Freshwater Cup Soccer and Environmental Competition Builds Reef Stewardship in Belize
Toledo District, Belize
Belize is well known for its incredible biodiversity, both terrestrial and marine. In the Toledo District in southern Belize, the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor is home to many species including iguanas, ocelots, jaguars, and over 500 species of birds as well as coastal ecosystems with mangrove fringed cayes, soft-bottom seagrass beds, and fringing reefs.
This area currently has a low but rapidly growing human population. Watersheds are still relatively pristine and water quality is high but land-based pollution is increasing. The main sources are agricultural runoff, soil erosion due to clearance of riverside forests, detergents from clothes washing in rivers and plastic trash from littering or improper disposal of solid waste. Land-based pollution impacts marine ecosystems but people living far from the sea can often be unaware of the impacts they have on the reef. The local nongovernmental organization, the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) is working on projects to protect water quality in southern Belize despite the growing population by enhancing stewardship of freshwater resources.
Belizeans love football – playing it, watching it, talking about it. Local tournaments are some of the most popular social activities in the south and competitions with prizes always draw a crowd. Capitalizing on this passion, in 2004 TIDE set up the Freshwater Cup. This is a football tournament with a twist – in order to enter, each team must first plan and execute a project to protect freshwater resources. Typical projects include planting trees to protect riverbanks, removing trash from creeks, painting murals celebrating nature or installing signs with environmental messages.
Originally, the competition was exclusively for adults. A children’s competition was introduced in 2007 and in 2011, the adult competition was removed in order to accommodate more children’s teams. The competition is now for primary school children (male and female) aged twelve or under. Approximately 20 schools participate.
TIDE’s Approach Step by Step
1. TIDE’s environmental education coordinator visits schools to present the competition, explain the rules, and encourage teams to enter.
2. In a second visit, the education coordinator gives presentations on aquatic and marine ecosystems, land-sea interconnectivity and human impacts; facilitates a discussion on problems affecting local freshwater resources and encourages teams to suggest solutions; and uses examples of past projects to illustrate how to design a good project and encourages teams to seek input on the design from the wider community.
3. Teams then plan projects tailored to their community’s needs and fill out a project plan form that includes a budget (typically less than US$250), funding plan and timetable for completion of activities.
4. Teams register for the Freshwater Cup by submitting their completed project plan form, a list of team members and a team contract agreeing to abide by the rules of the game and the principle of fair play.
5. TIDE staff members evaluate each project plan. Proposals are accepted or returned to the team for modification. A team whose proposal is returned must improve its project plan or withdraw its application.
6. Once approved, teams have four months to complete their projects. In this time, they receive at least one visit from the education coordinator, who monitors progress and provides advice and encouragement. A small budget is made available to support the projects.
7. By the deadline, each team must provide a project report. Teams unable to complete their project or provide a report must provide justification for an extension or be disqualified.
8. TIDE personnel judge the projects according to pre-determined criteria. They read the project reports and visit the sites, where the children present their projects. The winners are announced at the football tournament finals (see below).
9. The football component of the Freshwater Cup has two parts, a league stage and a knockout stage. First, male and female teams are divided into two leagues by geography (giving a total of four leagues). Over several weeks, each team plays the others in its league. TIDE provides the schools with equipment, arranges transportation for away teams, and organizes volunteer coaches and referees.
10. The two teams earning the highest number of points in each league advance to the knockout tournament, which is held on one day toward the end of the school year. On the championship day, the semi-finals, third-place play-off and final are played before the prize-giving ceremony.
11. First, second and third placed winners of the best environmental project and football tournaments (male and female) receive prizes consisting of school supplies, a trophy and a framed photograph of the team for the school, plus school supplies, school fees and winners medals for the individual team members.
How successful has it been?
The TIDE Freshwater Cup has been remarkably successful. It has mobilized schools and entire communities to develop greater awareness of and commitment to freshwater ecosystems.
Enhanced Environmental Stewardship
Through the mini-projects, many people have seized the opportunity to improve their local environment. “In many cases, the environmental projects transcend the football championship” (UNICEF 2009). For example, in 2007, the adult team from Bella Vista cleaned up an area at the edge of their village that had inadvertently become a garbage dump. They used a dump truck to remove the garbage to a nearby landfill. The following year, they took up the issue with the village council, constructed a new sanitary landfill and arranged regular waste collection for the village. Similarly, in 2008, the senior team in Jacintoville cleaned up a garbage dump and put up signage to discourage dumping. They formed an environmental club, which continues to organize regular village clean-ups.
The most popular projects have often been the ones that create green spaces in schools and communities. For example, in 2012 Bladen Primary School cleared trash from a local creek and created a pleasant riverside space with benches to enjoy nature. Other successful projects have included setting up organic vegetable gardens at schools, installing garbage bins by rivers and highways, tree planting and finding imaginative ways to recycle, such as building garbage bins and fences from used plastic bottles. There have been some bold education projects too. In 2013, the school team from San Marcos gave presentations to their parents, most of whom are farmers, to educate them on the harmful effects of pesticides and herbicides on aquatic life.
Players, classmates, and family members join in the environmental projects, thereby creating a domino effect of environmental awareness in the wider community. The reward that children get from successfully completing an environmental project (not just the competition prizes but also the appreciation and praise of their parents, teachers and peers) helps children to develop a sense of social responsibility and environmental stewardship. What is more, the TIDE Freshwater Cup is the first time that many of these children (and even teachers) are exposed to key environmental messages. Many had never heard of climate change, or were aware that the Belize Barrier Reef can be harmed by activities of people hundreds of miles inland. The majority of participating children seem to have internalized these ideas because school principals and teachers comment that since the Freshwater Cup, school compounds are much cleaner and they hear children telling others not to litter. TIDE provides the opportunity for these children to carry enhanced stewardship into their adult lives.
Other Social Benefits
Being part of a team that comes up with a shared vision for a project and successfully realizes it is tremendously rewarding for the children. It fosters teamwork and empowers kids by making them realize what can be accomplished when they work together. The sports component has given thousands of girls, boys, women and men the opportunity to participate in a sports competition, helping to promote a healthy lifestyle, gender equality, teamwork, self-esteem and friendship between people of different ethnic and cultural groups. Three members of the current Belize national team played in the TIDE Freshwater Cup. “Given the shortage of leisure activities and the overall poverty of the local area, the programme also acts as a sound source of entertainment that contributes toward a healthy lifestyle for adolescents and children” (UNICEF 2009). The competition has proven so popular that is has become a household name in Toledo.
To increase the impact of environmental projects, TIDE plans to start encouraging schools to conduct multi-year projects, and will be assisting other organizations with replicating the program within Belize and internationally.
The TIDE Freshwater Cup has won several international awards for innovation in sustainable development, namely: the CEPAL Social Innovation Award in 2008 (from among over 800 entries), the Green Apple Award in 2010, and the International Olympic Committee’s Award for Sport and Sustainable Development in 2012.
Lessons learned and recommendations
Prioritize schoolchildren: Originally, the TIDE Freshwater Cup only involved adult teams but we have gradually shifted to only involving schoolchildren. This is because children are generally more receptive to learning and behavior change than adults and working with schools brings advantages in terms of organization. Teachers ensure projects are completed on time and teams consistently show up for games. Lastly, family and friends almost always get involved in the children’s projects, leading to more widespread awareness in the community.
Support teams to improve their environmental projects: Teachers and students sometimes enter the program with a low level of awareness and do not know what effective steps they can take to protect freshwater ecosystems. Teachers also have many demands on their time and leading a project can easily slip to the bottom of the pile. TIDE overcomes this lack of capacity by providing guidance and encouragement at key junctures, such as:
- Meeting with school principals to gain their support
- Hosting classroom lessons on human impacts on freshwater ecosystems
- Facilitating project inception meetings with teams
- Visiting projects and calling team leaders to check on progress
- Providing a clear set of criteria for judging projects
- Publicly rewarding and recognizing good performance, not just with prizes, but with praise and certificates of appreciation
All this takes a lot of time and effort – we estimate at least one hour per team per week for the four-month duration of the projects – but it is worth it because you will be leveraging orders of magnitude more time and effort and building capacity for environmental stewardship at the same time.
Children can be effective agents of change but they must be enabled: Children and adolescents are open to new ways of thinking and can challenge older generations to do more about the world’s problems. They can be influential environmental advocates, as recognised by UNICEF (2009), who have sponsored the program for a total of three years. “There is no doubt that respect for children and adolescents as subjects with full rights provides enormous benefits for society as a whole. This process… includes involvement and respect for young people as prime movers in environmental protection and the prevention and mitigation of natural disasters” (UNICEF 2009). For this to happen, children must be enabled to come up with their own ideas and have their say. Unfortunately, busy teachers sometimes find it easier to write projects themselves without consulting the children. Do your best to encourage teachers to include the children in the project design as this will maximize the personal growth of environmental stewardship from within.
Encourage teams to include other stakeholders: The most successful projects often enlist the support of multiple stakeholders, such as village councils and community groups. Obtaining input from these stakeholders during project planning will help garner their support. Local businesses may be keen to be associated with a popular community environmental and sports event. Your organization and the participating teams may be able to capitalize on this to get sponsorship for team kits, equipment, transportation and prizes.
Use the games for environmental awareness: Once the environmental projects are done and the soccer competition is underway, it can be easy for some to forget stewardship of freshwater resources. There are several things you can do to ensure the environmental focus is not lost. Have the teams present their projects at the games – enthusiastic teams will give performances every bit as entertaining as the match! Insist that each team displays a banner illustrating their name and project. Get volunteers to talk to people in the crowd about ways they can protect downstream environments. And, if you can, get a PA system and have an MC commentate on the games and remind everyone of your environmental messages. Use the event to draw media attention and get your message out to a much wider audience.
Hold a debriefing: A focus group meeting to evaluate the program will provide useful feedback to continually improve.
Make the most of volunteers: Use local and international volunteers. Try to establish a committed set of long-term volunteers (e.g. referees, coaches, project leaders). Build their capacity through training and give them incentives to show they are appreciated.
Make the competition prestigious: Use official FIFA rules and, if possible, invest in kits, boots, trophies, official size and weight balls, pitch improvements, trained referees, floodlights, a PA system, video projection and other frills. These will give the event a degree of cachet and boost eagerness to participate.
This case study was adapted from: Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) 2015. Reef stewardship in Belize: TIDE Freshwater Cup soccer and environmental competition. A case study developed for the Australian Caribbean Coral Reef Collaboration.