Last week's edition of the San Pedro Sun disclosed information on the proposed San Mateo Phase I subdivision. This is acreage that was formerly owned by Caribbean Coves and is now the property of San Pedro Town. Much controversy has arisen as a result of these wetlands also being included in Green Reef's proposed Wildlife Sanctuary Expansion and Management Plan. Last Friday, Mr. George Hanson, a Forest Officer from the Ministry of Natural Resources, conducted an investigation of this area and a meeting was held at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve (HCMR) office to discuss his findings. Representatives from Belize Rural South, San Pedro Town Council, Belize Audubon Society, San Pedro Tourist Guide Association, Green Reef, Fisheries, Coastal Zone Management Authority/Institute, Caribeña Cooperative, and Belize Hotel Association were invited. Attending the meeting were Miguel Alamilla, Manager of HCMR; Mito Paz, President of Green Reef; Ann Hayden, Peace Corp Volunteer for Green Reef; Manuel Heredia of Caribeña Coop; and Omar Arceo, Board Member of Green Reef.
After a thorough walk-through of the surveyed area, Mr. Hanson stated he would make a recommendation to the Ministry of Natural Resources for a stop order to cease all surveying of this area until an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was completed. As a result of the investigation, he found cement pillars depicting lot markers and survey lines running across the lagoon to the west. Mr. Hanson was unsure whether permits were issued for clearing by the surveyors and continued saying what land is there would not support development as it was mostly peat with only about 10 acres of the area at the back of El Pescador being high ground. He estimated that in wet season, the water in the area would rise anywhere from one foot to one meter in height. The Forestry Officer further added that development of this type of land in Belize City was quite costly to fill and develop, at an average one half million dollars per acre. He said that, even then, there were no guarantees that it would support development as it sometimes continues to sink. In his opinion, government land to the west and north would be more economically feasible as it is all high ground and would not incur enormous developing or environmental costs, also noting that the land in the north would be the safest in the event of a hurricane. Stating that an Environmental Impact Assessment should have been the first step in this proposed subdivision to determine if this land was suitable for development, he added it also would have alleviated the expenses of surveying should it be turned down. He cautioned that aside from the amount of money development would demand because of dredging and waste management, the environmental costs could be severe as the reef is already being overtaxed by the development on the front of the island. Information gathered showed that because these are wetlands, which filter and hold impurities from the soil, filling this land could ruin the pristine waters at the back of the island when contaminated waste water runs off the land. Noting that this was a heavily utilized tourism area for kayaking, bird watching and fishing, he warned development could seriously affect the island's earning potential, specifically the fishing and tourism industries. He continued to explain that even if filling was completed, the land would still be inundated with water in the event of storm surges and flooding would be a certainty. An additional concern was if development takes place the wildlife in this area, such as the protected Black Catbird, could be threatened.
Mr. Hanson ended by explaining that the fate of the wetlands is part of an age old debate_environment versus development_a decision for the people of the island. He further concluded that although he would make his recommendations, the ultimate deciding factor for approval of development and the subdivision would be the decision of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Natural Resources, Hon. John Briceño.
San Pedro Sun Editorial - Development vs. Environment?
No one would argue that the government's goal to provide 308 residential lots to qualified people of Ambergris Caye is a bad one. Assisting a hard working family or individual by supplying a lot to help realize their dream of one day owning their own home is an idea that should be embraced and encouraged. Certain criteria need to be met in order to insure that when fulfilling a dream you do not inadvertently create a nightmare. The two factors that must be carefully analyzed in selecting an appropriate area to build the proposed San Mateo Phase I sub-division are: the cost of the development and the cost to the environment.
As for the cost, the 590 acres currently being surveyed is primarily made up of lagoons and mangrove swamps. After visiting the site last week, Mr. George Hanson of Natural Resources said areas of this nature in Belize City cost approximately $500,000.00 per acre to become suitable to build on. Even after incurring this expense there is no guarantee that the land is protected from flooding, storm surges, settling, etc. Anyone that has driven by an area of this type in Belize City can attest that many of the houses are at odd angles as the land is sinking from the weight of the foundations, as are some of the houses in San Pedro's sub-divisions. A police and fire station are also in the plans for this sub-division. The question of how we can afford these duplicate services in a satellite town when we cannot afford additional personnel for our understaffed Police Force, a new fire truck or portable pumps for our Fire Department must also be addressed. As with San Pedrito and Boca del Rio, sewer and water hook-ups are being planned, yet taxpayers in both of these areas are still without sewer connections, a condition that poses a serious health threat to the residents of the entire island. It would seem that if there was enough money for this project to be feasible, then there should be enough money to complete the infrastructure of our existing town and these two housing developments before another is started.
On the environmental side, the area proposed for development will destroy a large area of wetlands that is vital to the health of our island, an area that Green Reef has been lobbying to have declared a Wildlife Sanctuary. Mangroves offer the island protection from storm surges and are also nature's filter. If these areas are destroyed, toxins and sediments from ground run-off will contaminate and eventually kill our already overtaxed reef, which this island makes its livelihood from. This area is also used by many tourist guides for bird watching, kayaking, bone fishing and to showcase Belize's commitment to the ecology; a reason many tourists choose Belize as their vacation destination. Our town leaders are also aware of the importance of this area and have written letters in the recent past stating their support for Green Reef's proposed Wildlife Sanctuary Expansion and Management Plan. In a letter dated July 1, 1999 from Area Representative Patty Arceo to Hon. Johnny Briceño she wrote "I hereby endorse the proposals by Green Reef, San Pedro in their effort to conserve and preserve pristine islands and mangrove communities in San Pedro. We hope that you will give us a favorable endorsement as we move on to the Eco-Tourism Industry." Another letter dated June 28, 1999 from the Town Council and signed by Mayor Alberto Nuñez states "The San Pedro Town Board would like to express its support of Green Reef's proposal to establish the Leeward Cayes Wildlife Sanctuary. The expanded sanctuary will be of environmental and economic benefit to the Town of San Pedro and the community of Ambergris Caye. The proposed expansion will protect the feeding grounds of birds nesting within the bounds of the present sanctuaries and will also include the nesting and feeding grounds of several additional species which have been listed as threatened without adequate protection measures. Protection of this area, which is used locally for sports fishing and ecotourism is critical to the economy of San Pedro since these are two major activities of the areas tourism project." The letter ends by stating "The San Pedro Town Board fully supports the proposed expansion of the present sanctuaries and asks that the Ministry of Natural Resources approves the proposed expansion." It is confusing, why less than a year later, this area that was critical to the livelihood of the island is no longer considered of consequence by local government. Another letter dated June 4, 1999 by then Director of Tourism, Valerie Woods to Hon. Johnny Briceño says "The Belize Tourism Board supports the proposal and initiative for the San Pedro Ambergris Caye Wildlife (Bird) Sanctuary in the wetlands between Cayo Frances Lagoon and San Pedro Lagoon. We feel that this project will not only add to the attractiveness of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye as a tourism destination but will improve the overall tourism product in Belize." All three letters do not ask IF this area is important, they are testaments that this area IS important.
Does this mean that people should go without land to build homes on in order to protect the environment? Of course not, but a balance must be maintained. Before anymore boundary markers are placed, mangroves are cut and more money is spent, an Environmental Impact Assessment (as called for by law before any development takes place) should be completed. Once this pristine area is destroyed we will have lost it forever. Only after reviewing development and infrastructure costs and the environmental impact assessment, can a true picture of the feasibility of the development of these wetland areas be drawn. Just because something is "free" does not necessarily make it the best choice. Many have stated that government-owned lands to the west would be better equipped to handle this project at a cost of much less money and minimal damage to the environment. The government-owned land to the west contains no mangrove swamps, is high ground that needs little or no fill and is large enough to fit an area from Boca del Rio to the Yacht Club five times over. Another area suggested is the government land further north, at the widest part of the island. This is one of the higher areas on the island and would offer greater protection to the residents in the event of a hurricane. This area makes sense since proposals to build resorts in that area have been submitted. Families would not have to commute, as employment would be nearby. The millions of dollars saved from having to fill large amounts of wetlands could be used to help build an infrastructure capable of making this town or village self-reliant. Serious consideration should be given to the proposal by El Pescador to raise $100,000.00US from local and outside sources to buy the property now under consideration. Buy the land and donate it to Green Reef so that future generations will still have a way to earn a living from a viable and thriving tourist trade coming to enjoy Mother Nature's unspoiled beauty. The money given to the Town Council for the land could then be used to pay the Government of Belize for the land north or west so the people of Ambergris Caye can indeed realize their dream of owning their own land; the land, in essence, would still be "free". It would seem in this way we would have the best of both worlds; 1) keeping our environment and reef healthy so tourists will continue to visit Ambergris Caye and 2) financial and job security so residents can afford to build and maintain their new home.
So far Minister Briceño has wisely only given provisional approval and is waiting for more information and input before giving any go-ahead. The time is now to let our elected officials know how you feel, for or against the area proposed for sub-division. They are entrusted and bound to work for the people but need to know your concerns and views in order to carry out YOUR wishes. Write a letter to or e-mail the San Pedro Town Council (firstname.lastname@example.org), Area Representative of Belize Rural South, Patty Arceo, (email@example.com) and the Minister of Natural Resources, Johnny Briceño, (firstname.lastname@example.org) in Belmopan and let your voice be heard.