That was the headline of a press release issued by the Government of Belize (GOB) on Tuesday, January 30th, 2008. Cangrejo Caye has been under careful scrutiny for many years but came again to the limelight this week when survey pegs were found surrounding the caye located south of Ambergris Caye.

What followed after were heated discussions on the possibility of the caye going into private hands. Chairman of the San Pedro Tour Guide Association Phillip “Billy” Leslie has been one of the strongest voices in opposition to the sale. Organizations such as Green Reef and Hol Chan have for years voiced their concerns and have petitioned, on several occasions before, that Cangrejo Caye form part of Hol Chan’s Zone “C”. With much back and forth going on, GOB categorically denied any allegations of a possible sale of Cangrejo Caye. The press release states The Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment hereby confirms that no “permission to survey,” lease, sale or disposal of the National Lands on Cangrejo Caye has occurred. Any survey activity on Cangrejo Caye is unauthorized and therefore illegal. The Ministry has no intention within the foreseeable future to change the status of this Caye due to its ecological and socio-economic importance to visitors and residence of Ambergris Caye. An initial report, regarding pegs clearly visible on the island lead us to believe a “gimmick” is in progress.

Whether Cangrejo Caye is now safe or whether the deal will or has gone through is unknown. Cangrejo Caye, though, has for years been a diamond in the rough with “jewelers” lining up to acquire it. In January of 1997, The San Pedro Sun printed an article on Xcaret, an eco-archeological park in Cancun, Mexico. The visiting delegation from Xcaret spoke of their plans to bring a smaller scale park to Ambergris Caye and after opposition from the community the deal did not go through. The then Mayor Manuel Heredia was in support of the proposed dolphin park. “Yes, I worked on it along with a private individual. At that time we did believe that the proposal was going to be good for San Pedro. It was designed in a way that no mangroves would be cut and no dredging would take place. After much controversy and consultation with the public, we followed the public’s wish and left Cangrejo Caye alone,” commented Heredia on Tuesday.

On November 7th, 2006, the San Pedro Tour Guide Association (SPTGA) held a public meeting. Part of the night’s agenda was to discuss the rumors that Cangrejo Caye was at the verge of being sold. Cangrejo Caye and Cangrejo Shoals support a healthy population of bonefish and other species and most importantly provide critical habitats supporting Hol Chan. For that reason, the Hol Chan Board and the San Pedro Tour Guide Association, among others have for years been advocating that the Marine Reserve be expanded to include Cayo Cangrejo and Cangrejo shoals. At the meeting, Chairman Phillip “Billy” Leslie explained that in 1999, SPTGA issued a letter to Honorable Daniel Silva, Minister of Fisheries stating “In the past few years, developers have threatened the fate of Cayo Cangrejo. For this reason, the San Pedro Tourist Guide Association recommends the extension of Zone C of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve to include Cayo Cangrejo, and that this be under the same rules and regulations as the rest of the reserve.” On October 25th, 2006, another letter was issued to present Minister of Fisheries Honorable Vildo Marin.

However, GOB’s recent commitment to not sell Cangrejo Caye does not eliminate the threat of having all mangrove cayes surrounding San Pedro Town being sold to private investors. Last Friday, the San Pedro Business Association organized a trip to the Bird Cayes where the island media along with representatives from Green Reef and Hol Chan Marine reserve rode to these areas to understand the importance of these tiny islands, their vital role in our tourism industry, and the fact that some are not only being surveyed but being readied for development. Two of the Cayes visited were Little Guana and Rosario Caye which are two small mangrove island reserves managed by Green Reef (an Ambergris Caye local based non-governmental organization) along with the Belize Audubon Society (BAS). These two cayes are great places to spot blue herons, roseate spoonbills, magnificent frigate birds, reddish egrets and other coastal zone birds. According to Mito Paz, President of Green Reef, the areas in question are “crown reserves” which are land set aside on behalf of the community for a wide range of public purposes including environmental and heritage protection, recreation and sport. Any threat or pressure to these fragile environments would have devastating effects not only to the wildlife but would impact the tourism industry the most. “These pastures for mangroves are home to some of the most amazing bird species including the egret, and ibis birds that nest year round.” At Little Guana, a crown reserve bird sanctuary, the survey pegs were visible and, according to Mito, they suggest plans for land filling and dredging. Cayo Iguana has been surveyed and is now being cleared of mangroves.

At Cayo Punta Bajo and Cayo Savannah areas have been cleared of all its mangroves and survey pegs are firmly in place. At Cayo Savannah survey pegs are also in place and the entire area has been cleared of all vegetation. At Cayo Iguana, the area has been surveyed as well, and is currently being cleared of all mangroves. “One would hope that these investors do have permits to clear the mangroves that are on their block,” commented Paz. Cayo Frances, Frenchman’s Caye, Mosquito Caye have been sold and cleared.

According to the environmental agencies that are lobbying against the sale of the islands, all sales of the Bird Cayes can and must be reversed /revoked and must be given the protected status that they all deserve. But how can we go about facilitating this motion? According to Paz, “The Government of Belize or the San Pedro Town Council can easily reverse the sales of the Bird Cayes, wetland/lagoon areas and Cayo Cangrejo by exercising their powers of eminent domain. The power of eminent domain allows a government to take property for a public purpose, such as for a road, a school, a marine protected area or a bird sanctuary even if the property owner does not agree. Eminent domain also requires the government to pay fair market value for the property it takes. In the case of the Bird Cayes, wetland/lagoon areas and Cayo Cangrejo, fair market value was established when the GOB or Town Council recently sold them. What the GOB or Town Council received for these properties is the most it should pay to reacquire them. The amount paid should be reduced if any loss of mangroves or other damage to the property was not properly permitted before it occurred.”

Directly or indirectly, the Bird Cayes affect the livelihoods, property values and investment returns of everyone who lives, works, owns a business or has invested in Ambergris Caye,” stated Paz. Paz ended by saying that, “the government officials who make decisions with only a short term or even self-interested view damage the welfare and long term prospects of all of us. Government agencies do all of us a disservice when they fail to act with foresight, fail to coordinate with or defer to other agencies with greater expertise or lack of integrity to say ‘no’ when appropriate, even to those who are politically connected, wealthy or foreign.”

On January 29th, 2008 Green Reef released an open letter to the public and addressed to Belize Rural South Area Representative and other officials to be elected on February 7th. To view the letter in its entirety, please click here.