A swirling black hole in island paradise
For anyone that has lived for some time on a small island will know that the mindset of islanders is different to those of the mainland. A culture that breeds community, and almost a somewhat fear of the outside world. Last year i spent seven months supporting the development of a colourful hostel on the remote island of Holbox, three hours north of Cancun, Mexico and fell in love with the location. However, it’s not without its concerns, but who is listening in to the SOS?
Isla Holbox means ‘black hole’ in Yucatec Mayan and with its long beaches, lagoons filled with migrating flamingos and tropical fish it is no wonder that every tourist that comes to visit begs to stay for extra time…. myself included. I planned to stay for 3 weeks and stayed for 7 months, what can i say, when you live in paradise (well, for the most part), why leave.
The inhabitants, which never exceeds 2,000, is a mixture between mayan, spanish and some cubans who make their living either through fishing or within the tourism industry. The houses are colourful, with thanks in part to the street artist festival that takes place, and the constant stream of travellers who leave their own mark.
But this isn’t a post about the beauty of Holbox, even though it deserves one. This post is about the issue of a culture shift and how it is affecting the inhabitants of this delicate island.
For many centuries this small island was awash with pirates, that used it as a smuggling ground. The pirates have long gone along with their swashbuckling swords and instead a new culture is burgeoning, tourists with their flash cash. In the 1970s first to come was Coca Cola, then electricity in 1987 and soon after the first intrepid tourists who had heard about paradise just across the water.
The inhabitants of Holbox are relaxed but hardworking, joyful yet serious and always gossiping, well, it is a close-knit small community so we’ll let them off. Walking barefoot through the sandy pathways of Holbox (none of the roads are paved), you pass by children playing in the streets or driving golf carts with excited dogs in the passenger seat, older ladies sitting by their front door stitching, and street sellers tempt you with anything from freshly baked empanadas to homemade hammocks.
But stay there for long enough and you can well see the marks of stress. The boat that brings tourists used to travel from Chiquila once a day, but now due to the influx of tourism there is a boat travelling every hour. For such a small ecosystem this has a huge impact for which, at the moment, very little is being done to preserve the original culture and traditions. Aside from the sights you’d see walking down the streets you will also see one main point of contention; trash.
Trash, it’s everywhere and i mean everywhere, yes, the “pristine” sandy beaches included. A year ago there was one large garbage dump in the centre of the island which was utilized for all the island rubbish, the cost of trucks taking it off the island is too high. The only choice was to collect the garbage in mesh cages or bins on the side of the road, deposit it in the garbage dump and burn everything. The site was on a constant burn, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
With little municipal support, it has been down to the locals to improve the service. Within the short time that I lived on the island a kickstarter fund began to try to improve the condition of the trash. Some of the local businesses have also begun offering discounts in return for trash collecting, a group of us also started up a weekly trash collection on the island and regularly asked for volunteers, but there was only a few raised hands. For every bag we picked up or every mattress we unearthed within a week there would be another replacing it. In terms of trash we were picking up 28 bags in 2 hours. Last year, the Yaax Beh association estimated that, since 2009, the amount of solid waste on the island increased 111%, to the point of totaling 60 tons per month, nearly all from tourism.
“Whilst paradise has slowly grown, unfortunately, the facilities have been left behind, with little to no investment. The main problem is with rubbish, where endless tons of plastic are added to the ever-growing pile of waste. A lack of a recycling programme, alongside a lack of education in ecology, could leave Holbox increasingly at risk of falling foul of this growing problem with waste management" Daniel, Holbox Resident
It comes down to mindfulness. How do you shift an embedded culture to encourage locals and tourists to care about the island and the surrounding delicate ecosystems. There is definitely an interest some of the locals who were keen to ask us what we were doing picking up bottle tops from the floor and why we were bothering in the first place, for others it was the perfect moment to roll their eyes and snigger. So, just what are individuals, groups and businesses doing on the island to improve the situation?
I recently caught up with Juliana, who is involved with the Consejo de Desarrollo Holbox A.C who is focusing on solving the trash issue. In just the last few months alone they have organized a number of island clean-ups, but this time they’ve been making bigger steps forward. There is a lot of construction happening on the island, to accommodate the ever growing tourist trade, and so they have arranged that the union of trucks bringing materials to the island leave filled with garbage and are taken to a mainland garbage disposal unit. This has been working very well as a short term solution, so as long as construction is happening there will be waste disposal. This same approach is now being taken with glass, teams are breaking it up and the trucks are taking it away whilst ECOCE are collecting the PET and cans in exchange for basic food such as rice, beans and oil.
Another approach that this team have been working on has been to organise bins and recycling units around the island but it is general perception that a campaign was needed before the installment of such bins to outline the importance of separating the materials.
But, what can we do that will help with the situation. Firstly i strongly believe that Holbox needs municipal support in terms of embedding this culture shift. There must be recycling bins situated around the beaches which are regularly emptied and sorted. The garbage dumps need to be re-organised into material waste areas to cancel out the burning. New projects need to be established to support the using of recycled materials. These could include: using recycled bottles to create plastic roping, art or hammocks for example.
A school education programme should be started to educate and encourage young people how to properly dispose of their waste. In the school we cleaned, we picked up 42 bags of rubbish. Starting with schools is the perfect way to begin a culture shift, ensuring that young people feel a responsibility and connecting to the paradise island in which they live, enough for them to want to protect it.
For now, we are left to wonder just how much can Holbox handle without the proper planning, guidance and policies in place? What will be left of the island in 50 years time as more and more tourists come, prices for land are set outside of viable local prices and big brand names step in. In the short time that i lived on the island i saw unmeasurable changes, perhaps as Holbox has been featured in hundreds of websites, blogs and even magazines including Vogue and The Guardian, we will actually only need to wait 5 years.