There are more questions than answers in the following story in which we found that a piece of the Caribbean Sea just outside San Pedro, Ambergris Caye was surveyed in August in the name of a highly connected family in the island. There has been no environmental assessment done, but can any individual own a piece of the sea? Marion Ali traveled to San Pedro and has a report.
Marion Ali, Reporting
This bird seen enjoying this speck of land out at sea may not be able to do so for much longer – that is if the three individuals interested in developing the area get their way. Following concerns raised to our newsroom and with the help of GPS Technology, News Five visited the site a few miles northwest of San Pedro Town and we discovered that survey pegs had already been placed in the sea around the 9-acre stretch that the parties have interests in, presumably for some type of development.
News Five has also obtained this copy of the survey form dated August 15th, 2008 and approved by the Lands Department to the three potential developers, a wife, husband, and son family of San Pedro Town. Our best guess is that their intention is to erect a recreational or tourist hide-away. But while that may be a good revenue-earning idea, we have at least two qualms with the private venture.
While a small portion of the area is shallow enough for people to walk on, the area is located in open waters and actually forms a part of the Caribbean Sea, as shown here from aboard a boat…
…and then from this aerial shot taken from a Google map. But can individuals purchase a portion of the sea? Even more important than that, can a portion of the Caribbean Sea be developed for personal gains? Chief Environmental Officer, Martin Alegria, says he does not know of the development, but he is concerned as any tampering with the natural seabed is not good for marine life.
Martin Alegria, Chief Environmental Officer
“Bajos have some ecological importance at times, depending on where it is. Any fisherman will tell you that certain bajos are good prime nursery grounds for bone fish and some other types of fish. Those things needed to have been done, properly assessed before any such even policies were developed and instituted to lease or title out these bajos. These land owners or lease holders will want to develop it; the first thing they will have to do is dredge and fill. I hope that when and if that occurs, the proposal to develop any such structures or areas, that the Environmental Department is taken into consideration.”
Alegria says there are other valid reasons why their input is required in developments that affect the environment.
“If there’s a resort let’s say that eventually will be built at these sites, how will they get rid of their sewage, for example, properly treated before disposing it into the open seas? How will they get electricity, how will they get water, etc., etc.? These are things that we from department’s environmental screening will look at.”
Sharing that view with Alegria is Minister of Tourism and Belize Rural South Area Representative, Manuel Heredia, who lives in San Pedro. He too told News Five that he only found out about the surveyed area recently and that this is not the only one that he is investigating.
Manuel Heredia, Minister of Tourism
“I was informed by the Town Council that these survey pegs are there but I cannot tell you exactly what it is, for whom it is or who has given that or when it was given. If I can recall, there are markers all around - if you go by Cangrejo Caye – that we have recently – there are survey markers all around. And then almost all around San Pedro, all around all the other cayes and so you can see survey all around markers.. There are hundreds of lots, probably hundreds of acres that have been surveyed and didn’t go through the proper procedures that it will probably take me as long as my five years and I will probably not finish with everything that is there.”
“But you are investigating these developments?”
“We are trying to investigate almost everything that is happening, myself in my constituency.”
“And what has been found to be illegal will be reverted?”
“Well, if anything is illegal, definitely, I will make sure that something is done.”
“We have learnt that there have been a recent issuance of land titles within the sea beds. Wh? Because people had claimed without any verification by Lands Department many times that they are applying for a “Bajo” or what we call shoals, because even those were being leased or even titled out. These shoals or “bajos” were being done. From our perspective; from the environmental perspective we wouldn’t have entertained those things if we had any say. It’s unfortunate where we have seen not only there but many other parts where unscrupulous surveyors just demarcating putting pegs where they’re doing land surveying where no land exists in ten, twelve sometimes, seven feet of water; that’s not land. And then we are ending up now when we are reviewing developmental proposals or projects, we then are involved and depending on our professional advice we are being looked at as the big bad wolf when things like that should never have happened or occurred.”
We tried reaching the Lands Commissioner, Manuel Rodriguez, to explain how leases or titles are given for portions of the sea, but he was unavailable. Marion Ali for News Five.