Janet Gib­son

A life ded­i­cated to the sea


Born and raised on the coast of Belize in the ex­treme north­east of Cen­tral Amer­ica, Janet Gib­son’s des­tiny seemed sealed by her spe­cial con­nec­tion with the sea. She stud­ied bi­ol­ogy and zool­ogy in the United States, and soon af­ter re­turned to work for the Fish­eries Depart­ment in Belize City, the coun­try’s largest city. But in such an or­ga­ni­za­tion, she never felt quite com­fort­able - the flora and fauna of the ocean were mostly seen by the gov­ern­ments at the time merely as re­sources to ex­ploit.

It wasn’t un­til she col­lab­o­rated with the Belize Au­dobon So­ci­ety to pro­tect Me­dia Luna Cay that her life be­gan to take a dif­fer­ent turn. It was the end of the 1970s, and it was then she be­came an ocean con­ser­va­tion­ist. She fi­nally felt that she was do­ing what her heart and soul re­quested of her. “I grew up lov­ing the ocean and in the end that was the base of my ca­reer,” she says, look­ing back in ret­ro­spect.

Cur­rently, Gib­son is re­tired af­ter a life ded­i­cated to con­serv­ing and pro­tect­ing Belize’s ocean, home to, among other things, the largest coral reef in the western hemi­sphere, mea­sur­ing about 185 miles long. Per­haps her dis­creet and re­served work dur­ing four decades didn’t lead to global

fame, but with­out a doubt she is a prom­i­nent fig­ure in marine con­ser­va­tion and is held in very high es­teem among her peers and ocean lovers the world over.

Her res­o­lute and per­se­ver­ant work for Belize’s marine ecosys­tems was rec­og­nized i n 1990 with the Gold­man En­vi­ron­men­tal Prize, the most pres­ti­gious award for en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, which high­lighted her de­ter­mi­na­tion and ca­pac­ity for rais­ing aware­ness in her coun­try re­gard­ing top­ics that years prior were com­pletely di­vi­sive.

First vic­to­ries

Pos­sess­ing un­shak­able com­mit­ment and con­vic­tion, Gib­son was able to change the luck of Belize’s ocean through much sac­ri­fice and pas­sion. By the mid-1980’s, de­vel­op­ment pres­sures, sewage wa­ter, over­fish­ing, and grow­ing tourism were en­dan­ger­ing Hol Chan, an un­der­wa­ter chan­nel in the coral reef that con­nects coastal wa­ter with the open sea. Gib­son was one of the peo­ple who saw the need and ur­gency to pro­tect it: it’s an area with abun­dant sea grass, coral forests, and pro­lific marine life.

Work­ing for Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that she l ater l ed as di­rec­tor, she headed a man­age­ment plan that trans­formed the site into a marine re­serve in 1987, the first of its kind in Cen­tral Amer­ica. To do so she searched high and low for sup­port, break­ing the reign­ing par­a­digms and skep­ti­cism and cre­at­ing a multi- level cam­paign that reached cit­i­zens, busi­nesses, tourism op­er­a­tors, fish­er­men, and the Belize gov­ern­ment.

Soon ini­tial mis­trust gave way to ac­cep­tance af­ter ir­refutable ev­i­dence was avail­able: with Hol Chan pro­tected, fish were pros­per­ing and the ecosys­tem was re­stored quickly, which brought tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits for fish­eries and tourism. To­day the 12.5 square mile-park re­ceives 70,000 vis­i­tors ev­ery year, a num­ber that con­trib­utes

“Gib­son headed a man­age­ment plan that trans­formed Hol Chan into a marine re­serve in 1987, the first of its kind in Cen­tral Amer­ica.”

“There doesn’t seem to be strong po­lit­i­cal will to do the things needed in or­der to re­move the coral reef from the list of World Her­itage Sites in Dan­ger.”

sig­nif­i­cantly to mak­ing tourism one of Belize’s most im­por­tant sources of in­come.

Hol Chan pro­vided the ini­tial im­pe­tus for fu­ture re­serves and marine parks in Belize. In 1993, Gib­son’s work was fun­da­men­tal in the des­ig­na­tion of Glover Reef, a coral atoll that is one of Gib­son’s fa­vorite places, as a marine re­serve. She also par­tic­i­pated in the es­tab­lish­ment of Ba­calar Chico Na­tional Park and Marine Re­serve. Both pro­tected ar­eas, along with five oth­ers along Belize’s reef, were de­clared UNESCO World Her­itage Sites in 1996, with Gib­son play­ing an im­por­tant role in their des­ig­na­tion.

Gib­son’s work was also cru­cial in strength­en­ing Belize’s Coastal Zone Man­age­ment Pro­gram, an ini­tia­tive cre­ated t o make sure t he coun­try’s coast and mar­itime ar­eas are used sus­tain­ably and that marine bio­di­ver­sity is con­served.

From the out­side

She may be re­tired now, but Janet Gib­son has def­i­nitely not with­drawn from the fight. She re­mains ac­tive through in­volve­ment on com­mit­tees and boards of di­rec­tors, among them the Belize Marine Fund, which al­lows her to con­tinue sup­port­ing and ad­vo­cat­ing for

marine con­ser­va­tion. De­spite this, there’s still some­thing that keeps her up at night. “I’m proud of my work, but there are cer­tain things I would like to have de­vel­oped be­fore re­tir­ing, so there are some dis­ap­point­ments. Still, I think I had a pretty good ca­reer,” Gib­son rec­og­nizes.

One of her big dis­ap­point­ments is that the World Her­itage Site she helped de­velop has been listed as a “site in dan­ger” dur­ing the last eight years. De­vel­op­ment, poor man­age­ment of cer­tain ar­eas, and the po­ten­tial ex­plo­ration for oil and gas in the ocean bed are the prin­ci­pal threats to the coral reef. As such, Gib­son feels there is still much work to do.

On sev­eral oc­ca­sions, she has re­it­er­ated Belize’s need to do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to pro­tect its coral reef. Hav­ing the largest coral reef in the western hemi­sphere is with­out a doubt a point of pride for any Belizean, but it’s also a re­spon­si­bil­ity. The reef is valu­able not only for its un­match­able beauty, but also for the ser­vices it of­fers to the fish­ing in­dus­try, tourism, and hu­man­ity in gen­eral: Belize’s coast­line is ex­tremely low, and the coral reef acts as a nat­u­ral bar­rier for pro­tec­tion.

“There doesn’t seem to be strong po­lit­i­cal will to do the things needed in or­der to re­move the coral reef from t he l i st of World Her­itage Sites in Dan­ger,” says Gib­son, who main­tains cau­tious hope that some day this will be achieved. It’s time for the next gen­er­a­tions to take the ba­ton.

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