By Mindy Cruz, Chairwoman of the Belize Lionfish Jewelry Group, with support from Dianeri Cabrera, Blue Ventures’ Education and Outreach Assistant
I live in Sarteneja, a small fishing community in northern Belize, where people still live in a more traditional way. It is expected for women to start a family at quite a young age and then to stay at home, take care of their children and keep the house clean while their husbands are out fishing, sometimes for weeks at a time.
My family is fairly typical for Sarteneja. My father is a carpenter and a boat builder, earning the bread and butter, and my mother is a housewife with a large number of offspring in tow. As the eldest daughter, from a very young age I was helping my mom with my younger siblings, meal preparation and the upkeep of the household – all of this while still attending school.
At the age of 12, my parents decided it was time for me to follow the path of most young girls in the community, and I found myself solely at home helping with the family care and the housework. I was no longer given the opportunity to continue my schooling, and the only expectation of me was to get married and start a family of my own in the next few years.
As the years passed, I ended up looking for a job but my limited education had closed many doors for me in ways I had never imagined. The jobs I was offered were not well paid enough for me to be financially independent and content. I had a common-law husband but we went our separate ways after some years. These unfortunate events gave me the strongest will to find some way to both distract my mind and financially provide for myself.
One evening in 2015, while buying groceries at the neighbourhood store, I saw a flyer seeking participants for a jewellery making workshop organised by Blue Ventures. The workshop was specifically about making jewellery from lionfish fins, and it was the first time I’d ever heard about lionfish.
I was very intrigued by this possible new venture so I decided to apply for participation in the workshop, and I was selected! I was thrilled at this opportunity and what it could mean financially for my family and myself. I was also relieved to learn that other women from my community were selected to participate in the workshop, so I would not be the only Sartenejeña present.
I soon found myself travelling south with three other women from Sarteneja to the Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for the week-long workshop. Reality stuck as I entered the workshop room for the first time. There were 19 women in total from seven different coastal communities across Belize, and I found myself flooded with mixed emotions, uncertain about what to expect over the next few days. However, one emotion stood out: excitement. I knew I was meant to be there.
The workshop began with an introduction about lionfish – an invasive species in Belizean waters. We learnt that they are causing damage to the Belize Barrier Reef ecosystem, and that there are ongoing campaigns to reduce their numbers.
Creating jewellery from lionfish fins adds to their catch value and incentivises their removal from the ecosystem by fishers.
There were practical trainings sessions led by Belizean women who were either already working with lionfish fins or creating other kinds of beautiful jewellery. We learnt how to despine a lionfish, remove the fins, prepare them for jewellery making, and craft specific items such as necklaces and earrings. I loved every single moment of the workshop, especially when we were taught how to safely remove the fins from lionfish!
Before the ending of the workshop, all 19 participants decided to work together to form the Belize Lionfish Jewelry Group. From its inception the group faced several barriers, as its members came from many different backgrounds and had four different spoken languages within the group. However, these unique characteristics did not hold us back us; we were all determined to help our families, our communities and the Belize Barrier Reef by creating handcrafted jewellery using lionfish fins.
Almost a year later, we all came together again to develop our official documentation, establish our vision, mission and branding, and to continue building our bonds of trust and friendship. This meeting led to the birth of our name – Belioness. We also established the group’s first board of directors and I was elected to lead the group. Having grown up with limited education and opportunities, I never imagined I would become the Chairwoman of Belioness!
The Belioness Vision: United women, empowered communities, and a healthy, beautiful reef.
The Belioness Mission: To create a better future for ourselves, our country and our reef through making and selling unique handmade lionfish jewellery.
Since these first two meetings, the group has attended several more workshops for its professional development, including in business management, information technology, marketing, and an exchange workshop with an all-female textile group from central Belize. These sessions have given me skills that I never thought I’d acquire, not to mention an increased confidence in myself. We’ve also held three successful annual general meetings which have been coordinated by myself and the other board members. All of these activities have helped inspire and motivate the women of Belioness to continue making jewellery.
In the three years since that first life changing workshop we have been fortunate enough to sell our jewellery regularly at events in Belize and even abroad, including in the USA and the UK. In 2018, we have been working on creating a greater presence in Belize and I am very proud that we have managed to achieve regular sales at two gift shops.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine when I first saw that flyer in my neighbourhood store that a women’s group would be formed and that our business would reach this far! We are very happy that our work is not only helping to reduce the number of lionfish in our waters and keep our reef healthy, but it’s also providing an income to families who have been coping with a decline in the fishing industry over the last decade. Even without leaving our houses, we can now help a little with this financial strain by making jewellery.
Belioness will continue working arduously over the coming years in the hope that one day, not very far from now, we will be able to open our first lionfish jewelry store in Belize! On a personal level, I want so much for our business to continue its success and to continue bringing Belizean women together.
Follow the Belize Lionfish Jewelry Group on Facebook.
The group’s success has been possible due to the support from Blue Ventures and Sarteneja Fishermen Association, as well as through funding from the WWF Russell E. Train Education for Nature program, The Summit Foundation, New England Biolabs Foundation and the Belize Enterprise for Sustainable Technology.