Turneffe Trust A Turn-Off For Some In Conservation Community
A press release from the Government Press Office yesterday announced the launch of a joint initiative to protect important mangrove ecosystems covering approximately 17,000 acres of national lands remaining on the Turneffe Atoll.
It's an agreement signed between the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Turneffe Atoll Trust, where the lands will be held in trust for conservation for and on behalf of the beneficiaries which are the people and Government of Belize.
Sounds good on paper, but it is some in the environmental community say it's a turn-off.
As we reviewed the press statement, it provoked questions and we went searching. Our first stop was the Fisheries Administrator who could not offer much details saying she is just learning of the arrangement and doing her work to appreciate the intention behind the agreement. Next we approached the Chief Forest Officer, who merely responded to our text saying he would prefer the Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry, the Environment, Sustainable Development respond to the matter. Well, we did, and the CEO of the Ministry Mr. Percival Cho explained the agreement is provided for legally under legislations for land trusts. Here's our phone conversation with him:
PERCIVAL CHO - CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER - MAFFESD
"As you know we have a trust act in this country its written in law that the government can receive for the people of Belize and the government lands that certain landowners who wish to set aside for specific purposes the purpose of these trusts in the realm of better management of land and conservation is to ensure that lands that are of a specific quality and importance are set aside for those lands in their natural state. We have several examples of land trust in this country the Programme for Belize Rio Bravo Management and Conservation Area is one of the first examples."
"We have a second example which is the Northern Biological Corridors, which was again recently purchased by some donors and immediately set aside and given back to the people of Belize, and to the government for the use as a biological corridor."
THE Turneffe Atoll Trust agreement requires maintaining the Trust properties as a nature conservation reserve for the protection of nationally significant species, groups of species, biotic communities and physical features of the environment. The Trustee is required to safeguard for the beneficiaries, safe, healthy, productive, aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings and promote the widest range of beneficial uses of biodiversity without depredation, risk to health or safety, in order to provide for sustainable development. This sounds all well and good. But the arrangement has raised eyebrows for several reasons. In the first case, both public sector and civil society stakeholders say it was done in secrecy.
While all seem to agree that in principle the idea is a good one and land trusts are an accepted conservation land management tool, heir concerns surround the fact that the obvious stakeholder technocrats of Fisheries and Forestry and Conservation were not involved in the discussions. The problem according to Valdemar Andrade and Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association is a matter of transparency, accountability and inclusion of the relevant stakeholders. The organization which goes by the acronym TASA is legally established as the co-managers for the Turneffe Atoll which includes 325,000 acres of marine reserve. Andrade outlined his concerns:
Valdemar Andrade - Chief Executive Officer - TASA
"Our concerns with this is that one as the co-manager we were never consulted. In my comments, I will be limited as I have not seen the structure of the trust; I do not know exactly how it is planned to be set up I do not know who all will be involved. Our understanding is that the Turneffe Atoll Trust paid 2 million United States dollars for the 17,000 acres of land out there and is being put into a trust with them being the sole trustee so that is the limited knowledge that we have."
" Beyond that there are other concerns because this is really a process, transparency and accountability issue Since it can be a good initiative, why was is done is secrecy and not out in the public because these are public lands and we have laws that govern the disposal of public lands. Specifically the Finance and Audit Reform Act Section 22.2 speaks to anything over 5,000 acres and any island of any size needs to go to the National Assembly for approval of sale or disposal. We are concerned that such an important initiative does not have proper process. We would like to ensure that there is proper process. Secondly if you are going to vest such a trust, why was the official co-manager not contacted as an option to manage the trust but I think there are many options that could be had, whether it is the Protected Areas Conservation Trust or another entity that has more of a national scope."
While the issue of transparency and accountability rings out concerns Andrade broke down the numbers that underscores their cry for this due diligence.
"If you do the Math, if you are looking at 2 million US dollars for 17,000 acres you are looking that's 117 US dollars per acre for prime property and so I just throw that in there to say that as a concerned that you could just wake up one day and that 17,000 acres of land there is just a decision that is made for lack of a better term willy nilly, with none of the relative authorities and players involved."
"What we would like is that everybody sits down at the table that we structure the land trust in such a way that it benefits everybody and that we as Belizeans have control of the Trust."
"The other thing is that as a part of the Trust arrangement, there will have to be some designation of this land it would have to be either designated under the national protected areas system act or maybe as a private protected area, but remember that the Turneffe Island Marine Atoll is already structured as a protected area so it also has the possibility whether it could have just been additional as a part of a new SI to be added to the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve. So for us there is still a lot of investigation that we are doing, still a lot stock taking that we are doing because while it is a concern of process of accountability and transparency, we would like that it can be structured in the right way and that it has the right process."
Even as he raised his serious concerns, Andrade said as an organization they want to be calm and sober the matter concerns the largest of the three Atolls of Belize that represents huge economic value and national patrimony.
While Andrade looks at the half full glass of water and the best case scenario for his organization to be able to play a role in the management regime for the Turneffe Atoll, CEO Cho explained the government's rationale. He says he sees it as a move in a positive direction for natural resource management and can respond to concerns about development around the Atoll. He said despite the designation of a marine reserve there still was need to address issues of land clearing and clearing of mangroves in the area:
"So the opportunity arose to protect the last bit of national lands that is almost a 100 percent mangroves."
"Mangroves fall under the remit of the forestry department and both forestry and fisheries fall under this ministry and in the case of national lands fall under the Ministry of Land so the relevant Ministries looked at it very very carefully."
He addressed that several of the members of the Board of the Trust includes Belizeans and with that the land remains in the hands of the Belize. He cited that Wil Maheia is one of the noteworthy members of the Board of the Trust. He mentioned that several of the players on the Board of this new Trust are no strangers to the area and have been working on conservation in the area and other areas of Belize as well as in natural resource management in the country.