide to fight the Sigatoka leaf fungus. WWF also works with the Belize Banana Growers Association (BGA) on the adoption of an early warning system to reduce fungicide applications. BGA reported a 24% reduction of fungicide applications in the banana plantation where the model is in place. WWF is now helping BANASA in Guatemala and Dole in Honduras to field-test the model to better manage the disease.

Mayan workers monitor shrimp in Belize.

Mayan workers monitor shrimp in Belize. Credit: David Dudenhoefer

Helping Belize shrimp farmers achieve global standards certification: For several years, WWF has been working with shrimp farms in Belize to reduce the amount of harmful nutrients in their waste discharge and to conserve mangroves and seagrasses, by using less fertilizers and improving wastewater treatment. Those efforts have resulted in the documented recovery of seagrass beds in the ecologically sensitive Placencia Lagoon, which had been previously devastated by algae blooms. Nitrate content in shrimp farm effluents has been reduced by 56.2%, which exceeds the original reduction goal of 50%. The improvements have paid off for Belize shrimp farmers: 90% of Belize’s shrimp production has been certified under the Aquaculture Stewardship Council standard.

José Vásquez, WWF program manager, says he has witnessed major changes on the farms, from decreased impact on the MAR to a shift in the attitudes of farm managers and workers, who are more aware than ever of social and environmental issues affecting the reef.

Constructive engagement of the private sector is a key conservation strategy shared by WWF and Summit in their efforts to protect the MAR.

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