The edge of the turquoise water laps gently against the fine white sand while sunlight shimmers and dances across its surface – the only thing that keeps this picture from depicting a postcard-perfect image of tropical paradise is the scraggly black, sun-dried seaweed. Cast careless along the tide line and blown further about by the steady on-shore winds, the seaweed is an obvious nuisance to the steady populace of beach goers. Not surprisingly, the sections of this National Park beach most popular with tourists are clean of the unwanted debris; but not here, not in front of the public high school. In fact, the tractors that combed the seaweed from the tourist beaches this morning stopped by this very spot to cast off their slimy, salty loads. Is this just another example of the inequality between the wealthy tourists and the impoverished local populations? Well, not in the way one would expect.

The seaweed has in fact been deposited in front of the high school at the direct request of Luis, Amizade’s Mexico Site Coordinator, and Marcedes, the Coordinator of Education Services at Puerto Morelos Reef National Park’s Visitor’s Center. Under the direction of Luis and Marcedes, a group of Amizade volunteers – high school students from a town just outside of Boston – serve alongside local high school students from public fishing school. Together, they gather seaweed from the shoreline and distribute the large pile that was dumped here earlier by the tractors. Their goal is to rehabilitate an area of the beach in front of the school. The dunes here, as with most areas along this section of coast, been degraded, eroded and left to blow away by the hands (and feet) of locals and tourists alike.

Dune cleanup in MexicoAs the students stuff the decaying seaweed into burlap sacks to line the perimeter of the sand dune under restoration, they test out their Spanish and English knowledge on one another, and laugh at each other’s blunders and mishaps with the language learning curve. Over the course of the week, this group of Amizade volunteers is working cooperatively with the National Park and the local school to restore a small section of sand dune. This effort is as much about education as it is about the physical labor. The students are even responsible for researching sand dune ecology and creating a layout and plan – a popular task considering it takes place in the air-conditioned library of the school, offering much relief from the oppressive record-setting temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dune cleanup in Mexico

The area dune is first lined with partially buried burlap sacks which will eventually decompose into the sand. For now, the seaweed-filled sacks act as a trap to catch the blowing sand. Inside the perimeter, the area is thickly strewn with the gathered seaweed. Marcedes and Luis explain to the group that the seaweed is a key component to the makeup of the dune, providing protection from the sun for young plant life to take root. As the organic material of the seaweed breaks down it provides nutrients to the dune, an essential ingredient for the continued growth of the dune grass, palm trees, sea grape and other plants which provide a storm resistant anchor for the dunes. That is how it is supposed to work; however, the process becomes short-circuited if the seaweed is removed each morning for aesthetic purposes before it has the chance to reach the dunes and do its job. Without dunes, the coastline ecosystem is incomplete, habitat is lost and coastal wildlife are left to adapt, and the inland is more exposed to coastal storms.

The work of the Amizade volunteers, along with the local high school students, provides one more piece in the ongoing effort to promote conservation of this coastal region, keeping it beautiful and healthy for the community and visitors alike.

For more about Amizade’s work in Mexico and our community partnerships in Puerto Morelos visit our Locations to Serve page.
At the conclusion of the week, one must admit that the dune does not look very impressive. Luis ensures us that the plants will grow quickly, even in the heat. It will take some time for the sand trap to work, but with time and a little help from Mother Nature the dune will grow and thrive. If it proves successful, this process will be repeated up and down the cost.