The Tropics: Opportunities and Challenges – An Exploration of Human-Environment Relationships in Belize

We are back from Belize! Summary of the Study Trip – March 11-19, 2016

The 9-day study trip to Belize in the context of the International Project universal complementary course The Tropics: Opportunities and Challenges – An Exploration of Human-Environment Relationships in Belize was a total success!

Throughout the trip, students had the chance to make connections with class material covered during the first 7 weeks of the semester. In Belize, the main place we stayed at was T.R.E.E.S. (the Toucan Ridge Ecological and Educational Society), a live ecology lab. We hiked on various trails led by an experienced and knowledgeable guide who helped us discover the virtues and uses of forest species. A dip at the local creek was a delightful activity appreciated by all!

During the two days we were away from T.R.E.E.S., we explored the marine ecosystem, the Mayan way of life and a famous wildlife reserve. On Day 3 we left the coast to reach a tiny coral island, Tobacco Caye, after a 45 minute boat ride. Following an introduction to snorkelling session, we attended a lecture by a marine biologist of the Tobacco Caye Marine Station which is part of the South Water MPA (Marine Protected Area). We went for a night dive by flashlight, guided by an expert. The next morning at 6 am, many of us hopped into the water for one last snorkelling dive, with numerous fish and other marine creatures surrounding us! Then, back to the mainland, we were off to the Maya Center.

Exploring the marine ecosystem - Photo by Rodica Florea

The Maya Center is a small Mayan village where we were welcomed by two wonderful people who have not only inherited TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge) from their ancestors but are also dedicated protectors of their environment and promoters of their cultural Mayan heritage. While Ernesto taught us about medicinal and nutritional wild plants from the forest, Aurora had us prepare and cook our own tortillas and cacao drink. After closing with a spiritual ceremony we were off to the nearby Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctuary for the night. On our way there, from our bus, we saw a jaguar cross the road! A rare sight, we were told. We enjoyed a night walk in the forest after supper, an early morning bird watching walk the following day, and finally a hike to the water falls after breakfast. Tarantulas, scorpions, geckos, leaf-cutting ants, and a variety of birds were among the animal species we were lucky to see in this lush tropical forest.

Learning about Tropical Forest medicinal plants the Mayan way - Photo by Myriam Mansour

Mid-week we took a day-trip from T.R.E.E.S. to the Mayan ruins of Xunanthunich located by the Guatemalan border. Our two guides were fascinating with their explanations and stories of the ancient Mayan civilisations. This step back in time in the presence of the Mayan people impacted both students and teachers. An ensuing visit to the local fresh produce market of San Ignacio, adjacent to the ruins, allowed us to further reflect on the past and present human-environment relationships among the Mayan people.

Mayan ruins of Xunanthunich - Photo by Melissa Tachdjian

On Day 7 we visited three organic farmers, all located within walking distance from T.R.E.E.S. It was very hot and humid, as usual, but the conditions were perfect for us to experience the often harsh realities of daily life. The tour was nevertheless delightful as we were shown pineapple, citrus, ginger, chayote crops, and discovered numerous exotic fruit trees such as the sour sop and mangustine, quickly realizing how a local diet can be so different from our own. One farmer generously treated us to freshly picked bananas, and coconut milk from freshly opened coconut shells!

Mr. José grows chayotes at his organic farm - Photo by Kirstin Lachance

The last day was dedicated to work on course projects and for some to enjoy one last hike near T.R.E.E.S. Our stay was wrapped up with an evening of dancing to the rhythms of Creole drummers of the Talla Walla band.

In the course of this journey, the students interacted with many Belizeans, traveled thought different ecosystems, discovered a variety of economic activities and ways of life, and were made aware of some threats to several ecosystems but also ways of preserving them. The trip itself also allowed them to strengthen their ability to live in groups, to share, to care, to respect “the other”. They started as wonderful individuals and ended as a fabulous group!

Sharing with Vanier Projects: All 23 students are now preparing projects to share with you their own experience of the Tropics course and the Belize study trip. For more information on their work, students will be presenting during “Earth Week” (April 18-22) in Jake’s Mall (see schedule here) and during “Belize Exhibition Day” May 2 & 3 in the Carrefour at Vanier College.

It is with profound gratitude that we wish to thank, once more, the Vanier community for believing in this International Project right from the beginning and for supporting it all the way to the end!

For photos and videos, please visit our Belize website:

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Myriam Mansour, Geography; International Project teacher

Quentin van Ginhoven, Environmental Wildlife Management; co-teacher

Cheryl Donison, Communications, Media and Studio Art; chaperone

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