Belize is working hard to save coral reefs. These kids may be their secret weapon.

Abalone Caye is a small island off the coast of Belize, and for about a week, it's home to an important group of kids.

The island, located in the middle of the Port Honduras Marine Reserve, is home to a small research station where five local college-age kids eat, work, and live together for a week each summer before heading back to the mainland.

There's a good reason for this expedition: These kids are in training to become community reef researchers.


Photo from TIDE, used with permission.

The Community Researcher Training Program is managed by James Foley and the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE), an environmental institute in Belize. TIDE manages a large swath of natural areas in southern Belize, including the Port Honduras Marine Reserve. And the students, who all come from local communities, conduct research that's vital to helping us protect our coral reefs.

They learn how to do scientific research that'll help TIDE monitor and protect the reef, such as taking underwater fish counts, going out with fishermen to weigh their catches, or doing surveys of the local markets.

Foley also teaches them professional-level scuba diving as well as teamwork, which can be really important since the work means they may have to stay out on boats (or tiny islands) for hours or days at a time.

Photo from TIDE, used with permission.

Nice, right? But let's pause for a second and zoom out. Because big picture: Our reefs are in trouble, and they desperately need good management.

Coral reefs are an amazing ecosystem, but climate change is disrupting the little animals that make reefs, causing a potentially fatal problem known as coral bleaching. What's more, poor fishing practices means that reefs have been overfished, polluted, poisoned, trawled, and even blasted with dynamite.

Bleached coral in the Great Barrier Reef. Photo by Acropora/Wikimedia Commons.

Looking at all these problems caused by people, it's tempting to say, "OK, fine, we'll just close them off and keep everyone out." But that's neither realistic nor fair. Communities rely on these reefs for food and income, so managed access to the reefs is necessary in most areas around the world.

But managed access isn't just about limiting the number of fishermen — it's about studying and monitoring reef health and making policy changes as necessary, which is where the Community Researcher Training Program comes in. If we can head off problems like overfishing and pollution, we can help keep reefs healthy.

Foley's program has been successful because local communities don't always trust outsiders who come in and start telling people to change.

Often these communities have been living next to and with reefs for generations. They have deep cultural, historical, and economic ties to the reefs and their way of life.

So when a foreigner comes in – who hasn't lived there, whose family hasn't spent years fishing there – and starts ordering people around, it's understandable that locals would be mistrustful.

Foley has experienced this firsthand. He said that when he first arrived at TIDE, he'd try to talk to locals the conventional way, gathering locals into a room with graphs or discussions about trends and trying to tell them about changes they needed to make. But his words weren't always received well.

"People would be standing up, interrupting me, and saying 'You don't know what you're talking about. I've been fishing here all my life, and my father before me,'" Foley said.

And outsiders aren't always the best candidates for the job anyway.

Some research or management organizations rely on foreign volunteers, but doing that can come with drawbacks. You can't always count on volunteers having a lot of scientific training. Outsiders might also not understand the local environment or culture.

Even if the outsiders are highly trained professionals, it can still be a problem. Foley mentioned seeing otherwise good science derailed by a lack of local knowledge — some bit of information the scientist missed but that all the local fishermen knew by heart.

And at the end of the day, they don't live there. While a force of foreign volunteers might care deeply about the reef on an emotional or intellectual level, they don't live with it or depend on it for their livelihoods like the locals do.

That's why putting scientific power in the hands of these local kids is an awesome idea.

Photo from TIDE, used with permission.

In fact, many of the same fishermen who were initially distrustful of the program are now on board.

"We've actually had now fishermen standing up in meetings and saying, 'Five years ago, you telling me this, I wouldn't have believed it. But now my own daughter's collecting the data,'" Foley said.

Some of the students in the program are on an academic track already, but others are children of local fishing families and "second-chancers" — kids who've been in trouble with the law or dropped out of school and need another opportunity to succeed.

Foley's been doing this since 2011, and he says the entire program is a win-win. Even if the students don't end up as researchers themselves, they end up with a highly desirable skill set; some have since become tour guides, members of the coast guard, or even TV presenters. And they can still sometimes be called in to help from time to time, too.

This isn't just feel-good fluff, either: Good community management might be the key to saving reefs.

In July 2016, the academic journal Nature published a worldwide survey of coral reefs. The most interesting things they found were called "bright spots," places where reefs were doing substantially better than anyone expected.

A healthy reef can support a gigantic network of different plants and animals. Photo from joakant/Pixabay.

The bright spots weren't just remote, humanless areas either. Some were located right next to huge human populations and fished heavily. So what was the link between the bright spots? Where there were bright spots, local communities were actively involved in monitoring and protecting the reef.

Programs like these may end up being the heart of future reef conservation.

"It's really all about empowering local communities to participate in the management of their natural resources and building trust between the communities," said Foley.

So in the future, if you go diving and find yourself surrounded by magnificent schools of fish, sea turtles, blooms of color, and all the other signs of a healthy coral reef, you might want to remember and thank these community researchers.

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Shopping sustainably is increasingly important given the severity of the climate crisis, but sometimes it's hard to know where to turn. Thankfully, Amazon is making it a little easier to browse thousands of products that have one or more of 19 sustainability certifications that help preserve the natural world.

The online retailer recently announced Climate Pledge Friendly, a program to make it easier for customers to discover and shop for more sustainable products. To determine the sustainability of a product, the program partnered with third-party certifications, including governmental agencies, nonprofits, and independent labs.

With a selection of items spanning grocery, household, fashion, beauty, and personal electronics, you'll be able to shop more sustainably not just for the holiday season, but throughout the year for your essentials, as well.

You can browse all of the Climate Pledge Friendly products here, labeled with an icon and which certification(s) they meet. To get you on your way to shopping more sustainably, we've rounded up eight of our favorite Climate Pledge Friendly-products that will make great gifts all year long.

Amazon

Jack Wolfskin Women's North York Coat

Give the gift of warmth and style with this coat, available in a variety of colors. Sustainability is built into all Jack Wolfskin products and each item comes with a code that lets you trace back to its origins and understand how it was made.

Bluesign: Bluesign products are responsibly manufactured by using safer chemicals and fewer resources, including less energy, in production.


Amazon

Amazon All-new Echo Dot (4th Gen)

For the tech-obsessed. This Alexa smart speaker, which comes in a sleek, compact design, lets you voice control your entertainment and your smart home as well as connect with others.

Reducing CO2: Products with this certification reduce their carbon footprint year after year. Certified by the Carbon Trust.


Amazon

Burt's Bees Family Jammies Matching Holiday Organic Cotton Pajamas

Get into the holiday spirit with these fun matching PJs for the whole family. Perfect for pictures that even Fido can get in on.

Global Organic Textile Standard: This certifies each step of the organic textile supply chain against strict ecological and social standards. Each product with this certification contains 95%-100% organic content.

Amazon

Naturistick 5-Pack Lip Balm Gift Set

With 100% natural ingredients that are gentle on ultra-sensitive lips, this gift is a great gift for the whole family.

Compact by Design (Certified by Amazon): Products with this certification are packaged without excess air and water, which reduces the carbon footprint of shipping and packaging.


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Arus Women's GOTS Certified Organic Cotton Hooded Full Length Turkish Bathrobe

For those who love to lounge around, this full-length organic cotton bathrobe is the way to go. Available in five different colors, it has comfortable cuffed sleeves, a hood, pockets, and adjustable belt.

Global Organic Textile Standard: This certifies each step of the organic textile supply chain against strict ecological and social standards. Each product with this certification contains 95%-100% organic content.

Amazon

L'Occitane Extra-Gentle Vegetable Based Soap

This luxe soap, made with moisturizing shea butter and scented with verbena, is perfect for the self-care obsessed.

Compact by Design (Certified by Amazon): Products with this certification are packaged without excess air and water, which reduces the carbon footprint of shipping and packaging.

Amazon

Goodthreads Men's Sweater-Knit Fleece Long-Sleeve Bomber

For the fashionable men in your life, this fashion-forward knit bomber is an excellent choice. The sweater material keeps it cozy and warm, while the bomber jacket-cut, zip front, and rib-trim neck make it look elevated.

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Amazon

All-new Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote

Make it even easier to access your favorite movies and shows this holiday season. The new Fire TV Stick lets you use your voice to search across apps. Plus it controls the power and volume on your TV, so you'll never need to leave the couch! Except for snacks.

Reducing CO2: Products with this certification reduce their carbon footprint year after year. Certified by the Carbon Trust.

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.