Guest Editorial by Alyssa Arceo
It’s a crime that Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t have an Oscar yet, because he has done a great job acting like an environmentalist. His acting is so insanely good that you might not know he travels by private jet (in each trip racking up the carbon footprint left by the average American in one year), or spends his vacations on gas-guzzling yachts. You might have listened to his most recent Golden Globes acceptance speech – one where he dedicates his award to indigenous peoples and declares the importance of protecting indigenous lands – and mistakenly thought that’s what he actually believes. I thought so too. Until more detailed plans for his development of Blackadore Caye in Belize were revealed. See, his line in the speech that we have to protect native lands for native people seems kind of incongruous with his plan to turn Blackadore Caye into a resort island lined with $15 million villas. Can’t afford the villas? Don’t worry, maybe you can afford the $3,000+ a night stay in one of the overwater buildings. You can’t? Me neither. I wonder how many of the local people DiCaprio wants to save the island for actually can afford a stay in those overwater structures. The same overwater structures that are placed in the newly expanded Conservation Zone V. What kind of environmentalist advocates for more protection, and then disregards that protection because to respect it would make his venture less profitable? Not a real one, that’s for sure.
Here are a few key issues with the project that I think will convince you Leonardo’s greatest role so far has been as an “environmentalist.”
1. Legal Issues
In Belize, all land up to 66 feet from the high water mark is considered “Queen’s Land,” or public land. This means that it is to be kept accessible to the public and free from development. The proposal for the establishment of private beaches on the island and for the construction of private villas clearly violates this provision of the 1837 Crown Lands Ordinance. Even if, as may be the case for Blackadore, the geography is such that a 66-foot reserve cannot be accommodated, the owner is not precluded from a practical application of the law (as is made clear in the 2000 State of the Coast).
In addition, although Mr. DiCaprio owns the island, he does not own the surrounding water and thus his private, overwater structures are again apparent violations of Belizean law. However, even if this weren’t true, his overwater structures are cause for environmental concern.
2. Overwater Structures
In the proposal for the development of Blackadore Caye, overwater structures are established as one of the main attractions. They are apparently justified environmentally by the claim that artificial reefs will be built underneath and around the structures. However, with overwater structures come issues of shading. The shade from the overwater structures affects light penetration, which would impede the survival of any artificial reefs given that photosynthesis is essential to the growth of autotrophs.
Finally, the placement of these structures is of serious concern. The ACCSD spent years rallying public support and lobbying public officials in order to expand the Hol Chan Marine Reserve in the interest of protecting more of our environment. As a result, Blackadore Caye is now contained within conservation Zone V (I have attached a map). Conservation Zone V was set up specifically to protect fly-fishing species. The director of Hol Chan, Miguel Alamilla, made the following statement regarding the intrusion into Zone C: “The infringement of over the water structures in a conservation Zone undermines the over three years process that we undertook to establish these as part of a protected area including many meetings and public consultations.”
3. Economic Impact/Fly-fishing
Fly fishing is a major part of the Belizean tourism industry, which is more than 16% of the country’s GDP. It is in the best economic and environmental interest of the country to make sure developments do not affect fly fishing. However, only one line of the entire 300-page plus Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the development of Blackadore Caye makes any mention of fly fishing, despite the fact that Blackadore is in a conservation zone designated specifically for the protection of fly fishing species. That line is: “A few fisher-folk and fly-fishing guides utilize the area for several fishing activities, both recreational and commercial.” The economic value and social importance of fly fishing is completely ignored in the EIA.
In the EIA, the “crucial question” is established: Does the intended use of the site offer the most advantageous option in social, economic and environmental returns?
I think the obvious answer here is no.