The Placencia Lagoon, a fifteen mile body of water west of the Caribbean Sea just behind the peninsula, has, for the past fifteen years, been the subject of protection by environmentalists lobbying for government to declare it as a reserve. The lagoon, which is connected to three important rivers in South Stann Creek, is renowned for its biodiversity, a natural habitat for Morelet’s crocodiles, Jabiru storks, as well as the West Indian manatees. Extensive development on both sides of the lagoon, however, is threatening the ecosystem. While environmentalists, including Friends of Nature, are urging the Barrow Administration to list the lagoon as a protected area, the news tonight is that several acres of crown land within the designated reserve have been sold by the Ministry of Natural Resources to friends and relatives of Deputy Prime Minister Gaspar Vega. A total of four parcels located on two islands within the lagoon, the largest being a fifteen acre plot belonging to Dominique Gomez, the girlfriend of Vega’s son, were distributed six days prior to the March 7th General Elections of last year. Among those who also purchased prime real estate at rock bottom prices are Douglas Usher, reportedly a close friend of Andre Vega and Bertran Brown, an employee of the minister. Despite several attempts to have the land titles returned, the properties remain under private ownership, notwithstanding a cabinet directive. News Five spoke by phone with Mary Toy, a Placencia resident who has been active in the conservation effort.
Via Phone: Mary Toy, Conservationist, Placencia“The background is that there’s been an effort to have the Placencia Lagoon put into some form of reserve status for over fifteen years. It’s even listed on some maps as being in protective status but apparently back in the nineties when that occurred they got to a certain and then nothing ever happened to actually carry it to fruition. Over the years the lagoon has been used for a lot of different reasons. There’s a lot of development, a lot of dredging, a lot of effluence flowing into the lagoon from new developments both residential and tourism. Shrimp farms have put a lot of effluent into the lagoon in the past and although they have substantially cleaned up their operations, people have been cutting mangrove down without permits. The lagoon is an essential part of the ecosystem here, many of the fish and shellfish that we eat start their lives in the lagoon and they end up in the sea where they are caught and they feed people here and exported. So through the process of the consultations we’ll get community input and they will come up with a management plan and the lagoon will be designated. We hope, obviously, and that will be up to cabinet ultimately as a protected area, either as a wildlife sanctuary under forests or a marine protected area under fisheries.”
Isani Cayetano “My understanding is that there are two islands within the lagoon that have been parceled off to four individuals. Are you of this or can you elaborate on your knowledge of what’s currently taking place with that?”
Mary Toy“Yes, I understand that occurred. We discovered that when we were doing our research because we have to, when we submitted our proposal to the Forestry and Fisheries [Departments] we had to provide a map. So we went to Lands, we got that information. We approached some of our associates from government with the information that they had been parceled out and they agreed with us that these were really essential to the health of the lagoon and that probably should not have been done. So what we understood was that those transactions were going to be, in some way, reversed. I don’t know whether they would be reversed and people just wouldn’t have the land or whether they would get land in exchange for that land. I don’t have those details but we were supposed to get some mechanism to get the land back.”
News Five attempted to speak with Minister Vega earlier today but he declined comment on the occasion of his birthday.