Climate change and beach erosion are always on the minds of those living in Belize's coastal communities - and that's why a series of tree and mangrove clearings last weekend on the Placencia Peninsula has enraged a group of residents. They say that a businesswoman, who is expanding her tourism operations in the Maya Beach/Seine Bight area, directed her workmen to clear out the vegetation and, now, they are pressing government's watchdogs to take action against her for it.

Among the complainants is Deborah Coston, a resident of the Stann Creek district who has lived in that area for decades. In the aftermath of Hurricane Iris in 2001, she started planting small trees on the beach to slow down creeping beach erosion. But, it appears that the trees have grown haphazardly, causing an eyesore to some, and so, the resort owner allegedly directed the clearing of the land, as a sort of beach-cleaning initiative last weekend.

On Saturday morning, Coston found them in operation with machetes, a chainsaw, and an excavator. That triggered a confrontation which she captured on her phone. Via Zoom, she spoke with us yesterday about those tense moments:

Deborah Coston - Irate Property Owner
"On Saturday, I heard a bunch of machinery on the beach and I walked over to the police station area on the roadside. And I saw a man in a pink t-shirt talking to the officer there. Ye trotted back across the road and then by that time, I realized something was up and I headed back towards the beach, and here comes an excavator, and some men - and I stopped them. I told them, you cannot be doing this. This is beachfront, you can't bring an excavator and do all this. And then, all of a sudden, the guy in the bright pink T-shirt introduced himself as the village chairman. Several times, he mentioned, I'm the village chairman, and I have the right. This is a right away; this is a public beach. This is not your property. You have no rights. He's in charge. I told him it was what he was doing was against the law. And we argued. I must admit, I did not curse anyone directly, but I did use a couple of curse words. I was so angry. I'm here, I am faced with a very big man, several other men, a chainsaw, machetes, and an excavator on a Saturday morning when I can't call anybody to get a stop order. They proceeded to pretty much take out all the trees. I would say 99% of the trees that were on the beach, that I had planted and nurtured since Hurricane Iris, are gone. They're gone. So now, there's nothing pretty much - there are about 20 feet between myself and the sea, Maybe a little more, give or take here and there. There - and everybody claims, well, you got 66 feet. Well, that was never 66 feet; my land title originally said 40 feet. All but half of it's gone and is now there's nothing to stop it. They even took their roots out. So now what do I do? How do I protect myself? So she's -basically, it slipped out. One of the guys said, Well, she while people walk from her place, down the beach, easy one for access to the other place. All right. Well, now her tourists can walk up and down, and I guess her tourists are more important than my house and my property."

This same resort owner and the work crew are also being blamed for a weekend clearing of mangroves a short distance away from Deborah Coston's house. Concerned resident Tony Wakefield posted the clearing on Facebook, and she told us via telephone yesterday that the same businesswoman appeared to be giving instruction to the work crew that cut down a small portion of mangrove forest that was causing the same eyesore. She added that this wetland area was the habitat for a family of crocodiles that have been spotted several times in the area. As a matter of fact, she captured one of those animals being actively displaced during the clearings.

She also pointed us to a warning sign from the Forest Department who warns specifically about cutting down mangroves without explicit permission.

Yesterday, we contacted Orlando Habet, the Minister responsible for the Environment, about these complaints. He told us that his check with both the Department of Environment and the Forest Department indicates that the Village Chairman, Jose Aleman, and his crew do not have the necessary approvals to do what they have. The DOE has since visited the location, at the request of irate residents, and they have confirmed the clearings.

If the Forest Department decides to take a strict position on this unlawful clearing, they could be facing consequences for the mangrove clearing.

Chairman Defends Clearing

Since Jose Aleman, the Chairman of Seine Bight is being accused of being the operational force behind the weekend clearings, our news pressed him for a comment in response to the complaints from the residents of Maya Beach and Seine Bight.

This evening, he granted us a telephone interview to explain the actions of the work crew. Here are those comments:

Jose Aleman - Chairman, Seine Bight Village Council
"The placencia peninsula being a tourist destination that it is and our pristine beaches to attract not only international and regional tourists but also tourists. If you look at how people wanted to walk across from area of the beach to another area of the beach which they could not have done but rather take of their clothing and walk into the water at least 150 feet in water, other wise you would have to turn right back and go another route. So I am looking for the reasoning as to why anybody would have to walk into the water when we should have public access to the beach to go from point a to point b. I have pictures on my phone to show you that walkers can watch the beach clear with no obstruction, I actually saw the complaint and in there stated that she curses seemly because of frustration but if we were undermining like what was done to the Seine Bight village council, you would have heard all the negativity and all the curse words that were used. My brother that is uncalled for and she did not mention using public access as her driveway not letting people getting access to the beach."

Daniel Ortiz
"Do you acknowledge or concede that the beach that you are trying to give the community access to is slowly being encroached upon by the sea sir?"

Jose Aleman
"My brother, if you look upon the peninsula inclusive of Seine Bight, climate change is taking it's course the way we are living and the things we choose to do and the way we do it, climate is hitting us very hard."

Daniel Ortiz
"Since you all have removed what she thinks was a good buffer for that erosion, what's going to be done to address the erosion that the same beach that you're trying to give access to will disappear in some years from now if that erosion is not halted."

Jose Aleman
"Brother Daniel, I am not rocket scientist, I cannot tell you how and when erosion will come, I cannot tell you how and when to stop any erosion but I am also looking into the reasoning as to why she does not want the public to walk on the sea shore."

Chairman Aleman sent pictures that show the beachfront before Saturday's clearing effort, and what it looks like now. And indeed, the beach now has more access. But, it also lends credibility to what Deborah Coston is concerned about; the area might now be more exposed to coastal erosion.

When we asked about the allegations of the mangrove clearing, Chairman Aleman made it clear that he and his beach-clearing helpers had nothing to do with that. He asserts that he only received a briefing that it had occurred.

Channel 7