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The Mesoamerican Coral Reef
by Heather Spence
With the help of MEF, my work in Cancun is a prime example of “small actions = big changes.” In a region renowned for both natural wonders and massive tourism – which also has a city of almost a million people – for the past two years I have been helping students to become environmental stewards. They learn to consider that what they do makes a difference. Every small action counts. This is especially important in an area with no marine biology programs, no research centers, and a National Park department of educational outreach consisting of two people and no funding.
I have been able to begin to address this gap by developing and initiating new programs to be hosted collaboratively by the National Park office. Through presentations and videos, school children on Isla Mujeres and in the city of Cancun now understand that coral is a living animal, and some high school students have taken the initiative to start green clubs. The results that MEF has helped achieve are long term, and I wish I could adequately describe on paper the excitement of students as they learn about their natural world, and the power they have to help others to see the wonders and learn to respect them.
Cancun is situated on the Mesoamerican Reef, second largest coral reef system in the world. Its wonders attract tourists from many countries, yet local people are largely unaware of the natural treasures that surround them. When I talk to school groups, their teachers, and sometimes their parents as well, I explain about the reef, and the way it protects the beach from the force of storms. I tell also how the mangroves around the lagoon are nurseries for fish and other animals. Kids are fascinated to hear about the diversity of life and how everything is interconnected with the reef. We discuss how to turn harmful actions into helpful ones. Students come away excited to talk about it with their friends and family. Sometimes, with the cooperation of local tour operators, it is even possible to take groups of students out to see the reef. They love getting to know more about the special features of the place where they live.
Together with outreach staff from the park service, I teach that appreciation of the natural world begins right where you are. Special things are everywhere. I had to do research to find out about native wildlife and local ecosystems because no one had studied them before. It is exciting giving interactive presentations about local flora and fauna that can be found right under our noses. To reinforce our lessons, I distribute copies of the bilingual activity book I’ve written – “Marine Life of the Mexican Caribbean.” It suggests various activities to try. One of the things I like best is to ask kids to just stop and listen. We so often focus only on the visual, but when we tune in to sounds around us we become aware of a whole other dimension.
My work, fundamentally, is not just training environmental stewards, but motivating spokespeople for the environment. I help students want to learn about their environment, and encourage them to reach out to others. With help from MEF, I designed and made T-shirts with the National Park slogan “Admire, but don’t touch!” which serve as great conversation starters. Although most of the people I work with do not have easy internet access, I do make videos when I can and try to post interesting items on my website. Mexican TV and radio stations have shown some of my videos and invited me to discuss my outreach efforts. I hope to establish a research and cultural center in Cancun to serve as a focus for bringing attention to the need to promote sustainable strategies so people can live in harmony with the natural environment, especially in high-pressure coastal tourist areas.