Government Explores Possibility for Crawl Caye Project; PM Explains Payment Voucher in Question

Since tourism investors and environmentalists have raised concerns over a proposal put forth by Norwegian Cruise Line to construct a cruise tourism port on Crawl Caye, the discussion on the issue has remained current. On Thursday, Prime Minister Dean Barrow said that while there may be an existing Memorandum of Understanding with Norwegian, that doesn’t mean that it will translate into overnight development.

Rt. Hon. DEAN BARROW

“I’ve had a letter from the Placencia Tour Guides Association and I think, they appended to that letter, a petition with a number of signatures. The thrust of that letter is that they fully support the Crawl Caye project and that the village in a large majority supports the Crawl Caye Project. In formal conversations with one of the officials from that organization, there’s a feeling that the big hoteliers have their all-inclusive resorts; they do their own touring, they do their own dive work and they are set and it’s wonderful and we all certainly rejoice over the fact that overnight tourism is surging but they think that there is a lot they can get out of cruise tourism. Norwegian is talking about an investment of possible a hundred million dollars, at least, in my view, given the need for employment in that area, given the need for opportunities, government must have the conversation that it is having with Norwegian. Given the location of Crawl Caye, Cabinet insisted that the relevant ministries do the proper assessment to ensure that we could even do a project there and that if we could, in what ways the project would have to be limited. I see, the BTIA is saying, ‘this is going to be a kind of free for all; Norwegian brings hundreds and hundreds of cruise passengers in their big ships’; well, if we go ahead, one of the limitations might be that you can only bring a small ship. So, what I have to say is, ultimately, I don’t think that the BTIA ought to get ahead of itself. I understand that they want to signal from now, their opposition but Government will take on board their points of view; government will take on board the point of view of any number of persons including the Placencia Tour Guide Association and in particular the advice of the technical people. There are concerns that BTIA raised about heritage locations and that sort of thing; there is no way that we’re going to move in any precipitous fashion in this thing, I don’t know if we will move at all but the conversation must occur because you simply don’t turn away this potentially huge investment without making absolutely sure that this cannot happen in a larger scheme of things. If an MOU exists, that is by no means the last word and that can have no contractual obligations and can have no legal standings; the remit of the Cabinet subcommittee is not to enter into any kind of a binding obligation; as far as I know, the process is nowhere near the point where Cabinet can make a decision on whether or not to proceed. I have also heard that this may be good to go as early as next week; that is absolutely not true, this thing is going through the various protocols in a slow and stately fashion.”

Reporters also asked Mr. Barrow to comment on contracts were given for the paving of the San Antonio Road in Orange Walk, but the work was never done.

Rt. Hon. DEAN BARROW

“There is no doubt that some contracts were signed for work on the San Antonio Road; those contracts were cancelled. Financial Secretary has confirms that the money that was allocated, his permission was sought in the shifting of the funds instead to do work in the Otro Benque area which you will be delighted to know, no doubt is in the constituency of the Deputy Prime Minister. I don’t know that the FS knew which works were to replace the San Antonio works that had been contracted for but he gave permission for the reallocation of the funds. The District Engineer, Mr. Graciano Medina confirms that his file will contain a note showing that, in fact, the San Antonio Road contract were cancelled and he is saying, Minister Boots Martinez says that he has some pen and ink (handwriting) notes to bear this out that the monies were used to do these various works in the Otro Benque area. What remains a mystery is why payments were made that on the face of them, evidenced that these payments were being done in connection with contracts that had already been cancelled. I haven’t spoken to Mr. Medina directly, but the reports are that he is saying that it was a frenzied time and everybody was under pressure and so that was a mistake. I can’t simply leave it there and the Ministry of Finance is asking that all this be documented in writing to the Ministry of Works and in particular, that official must say this to us, put it on record and then we go from there but that is the position. It is still unsatisfactory but certainly not as unsatisfactory as it would have been if in fact there had been no cancellation of the San Antonio Road contract and if in fact it would have been as the story, on the basis of the then available facts suggested that Imer Hernandez was paid for work on the San Antonio Road when in fact, under a contract which he did not perform.”

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DR. MELANIE MCFIELD WRITES PM BARROW

Amandala Letters — by Melanie McField, PhD

Dear Rt. Hon. Prime Minister Barrow,

I write to formally express our strong concern over the proposed NCL cruise terminal on Crawl Caye and our hope that Cabinet will conclude the entertaining of this idea with a firm rejection. Our fundamental question to the government is: How could this development possibly be worth it? We acknowledge that cruise passengers would have an improved experience and NCL would make massive additional profits by exercising complete control over their island base, but at what cost to Belize and Belizeans?

The costs are substantial, unavoidable, and irreversible; and include:

1) Environmental costs: Crawl Caye is a fragile mangrove island surrounded by fringing coral reefs. These inshore coral reefs have recently been shown to harbor more robust and resilient corals than the outer barrier reef, and could help our reef system adapt to the changing global climate if they remain free from localized stress and injury. Construction of the cruise terminal would involve massive mangrove clearing and marine dredging, which would severely damage or destroy the fringing reef, seagrass beds, and mangrove forest – all critical marine ecosystems supporting fisheries, tourism and biodiversity. In addition to the unavoidable direct impacts of construction are the chronic impacts from having thousands of people daily visiting this and nearby fragile areas. Finally, there is the additional risk of having a ship grounding, possibly including an oil spill, as these massive ships would be traversing the entire southern lagoon and out by Sapodilla Cayes. Given our lack of a functional oil spill response plan, it would be irresponsible to allow this additional risk into the heart of our marine ecosystem.

2) Probable loss of our World Heritage Site. In 2009 our Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System was inscribed on the list World Heritage Sites in Danger, due to “the sale and lease of public lands for the purposes of development within the property leading to the destruction of mangrove and marine ecosystems.”

The main incident provoking this danger listing was the dredging and filling of Pelican Cayes, a biodiversity hotspot located a mere 5 miles away from Crawl Caye, with both cayes being inside the South Water Caye Marine Reserve.

The World Heritage Commission further requested that Belize:

a)”Implement the necessary legal measures to guarantee the permanent cessation of the sale and lease of lands throughout the property, and the cessation of mangrove cutting, coral dredging and other associated real estate development activities; and b) Ensure that development rights on existing private or leased lands within the property are clearly defined and strictly controlled with a view to conserving the Outstanding Universal Value of the property”.

Clearly a mass cruise ship terminal is in direct contravention of this request and would likely result in our permanent de-listing as a World Heritage Site.

3) Degradation of the value of two of the main tourism destinations: Placencia and Hopkins. As one of many participants in many public consultations about cruise-tourism and coastal development, including the Seatone Report, the Sustainable Tourism Project and Master Planning Process, and the recent Coastal Zone Planning Process, we stand by their conclusions that Southern Belize remain free from mass cruise tourism, which is known to cheapen the tourism product and accelerate natural resource degradation. The South should remain solidly grounded in overnight high-end or small-scale eco-tourism, which contributes much more revenue to the local population and provides better livelihood options for the people.

4) Increased economic hardship in Belize City. Many city residents are extremely concerned about the socio-economic repercussions of large-scale cruise ship abandonment of Belize City. This proposed change to the cruise policy is insensitive to the thousands Belizeans who have invested, large or small, in the cruise industry. Their investments were founded on a clear governmental policy that only allowed mass cruise tourism in Belize City. This large Belize City cruise-constituency would take the brunt of the economic blow from the cruise industry’s abandonment of Belize City. Belize City Council would also feel the loss of probably 2/3 the cruise tax and other cruise-based revenues (estimated at about $14million/yr). All this just as Mayor Bradley’s city refurbishment is well underway, including the Fort George tourism zone, which would likely fail to achieve the needed numbers to support the vendors.

Given that neither NCL nor GOB have provided the public with even a rough draft of a comprehensive national cost-benefit analysis of this project, nor the proposed conditions or fiscal incentives of any draft MOU, civil society is thus unable to make more specific comments at this time. We hereby request a seat at the discussion table.

Together we could better fully examine the fundamental question of total cost and benefits to Belize of this proposal, given the high environmental, social, and economic costs to the people and resources of Belize? The burden of such proof should be on the shoulders of NCL, since they are essentially asking Belize to abandon all of our existing tourism policies and plans, and likely to give up our Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage Site in order for their private company to enjoy expanded profits.

Sincerely,
Melanie McField, PhD
Director, Healthy Reefs Initiative
Cc: Cabinet Ministers and Belize media

Amandala