As a fisherman, about thirty years ago I sat in a meeting at the office of the National Fishermen’s Cooperative Society on Angel Lane in Belize City. One of the items on the agenda was a dispute between two fishermen, a traditional dive-and-strike fisherman and a trap fisherman.
The trap fisherman, a big producer with the modern approach of setting large numbers of lobster traps and hauling them every two weeks to retrieve the catch, was accusing the traditional diver of tampering with his traps and stealing his catch.
The diver maintained that he never touched the traps. But he argued that these were waters that he had been diving for many years, because there are rocks there where the lobsters are found. He didn’t think the trap fisherman had any right to deny him the privilege to continue diving the rocks in the area as he had been doing for many years, just because the other chose to set traps in the area.
The decision of the committee was that, by law, nobody owns the water; nobody can prevent anybody from going anywhere in the water to fish. That is our law. The water is for everyone. But a trap is the property of who put it there, and it is also illegal to interfere with another person’s property. The problem is that it is difficult to prove if indeed the diver did touch the traps. Without that proof, the committee couldn’t exact any charge on the diver, as it would be against the law. But for the sake of peace and good will among members and fishermen in general, the committee advised that divers should respect the property of trap owners, and trap owners should try to avoid setting traps in areas that are traditional diving areas, to avoid conflict.
About a decade ago, there was a big brouhaha about the effort of owners of Ambergris Aquaculture, a subsidiary of Nova shrimp farm, to put a pipeline from the coastline to about 400-600 feet out into the deeper water between the coast and the Barrier Reef. The plan was to use water pumps to dig a trench in the sea bottom, so that the pipeline could be buried, and then have the trench covered up to protect the pipeline along the sea bottom, until the end where it would have a filter to allow water to flow along the pipeline, and thus onshore to where the company’s shrimp hatchery was located. The process of burying the pipeline, which would last a few days, a week at most, would stir up some silt; and the brouhaha was all about the damage the silt could do to the Reef. The PUP Minister, Patty Arceo, made a big scene about stopping the operation until a silt curtain could be deployed to minimize the amount of silt reaching the Reef. That was done, and there was never any claim of noticeable negative effects to the Reef in the area. The pipeline still remains, although the shrimp hatchery has been inoperative since January of 2007 when all the Nova companies ceased operations.
But now there is going to be drilling for oil right smack in the middle of these same near shore waters, by a concession approved by the UDP government to a Taiwanese company. Now it is not a matter of silt and sand, which occur naturally on the sea bed; now we’re talking about oil and other accompanying toxic chemicals. And there is no hue and cry from any Minister, or from anyone in the Department of the Environment. Neither from the NGO’s concerned with conservation, like the Audubon Society, for example.
It may sound strange, but in a sense this UDP government is potentially more dangerous than the past PUP, at least in this first year, when they are benefitting from the good will of the Belizean people, who were happy to rid themselves from the perceived scoundrels in the last PUP administration. For, while the UDP still appear as friends of the Belizean people, they are allowed to get away with some very dangerous and even scandalous moves, which, under the PUP would have certainly resulted in great public outcry.
The UDP’s “honeymoon” is almost over, and, if the present trend continues, it won’t be long before the full venom of a disappointed, disenchanted, and even angry electorate is let loose on these new masters. And who will they have to blame, when they are apparently determined to play the game by the same rules as their predecessors, to the satisfaction and benefit of the foreign forces, and the detriment of their own Belizean people?