The first time I heard about The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Belize and their partnership with the Belize Women’s Seaweed Farmers Association (BWFSA) was during the presentations at the TCP Fair. I lingered a bit in their breakout room during the Q&A portion of the event. As the President of BWFSA addressed our questions, I was immediately drawn in by the focus on female entrepreneurship and alternative livelihoods within the regional context of Central America. The immediate surge of excitement I felt was followed by abrupt hesitation. As much as I recognized the value of having a TCP option that complimented my professional focus in international development, I did not have an agriculture or environmental science background. I wondered, was it wise to take on a project outside my area of expertise? How would this project be relevant to my future career path? Would I have the right skills to contribute? At the end of the event, I decided to pursue my interest in other organizations, but The Nature Conservancy was always in the back of my mind.
That was back in mid-March. Fast forward a month or so later and, at this point, it’s deep into Spring semester. I’m fully aware that the weeks left to choose a TCP team and commit to a TCP project are rapidly dwindling.
There wasn’t really one moment that made my decision clear – it was the accumulation of several moments, both big and small, that reinforced one another. As I sat in class one morning, I reflected on these moments and realized I already had all the information I needed. I decided I couldn’t go wrong leaning into the incredible relationships I’d built here at Heller, and I knew I would regret not taking advantage of the space to explore and stretch myself professionally. Right there, at the start of our 10 minute break, I opened the “TCP Orgs” spreadsheet and wrote “Andy (1)” in the fourth space next to “The Nature Conservancy.” With now the minimum number of students signed-up, TNC Belize project was officially a TCP team!
Like the Chica Bean TCP Teams before us, our group was able to secure funding to conduct field research and begin building relationships with our stakeholders in person. On May 16th, our team traveled first to Caye Caulker, one of Belize’s offshore islands, where we spoke with local entrepreneurs and professionals in the ecotourism industry. These conversations gave us an important perspective on the current business environment in Belize as well as the challenges facing marine conservation efforts. Next, we headed to San Ignacio, a town near the border with Guatemala. There we interviewed entrepreneurs who helped us understand the extent of Belize’s reliance on foreign imports and the implications this has on the production and sale of seaweed products in markets outside the country. In Belize City, we met with Saleem Chan, a Mariculture Specialist with The Nature Conservancy who is also serving as our primary facilitator. We met Saleem at the headquarters of the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association (TASA), whose staff are dedicated to the management of marine reserves. Saleem sat down with us and described the history of seaweed agriculture in Belize as well as the current landscape of stakeholders involved in the industry. After leaving Belize City, we headed to Placencia, where the BWFSA members live. We spent a week meeting with several of them and getting a better sense of the culture in Placencia. Our fieldwork culminated with a trip to Hatchet Caye, where we saw the seaweed farms firsthand and learned the basics of farm maintenance.
Now, it’s summer semester and we are officially moving full-speed ahead with our project! I am so grateful to be working alongside my brilliant teammates Gabi Rufo, MBA/SID’22, Beck Hayes, MBA/SID’22, Douglass Guernsey, MBA’22, and Shiko Rugene, MBA/MPP’23. All of us bring a unique set of skills and a nuanced perspective to the project. Thanks to the generosity of the Heller Enrichment Funds and the Office of Graduate Student Affairs, we have already laid significant groundwork for this project. We’re confident that we will come out on the other side with useful and relevant recommendations for the BWFSA and an unparalleled experience for our professional growth.