Barriers: Environmental Reporting in Belize
Most college seniors spend their spring break partying on a beach. I spent mine at a dump in southern Belize.
I joined a team of 30 reporters, videographers, photojournalists and interactive designers on a 10-day trip to Placencia, Belize to cover the impact of climate change on local culture. The trip, where we worked 18-hour days to report our stories, was part of the Global Storytelling class offered each spring at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There were five teams, each composed of one reporter, two videographers, one photographer and two designers, and each was tasked with exploring a different topic related to climate change and culture. My group, affectionately know as the “trash cats,” reported on the dirty reality of Belize’s waste management system.
Our reporting took us to the Placencia Municipal Dump, where we stood among the flies and vultures to learn where the trash on the peninsula really goes. We spent a day at the home of Vincent Budna, the dump’s caretaker, getting to know him and his family. We visited the village of Seine Bight, an impoverished community of Garifuna, a cultural group of mixed African and Caribbean descent. We ate a meal prepared by Trinell Smith Martinez, who rose from working as a dishwasher to the executive chef of a resort.
It was here that I learned what it really means to tell a story — how to capture a culture vastly different than my own in a 2,000 word piece, how to transform the sights and sounds and smells and hospitality into a sentence that would convey the nuances of an extremely complex problem. I grappled with the ethics of “parachute journalism,” and how to work with our story partners to ensure their stories were told accurately and fairly. I learned what it takes to produce a documentary, code a website and shoot a photostory, and how my role as a writer fits into the bigger picture of multimedia storytelling.
Our week in Placencia was the week our world was falling apart. Coronavirus was spreading across the U.S., and we thousands of miles away. I was walking out of an interview when I got the message that all university classes were moving online for the rest of the semester. Around the world, borders began to close, and we worried if we would make it home. And still, we worked. We filmed, we wrote, and we refused to let the coming pandemic stop us from our goal: bringing awareness to environmental issues.
Little did I know that our group hug in the airport would be the last time I would touch anyone other than my immediate family for months. That the last day in Belize would be the last time I would be in an in-person class. Our team scattered to ride out the pandemic, but we did not stop: we moved online, working remotely to edit documentaries, write stories, code the website.
At the end of the semester, we held a virtual screening, and I could not be more proud of the final product. When we selected the name of our project, Barriers, we intended for the name to address the obstacles facing the preservation of Belize’s barrier reef. Looking back, I think the name more accurately represents the barriers we faced during this project, and the barriers we overcame to make this a reality.