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.
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.