By Cindy Noe
The warm, dense air enveloped me as I stepped off the plane in Belize City. Even by Atlanta standards, it was hot. For a moment, I forgot it was Monday morning as I made my way through customs and immigration, surrounded by vacationers in shorts and sun hats.
But I was not on vacation. I was in Belize for work as part of my internship with Coca-Cola’s Global Sustainability team.
So, how did I become the luckiest intern on the planet, you ask? I think the better question is: What was happening in Belize that was so special that my supervisor, Greg Koch (senior director of global water stewardship), knew it needed to be part of my summer project? The answer: The partnership between Coca-Cola and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for freshwater conservation in the catchments of the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR).
This summer, I’m working with Coca-Cola to develop an approach to combine freshwater conservation with projects that provide communities with access to safe water. Freshwater conservation projects focus on protecting and restoring water sources; reforestation and invasive species removal are familiar examples of this type of work. In contrast, community water access projects focus on delivering safe water to communities for drinking and other uses. Coca-Cola has engaged in hundreds of both types of projects around the world but few have taken this hybrid approach.
The Coca-Cola/WWF work in the MAR’s freshwater catchments – that is, the freshwater rivers and streams that lead to the reef – presents some great opportunities to test the approach of integrating community water access. The chance to travel to Belize, learn about the partnership’s work firsthand, and meet the people who make it a reality would be both a unique opportunity for me and an important input to my project.
The WWF/Coca-Cola Partnership
The origins of the partnership between Coca-Cola and WWF date back to 2007, and the current phase of its work launched in 2013. As the world’s most recognized beverage brand and the world’s leading conservation organization, Coca-Cola and WWF recognize the critical state of freshwater resources around the world, and also recognize their ability to combine forces and make a significant impact.
For WWF, a healthy, resilient watershed is the cornerstone of a thriving ecosystem. For Coca-Cola, water is the most important resource for its business: not only is it a core ingredient of Coca-Cola products and critical in manufacturing, it also grows the supply of agricultural ingredients that go into its products. Most importantly,Coca-Cola’s largely non-export business model means that, in many places, the company shares sources of water with the communities where they distribute their products. Therefore, it makes sense for WWF and Coca-Cola to partner with those communities to protect local water resources.
Partnering for Impact in the Mesoamerican Reef
The Mesoamerican Reef is the most important reef you’ve likely never heard of; it is the world’s second-largest reef after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The partnership’s approach to conservation in the MAR is governed by a principal of “ridge to reef”— what happens in the reef’s freshwater catchments, beginning in the headwaters and traveling down the mountains, ultimately impacts the reef itself. That’s why local teams constantly look for this connection when planning and implementing projects.
Joining WWF and Coca-Cola for this work in Belize is Coca-Cola’s local bottling partner, Bowen & Bowen, one of the country’s most recognized companies. Bowen & Bowen’s active participation throughout the week represented an important impact of the Coca-Cola/WWF partnership: bringing together a diverse set of partners to solve pressing challenges in the MAR.
I witnessed an example of this collaboration, and an initial attempt at integrating conservation and water access, when we visited the Santa Familia village in western Belize. The village depends on the Rio Belize, a catchment within the MAR, as a source of drinking water. They have a pumping and treatment system to deliver safe drinking water to people’s homes, but that equipment has some problems.
During our visit, I watched as WWF made a clear case to the village on the importance of conservation of the Rio Belize, especially upstream of their community. I also watched WWF and Bowen & Bowen commit to helping the village improve their drinking water system – a great asset, given that both organizations have experienced engineers and hydrologists who can advise and partner with Santa Familia’s water board.
This example is not simply one of “right place, right time.” The partnership enabled the WWF team’s work on the Rio Belize, which led them to Santa Familia village and allowed them to engage the community and enlist their help in conservation. Now, Santa Familia can connect to the partnership for help. And Bowen & Bowen, being a local business, is committed to ensuring the success of Santa Familia because it is a community of customers, employees and supporters. This is the type of magic that happens when people are brought together through the partnership.
The visit to Belize was an incredible opportunity to understand the full span of the partnership’s “ridge to reef” approach and travel the full length of one branch of one of the hundreds of rivers that drain to the reef, from a dam in the Rio Belize headwaters, to local farming regions and communities like Santa Familia, all the way down to densely populated Belize City, with its homes and businesses built around the beauty and life of the reef.
At the end of the week, we visited the mouth of the Rio Belize, which leads directly to the Gulf of Mexico and the MAR itself. We explored the incredible mangrove forests Belize is struggling to preserve, met the manatees who live at the river mouth, and learned about the reef and how it is affected by the quality of water that is delivered by freshwater catchments such as the Rio Belize.
Water conservation work is all about connections: between reef and ridge, business and conservation, global and local. The work of the Coca-Cola/WWF Partnership addresses many of these challenges and provides a solid platform to engage local partners to solve even more. My time with the partnership team was an important opportunity for me to see firsthand how collaboration across sectors can be a powerful force in itself.