Presentation by Siobhan McCollum, Ph.D. Student at the 2nd Belize National Research Conference, 2019.
As if plastics and garbage on the shore didn’t interrupt the paradise beach imaginary enough, in 2015, unprecedented mounds of putrid, rotting algae blanketed the coast. The bands of sargassum seaweed troubled Belize, blooming and traveling throughout the Caribbean in massive, dense, tangled mats. Village elders couldn’t recall a comparable inundation. Waves deposited the vegetation on the foreshore, now described as brown, murky and “trashy; ” a stark contrast to the crystal waters of tourists’ expectations. It was as though a historical, miasma-laden tropical landscape of the pirates’ British Honduras settlement era was burying the coastline, recalling a time when malignant, dangerous vapours were imagined to emanate from the shore, wafting and rising in invisible clouds from the rot, the detritus and the mud. Drawing on ethnographic research, I trace how rotting seaweed gathers in smelly, slimy, spongy piles that prevent access to the water and disrupt tourism’s promise of experiencing a “pristine” environment, thus eliciting tourist complaints and reservation cancellations based on claims of misleading advertising. I also examine Garifuna perceptions of the proliferating sargassum, ranging from natural cycles of the sea to dangerous “impenetrable clumps” producing an “unbearable stench” and “choking” marine animals. Discourses of “invasion” and “smothering” animate narratives of the seagrass’s interruptions to the normal flow of village life, evoking villagers’ unease about an encroaching, out-of-control nature capable breaching any nature/culture divide. Detailed anthropological analysis of these local responses to the sargassum reveal the anxieties about environmental change and the possibilities and threats of climate change.
Key words: sargassum, marine ecosystem, social impact, tourism industry