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The man who made his own island

February 27, 2011

Tobacco Caye: The small Caribbean island, a few kilometres off mainland Belize has a couple of timber houses, some fruit trees and pigs all surrounded by mangroves. It is unremarkable except for the fact that 5 years ago, it didn’t exist. Westpoint Island has been created artificially out of garbage.

Gerald McDougall works on his island every weekend

The houses Gerald built were damaged in last year's hurricane

Gerald McDougall, an ebony-skinned, creole-speaking local fisherman, whose name is the only clue to his pale Scottish ancestry – his great-grandfather was a pirate-turned-lighthouse keeper (perhaps the coastguard didn’t worry about such a glaring conflict of interest?) – has been making his island since 2006. He got the idea, he tells me, after noticing resort workers on nearby Saltwater Caye dumping the hotel’s trash inside a clump of mangroves. Over time, sand built up on the rubbish and coconut trees grew there, Gerald observed.

Layers of garbage are covered in mud and sand.

The new island is hemmed in with fencing and mangroves

Westpoint Island is already acres in size

“I realised that I could make a home for my family out of all the garbage here – we could afford to live in a nice house,” he says, crinkling his sun-leathered face into a smile of missing teeth. Gerald’s had a tough life by any standards. One of ten children, he left school age 9 to support his mother when his father died suddenly. He began working the cayes on a fishing boat under the guidance of ‘Ol’ Dan Leslie’, and by age 16 he set out alone with his own boat.

Bird Island is an oasis in the sea

Me and Nick at Bird Island

It's breeding season, and the frigates are ballooning out

Odd jobs on the tourist cayes taught Gerald skills, from plumbing to timber house construction and he started looking for a piece of land he could build a house on. The islands and cayes in this prime pool of turquoise Caribbean are privately owned and expensive – Gerald’s hope dwindled. Until, he noticed the coconut trees sprouting in the sea out of a pile of trash and a plan began to form in his mind.

On the boat heading for Tobacco Caye

Deckchairs on the jetty at Tobacco Caye

In the Tobacco Caye range – a small group of islands and mangrove clusters in the sea off the coastal town of Dangriga – Gerald saw a promising spit of sand surrounded by mangroves. It measured 100 by 70 metres and was part of a government-owned chain. He approached the Belize government and inquired about a lease, explaining what he wanted to do. “They didn’t believe it would work, but they let me have it,” he says.

The fishermen catch so many conches there is nowhere to dump all the shells, so they gather on the beaches

An eagle ray flies through the shallows

Over the next few years, Gerald spent every spare day he had on his embryonic island. He convinced all the local islands and resorts to deliver their garbage to his sand spit, and he gathered a team of helpers from his many friends. Together, they separated out the trash: the soft drink and beer bottles he sells back to the bottling companies to help fund his island; the cans he burns to make a metallic filler material; he uses plastic bags for layering; and bigger items like washing machines, he strips down and trades to Mennonite scrap-collectors.

We see tarpon while snorkelling

Sailboat off Tobacco Caye

Growing an island is a layering process. First he digs out the mud and seagrass, then he packs in his sorted garbage, then he layers with mud and sand, then again a layer of garbage, then sawdust from the Dangriga millers, then more mud and sand. He barricades the island in from the water using wooden fencing.

Small stingray off the Caye

“When it rains, the sawdust holds the water. I planted papaya and coconut trees and their roots hold the whole thing in place,” Gerald explains. “The government inspector came out to see it and he was so impressed. It really works!”

The only jaguar we see at the Jaguar Reserve

But we do find a lovely gecko

The results are impressive: Gerald has built two large houses on the site, which already measures 2 acres, and his enormous extended family visits him there. Then, last year, Hurricane Richard pummelled the area, washing away 2 nearby cayes and damaging Gerald’s island, destroying his houses.

Our lovely friend Rachel arrives on the bus

Me and Rachel on a nightwalk through the reserve - still no jaguars...

When we visit, the island is frayed at the edges, revealing the garbage. The houses are boarded up and empty and a lone dog lies in what used to be a garden.

A boat-billed heron

Two nesting boat-billed herons

The 53-year-old is not down-hearted. “I have been working these last few months on a resort in Tobacco Caye, but once the season is over, in a few weeks, I’m going to repair the houses and increase my island more,” Gerald smiles. “And I need to get some more pigs because I lost 6 to the hurricane,” he adds.

Researchers from the Audubon Society, which runs the Cockscomb reserve, carrying out a bird census

Nick sleeps in a headnet to avoid the mosquitoes

Our lovely friend Rachel visits us and we spend a delightful couple of days on Tobacco Caye, an island which is itself just a few metres across, snorkelling the coral reef, watching eagle rays and tarpon, and swimming with manatees, the gorgeous gentle mermaids of the sea.

A toad

On the mainland, we visit Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, known as the ‘Jaguar Reserve’ because it has the highest number of big cats in the country. But this is a forest so degraded by British loggers that it is a wonder anything lives within. We hike the trails and see very few animals. The howler and spider monkeys were wiped out in the 1970s by yellow fever and, although a few troops were reintroduced, we hear none.

Tourist cabins built by Gerald on Tobacco Caye. Discarded conch shells are used to decorate everything.

In time, perhaps the foliage will recover and this hybrid mess of weeds and introduced species will resemble the animal-rich wonderland we enjoyed in Costa Rica and the Amazon.

Tobacco Caye in the Caribbean

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2011 8:07 am

    What a remarakable man. Thanks for sharing this story.

  2. March 1, 2011 9:32 pm

    What an interesting idea. It makes sense that it would work, seeing as they are making reefs using recycled materials.

  3. Janet permalink
    December 2, 2012 1:33 pm

    How INCREDIBLY AWESOME and Inspirational! I wonder how far along things are now? What I would give to come & visit to see his handiwork and dedication in person! He’s a Genius! The government should be paying HIM for his efforts, frankly, and even more once he completes it,… Especially as I’m sure Someone’s taking notes! ;)P
    He wins Designer, Innovator, Environmentalist, Ecologist, and Damned-Hard Worker Awards of the Year in my book… :))))))

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