Edmund “King Canute” Castro builds $2.5 Million road to nowhere

Crooked Tree, May 21, 2009 - “Those who refuse to learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them and suffer the consequences.” English proverb

A year after Deputy Minister of Works Edmund Castro alarmed wildlife conservationists and environmentalists by building an ill-planned road-causeway from Crooked Tree Village across the western side of the Crooked Tree lagoon to farmlands in an area known as the Blackbunn, the Black Bunn ‘Boulevard’ project has been completed and officially opened on Monday, May 17th, 2009.

But the 1.8 mile ‘boulevard’ includes a 700 metre causeway across the lagoon, which was completely covered by the lagoon six months after the initial phase was completed last April. “Clear di land” Castro may soon be changing his name to “King Canute” Castro, for like King Canute he is working against the forces of nature and he might as well try to hold back the tide. Castro would do better to heed the words of Governor General Sir Colville Young, “Before you can command Nature, you must first obey Nature.”

Fools enter where angels fear to tread and the first phase of Castro’s folly was completed without so much as an Environmental Impact Assessment, approval by the National Environmental Assessment Committee (NEAC), nor a Forest Department permit to cut down trees to open up the way for the road. At the time Castro claimed the road had cost almost $1,000,000 dollars, contributed by villagers in the form of fuel for the road-building machinery and an estimated further $1.5 million was spent to complete the project. No land fill was trucked in for the causeway, as the road builders built drainage canals on either side of the causeway, and used the material to build up the center roadway.

When the first Crooked Tree causeway was built in 1983 connecting the village to the Northern Highway, it had no culverts and created severe problems in the lagoon that required the builder to redo the project, installing large culverts and several bridges to allow the free flow of water in the lagoon. Castro paid no heed to this history lesson as he pressed ahead willy-nilly with his road, and only later suggested as an afterthought that culverts would be installed under the causeway in the future.

The new causeway is already creating environmental problems, as pointed out by the Belize Audubon Society which has been managing the Crooked Tree Wildlife sanctuary for over 10 years. BAS executive director Anna Hoare has made available to the media aerial photographs which show the water on one side turned brown by stagnant water and dying vegetation, while the other side which is still supplied by fresh, oxygenated water from upstream remains a vibrant green. Other photographs also show the causeway completely submerged beneath the lagoon in flood.

Hoare says what Castro has neglected to take into account is that the entire Crooked Tree sanctuary is in a flood plain. The wetlands are not only home to over 300 species of birds which attract tourists and bird-watchers, the wetlands work like a giant sponge, serving as a catchment for the Belize River watershed which brings water down from the Maya Mountains. The lagoon serves as a buffer protecting other areas when the river is in flood. Everyone remembers the flood event triggered by the first tropical storm Alma-Arthur, but most are oblivious to the fact that Crooked Tree remained in flood conditions up to January 2009.

Building developments in the wetlands sails in the face of universally accepted good practice. In the United States, where the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina and other subsequent storms caused billions of dollars of damage and loss of life, the federal government is in the process of buying back the land from communities in the flood plain areas, and removing all man-made structures, returning these areas to Mother Nature. This is clear recognition that humans should not inhabit these areas, should never have built there in the first place and will only continue to suffer further property damage, flooded homes and risk to their lives if they remain.

In Belize the government has relocated the villages of Hope Creek whose homes were washed away by last year’s floods to new concrete homes on higher ground, above the high water mark. So why can’t Castro get the sense? Castro may pooh-pooh what BAS and other tree-huggers have to say, but going against Mother Nature simply does not work!

Castro says the road will make the farmland in Blackbunn accessible to Crooked Tree villagers, but presently the road benefits only seven (7) farmers. Their cattle which forage on the grassy savannahs during the dry season leave behind cow-patties rich in nitrates, which fertilize vegetation growth in the wet. But this growth eventually depletes the dissolved oxygen in the water, causing the fish to asphyxiate, come up to the surface in a vain attempt to gulp air and eventually go belly up. These fish are food for the cormorants, jabiru storks and other water fowl which inhabit the sanctuary. Not good.

Castro also cites tourism as a benefit from his new road, with predicted access to Chaa Hixx and Lamanai, and has even begun an extension of the road to Maskall to draw visitors on from Altun Ha. Not so, challenges BAS’ Anna Hoare, noting that visitors to the sanctuary are well-to-do bird-lovers in their golden years, people who prefer their creature comforts. Poor infrastructure will not attract tourists, which is why many visitors are daunted by the bone-rattling, dusty ride over the 3-mile entrance road to Crooked Tree and instead prefer the smooth sailing and bird-sighting opportunities of a boat ride to Lamanai.

Castro also projects to build a bridge across the New River connecting to Orange Walk Town and the Mennonite communities of Blue Creek and Shipyard.

It is ironic that Belize is home to the CARICOM Center for Climate Change in Belmopan, where already experts are suggesting a move away from sea, sun and sand tourism as these will be impacted by sea level rise from melting of the polar ice caps caused by global warming, and for more emphasis to be placed on development of inland tourism. Some experts estimate an 82cm rise in sea level within 50 years; the most dire predictions are for 1.64 meters sea level rise in the next half century. This will flood most of Belize’s coastal plain and vastly extend our wetlands. Such a rising tide floats all boats, and will inundate Castro’s $2.5million folly.

Belize Times