Conservation and Cruise Stakeholders Meet To Discuss Stake BankTonight some of the biggest cruise executives in the world are at the Grand Caribe on Northern San Pedro enjoying a cultural night at the meeting of the Platinum Associate Membership Advisory Club.
And we’re sure a lot of them are talking about the future for cruise tourism in Belize. That’s because – even though this is the 7th most popular cruise destination in the Western Caribbean - the system of cruise tendering – where boats pick up passengers and ferry them to shore – is considered out-dated and inefficient.
And that complaint inevitably leads back to the question of where Belize will put a berthing facility – which the cruise ships can dock at. And not only where, but when since the first failed attempted was embarked upon 7 years ago.
One developer who’s positioning himself is Mike Feinstein. He’s the owner of Stake Bank Caye four miles southeast of Belize City, which was proposed as a viable berthing facility and cruise port 6 years ago. The interest died off, but now the project is back in play and last night the developers, the environmental consultant and the Department of the Environment held a public consultation at the Biltmore where the mood was surprisingly restrained – but still rife with discord – which is understandable, considering the proposal is to build a causeway right through a wildlife sanctuary. 7news was there.
Daniel Ortiz reporting
Last night, the 2-hour Public Consultation on the revisit of the Stake Bank project was a heated discussion with the Developer, the Feinstein Group on one side, and the environmentalists and concerned citizens on the other.
The members of the Department of the Environment presented the new plan for the project to a room full of avid listeners.
But how did the old plan look like back in 2007 when it was initially being considered? Jules Vasquez explored it when he spoke to Mike Feinstein, the head of the Feinstein Group.
File: September 19, 2007
Jules Vasquez Reporting,
Stake Bank it's a 20-acre island just off the coast of Belize City. It used to be all mangroves but now it's been short of that - and as this promotional 3D rendering shows, it will be transformed into a cruise resort destination.
Mike Feinstein, Tourism Developer
"Stake Bank is designed to work hand in hand with the existing village. So after completion, hopefully we can get the numbers back up to a million or a million and five and the actual traffic in Belize City and the existing tourism village will probably double. This is not taking away anything from what's happening. This is just enhancing the situation. We are saving the industry basically."
But, for all its promise, that project never saw the light of day; it was shelved, and some thought thrown out.
But Prime Minister Dean Barrow hinted that it was back on the table when he announced that Crawl Caye as a cruise port could not happen for Norwegian Cruise Line due to the environmental concerns.
So, it’s made a come-back, and it may even to be realized this time around. Last night was the first step in that direction.
So, what’s different now? That’s what we asked the Engineer hired by the Feinstein Group to explain.
Jose Garcia - Engineer Representing Feinstein Group
"These are old projects that have been approved several years ago, I think specifically in 2007. One was for the North Drown Caye and the other one was for State Bank. North Drown Caye is basically a marina housed in the hotel complex area and the State Bank was specifically Cruise Ship destination where chesters will be built so the people land on the island and can actually come off on the island and jump into a bus and head into Belize City. What had been approved previously way back in 2007 was the cause way from Belize City to North Drown Caye but at this point what was done was they requested three changes for North Drown Caye. One - to change the inner canal system to improve it for better current, patterns and improvement of the weather quality, two - was just to change a 5 acre tourism zone into a Cruise Destination village and three - was the cause way for North Drown Caye to State Bank. Then in State Bank only two changes was requested, one - to have a bunkering facilities to fill oil or diesel into the ship whenever it is needed but it is self contained within a ship and two - was that we were no longer interested in the canal that would have been dug from State Bank to English Channel which was several miles and the width and depth would have been equivalent to almost 5 million cubic yards of material, so that is not being considered in this project anymore."
And as he outlined, a major part of the development is the proposed causeway to be built from Belize City to North Drown Caye. That idea isn’t sitting well at all with the environmentalists who say that this causeway will affect the Swallow Caye Reserve, which has been set up to protect the endangered manatee population.
They aired those concerns with conviction last night.
Jamal Galvez - Manatee Conservationist
"There's no good that that could cause for Manatees by putting a cause way through, the only area in Belize that they call home - it's like putting a bulldozer tree in your living room while you're watching the television."
And with strong opinions such as these, the Department of Environment representatives had to field mostly questions aimed at quality assurances and conservation.
Roberto Pott, a very active member of the Healthy Reefs Initiative, eventually couldn’t take anymore. He cursed the DOE and the developer, and then walked out of the meeting.
He told us outside that it was because the authorities weren’t giving him any good answers that he could accept as an environmentalist.
Roberto Pott - Healthy Reefs Initiative
"They are saying that originally the PIA and the ECP gave them approval to dig from English caye into State Bank. They are saying they are voluntarily giving up that opportunity so that should give them the right to build a cause way through the park and that's not an argument - that's not a compromise, it was never on the table as I understand."
The Swallow Caye Reserve is a cause championed by Lionel ‘Chocolate’ Heredia. It was finally formalized in 2002, and since then has been operating as such.
So those after him, who respect his work, say that he would be rolling in his grave if he heard that this project was back on the table.
"His ashes haven’t even settled at the bottom of the sea yet and here is this project popping up. The man - we just had his burial ceremony about a month ago and here is this project popping it, we don't want to cast aspersions but it seems so coincidental that this is happening now."
Jamal Galvez - Manatee Conservationist
"Swallow Caye reserve has been for Manatees for over the years, it's something that the late 'Chocolate' fought for over the years. To run a cause way through the sanctuary is unbelievable, I'm surprised of such idea - there's no positive that Manatees can actually gain from a cause way going right through in Belize that they can actually call home. The small ways of all the water ways in Belize that these Manatees are residents to it's not like we can tell these Manatees to go on vacation while they're putting a cause way and for them to come back when it is finished."
So with such a vast difference in opinion, how do both sides find a common ground?
Some of the environmentalists are willing to compromise if the developer, Mike Feinstein, sticks with the program, which he didn’t back in 2007.
"There's a planned port or a port that got half started at Port Loyola that never got completed. This is the second time that State Bank/Drown Caye is coming around - if you recall it started up and the last team, we weren't sure about what was going to happen and what was going to come to fruition. I think we're able to make compromises and sacrifices but I think due diligence is not being done to ensure that when somebody commits to something that they will deliver and the people when they agree to make a sacrifice that they'll be reciprocated for that sacrifice that they made, something that they gave up for future returns. Because they end up without a port and without something happening out at State Bank then DOE and us will be left with the mess."
"How will you answer the criticism 'well the manatees will adapt, they're intelligent animals and they will learn to adapt'. At one point we didn't even have a north side of the City and most of this has been reclaimed, they've adapted over time and they will adapt again and it's not worth standing in the way of progress and so much employment for animals that can survive."
"Manatees are already on the endangered list, Belize hosts the highest population of this species and it would be sad for other countries looking in to see the consideration Belizean take on such an endangered species. By the time these animals may adapt we may not have any Manatee to conserve."
"How will you answer the criticism that the manatees are a dime and the proposed ocean Bay-view grand tourism development is a ten dollar bill? You can't make a dime hold up a dollar."
Nicole Auil Gomez - Executive Director, Southern Environmental Association
"If that was the case then I think you would need to see really what the economic benefit is and I think that's something that we don't really explore. What is the stance of recipients of that ten dollar disbursement as opposed to the shilling? Because we do have some people that make quite a bit of money on the tourists to the location as it is where the manatees are, they change $75 a head to fill a boat with 20 people and they go a few boats a day. So it is not as though nothing is being made currently. If you're looking at economically it's open, this type of proposal can be somewhat exclusive and somewhat closed."
"These manatees, whatever impact we cause on them will be short term. The long term existing impact is the power boats that goes through that reserve because they come floating by my house all the time. Dead manatees - it's power boats that kill them."
Even though the Feinstein Group may not accept the strong position of most of the environmentalists who attended last night, the representative believes that the discussion was mostly positive.
"It was a good consultation; I haven't been to one like this in quite some time. The people that were here were high powered people, a lot of excellent questions were asked - some of them we couldn't answer but we will look into them. I asked the people that they make it to this consultation and that they still have time to send their comments or concerns to the department of environment. They have until the 26th because the following day, next week Thursday, the National Environmental Appraisal Committee will review this project and see if it flies, it changes because remember this project has been approved already."
Those who want to give their input on the project can email the Department of Environment at firstname.lastname@example.org and they have until next week Wednesday to do so. The following day, NEAC the National Environmental Appraisal Committee will consider the proposal.