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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 July 2006, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
A people dependent on coral
By Roger Harrabin
BBC News, San Pedro, Belize

The United Nations is being asked to step in to protect a barrier reef which lies just off Belize in Central America. Island dwellers fear its erosion could endanger their homes and livelihoods if action is not taken soon.

Map of Belize and surrounding areas
San Pedro is the cash cow for the entire Belizean economy

San Pedro is a little holiday town on a small island just off the Caribbean coast of Belize.

It enjoyed a brief moment of fame in the Madonna song "La Isla Bonita".

The great lady herself never came here, apparently, but her songwriter did.

Anyway, it is not the queen of self-promotion on whom people here in San Pedro depend.

No, it is an organism that knows its humble place but has helped to reshape the tropics: the polyp - the creature that builds the coral reefs.

The polyps have brought wealth to this little island and it is their protective girdle that allows beachfront properties to be built right on to the sand without fear of tidal surges from hurricanes.

It is the polyps which have constructed an elaborate breeding ground for fish to fill the bellies of local people.

And it is the polyps which have indirectly provided a livelihood to people like Lyrical King, an ageing dreadlocked reggae strummer who has just wandered past, serenading the tourists sunbathing after their dives on the reef.

"Stir it up, little darling," he implores.

Coral bleaching

But a few locals are beginning to come to terms with the notion that some time in the future the reef may be damaged beyond repair.

Billy Leslie
Billy Leslie has seen coral deteriorate drastically since the 80s
No polyps will mean no tourists and no dollars for Lyrical King.

Billy Leslie, who runs a diving operation and is the son of a commercial fisherman, took me down to see the damage the coral is suffering.

Billy is a cheerful fellow. You will note, from the grin on his face as he peruses the trophy line of discarded bikini bottoms festooned above his bar, that his employment reward package is not merely financial.

But he does not laugh when he describes the state of the reef.

He remembers the first time it was hit by the phenomenon known as coral bleaching just a few years ago.

Bleaching happens when water temperature reaches such a height that the single-celled plants called zooxanthelli - which live inside the coral polyps and provide them with oxygen - are driven away from the reef.

The bleaching strips the reef of its colours as well.

"It is horrible," Billy says. "Like seeing the corals covered in snow."

Dwindling opportunity

The reef was beginning to show some signs of recovery from its first bleaching until, a few years later, it was once again hit by high water temperatures.

Elkhorn coral
Human activity, hurricanes and high water temperatures threaten coral

Now the corals are in a sorry state.

Ancient corals are split apart, attacked by parasites and crumbling.

And that of course is extremely bad news for San Pedro because if the reef breaks up, the hurricane wave protection is gone.

And if there is nothing to stop the storm-force waves from sweeping onto the island, Billy's livelihood is gone too, along with the stream of foreign female admirers who learned to dive under his twinkling but watchful eye.

Also gone are many of the bars and hotels that have made barmen in San Pedro among the top 10 earners in this land of widespread unemployment.

San Pedro is the cash cow for the entire Belizean economy.

Science and ethics

So what is mainly to blame for the problem with the coral?

Well, reef scientists tell us it is global warming.

Reefs all round the world are struggling. They cannot cope with the stress of greenhouse gases from rich nations far away.

Combating greenhouse gas emissions by installing new technology, is, Western nations tell us, a costly and controversial business.

Fish in coral
Belize's coral reef is the biggest in the Western Hemisphere

But while the West hesitates over the investment, scientists say the real costs of climate change are being felt in places like San Pedro.

Campaigners in Belize point out that the reef here is a World Heritage site which should be under UN protection.

Their petition is due to be heard by the UN's World Heritage committee in Unesco in the next few days.

The Americans on the committee do not like the petition and they are trying to get it thrown out.

They say it is divisive and that there is no absolute proof that greenhouse gases are responsible for the warming of the water. Even if there were, they say, the damage would be accidental and accidental damage cannot be seen as a breach of the World Heritage sites treaty.

But the campaigners say science and ethics are on their side.

They believe that if the UN will accept that the reef is being harmed by climate change, international attention will be drawn to the issue, thus raising the possibility that sometime in the future those responsible for climate change will have to compensate the victims for the damage that they have caused.

But all that is a long way off and on the beach and the bars of San Pedro they are not holding their breath.

More likely, they fear, a bleak future lies ahead... not only for the polyp, but also for people like Lyrical King and Billy the dive master who depend upon it.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 8 July, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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25 Jan 06 |  Science/Nature
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17 Jan 06 |  Technology
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22 Apr 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Acid oceans spell doom for coral
29 Aug 04 |  Science/Nature

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