Faculty leaders: Jeffrey Boeke, Ed.D., Faculty in Health Promotion and Exercise Science
Thomas C. Johnson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Communication Studies
During the first week of our course, we readied for our sixteen days in the country—eight days on the mainland and eight days on the ocean. As part of our preparations, we outlined environmental issues impacting Belize’s natural resources and discussed how a central goal of environmental communication is to discern and promote good practices through both study and activity.
Upon arrival, we used an ethnographic lens to look at how environmental communication, as well as ecotourism, is represented, practiced, negotiated, and experienced by whom, where, and why, in Belize. In short, we embraced our roles as not only experiential learners but participant observers, as well, from start to finish.
Reflecting on Relationships Between Nature and Human Beings
On the mainland, we built on previous class texts and read “When Whales ‘Speak for Themselves’: Communication as a Mediating Force in Wildlife Tourism” (Milstein, 2008). Granted, Milstein’s ethnographic investigation focused on whale watching and communication in transnational waters in North Pacific, but their work supplied us with the intellectual tools to critically engage “how communication may serve as a mediating force of human relations in burgeoning sites of intersecting cultures and natures” (p. 173) such as those in Belize.
Whether on a boat birding tour of Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, on a nighttime canoe trip on Cox Lagoon, or on one of our snorkel excursions on the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, we contemplated our absence of words, our moments of silence, and our verbal and non-verbal responses. In turn, this pushed us to reflect intently, meaningfully, and see deeper relationships between nature and human beings, which ultimately helped us consider a more ecocentric way of thinking.
A few days after Milstein, and at the halfway point of our course, we read “Nature is Becoming a Person” (Smith, 2021). Here, our critical faculties were challenged that much further as they asked us “how to make sense of the new global trend that grants legal rights to animals, plants, and rivers” (para. 1). Once again, our community embraced a robust public sphere with arguments and counterarguments, but Smith’s provocative work undoubtedly demanded an elevated level of humility, openmindedness.
Examining Lifestyle Migration
On the ocean, a few days into our time in Ambergris Caye, we read “Diversity of Lifestyle: A View from Belize” (Jackiewicz & Govdyak, 2015). In the article, the authors examined lifestyle migration by looking at Belize-based destinations, including Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. When we read their essay, we had done participant observation in Ambergris Caye, but not yet in Caye Caulker. So, during our morning class before our afternoon trip to Caye Caulker, we discussed why Belize is often ranked high as a destination of lifestyle migrants, as well as synopsized the authors’ findings on Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker.
Then, with tourism ethnography in mind, we tasked ourselves with the following: ‘In Ambergris Caye and in Caye Caulker, seek out evidence of communication about the environment. Investigate, dig in, and document your findings accordingly for future discussions. Along these lines, pick up brochures, flyers, postcards, advertisements, etc. that represent Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker in any way (at least two from each person).’
While much of our findings represented environmental ideologies such as conservationism or preservationism, we also found ample evidence of Jackiewicz and Govdyak’s assertion: “The residents of tiny Caye Caulker appear, thus, to be in a vulnerable state in the face of growing investment, with little hope of protecting themselves and retaining the tranquil lifestyle that, up until now, has characterized the island” (p. 33). Again, we were challenged, but a willingness to change our viewpoints when presented with better reasoning and evidence was still at the forefront of our work as a collective of learners.
Considering Sense of Place
Whether seeing San Ignacio Farmer’s Market, exploring Xunantunich Mayan Ruins, or canoeing the Sibun River, we considered a number of aforementioned matters, including a sense of place. Regarding this, Corbett (2015) offered, “Some people feel that at-home-ness in the mountains, some feel it near a body of water, … The physical space is a source of rootedness, belonging, and comfort” (p. 17).
With this in mind, we brought our last class to a close and asked, ‘In thinking about sense of place, what place do you know intimately and how does that knowledge influence how you care for it, respect it, and safeguard it?’ Hopefully, this final question, coupled with everything else that went into our course, COMS 239 Environmental Communication in Belize, provoked (and will continue to provoke) us in a number of ways, including to learn actively, live purposefully, and lead courageously for a lifetime of impact.