Articles on Belize and San Pedro

Destruction of the ecology of Roatan

by: Lorenzo Dee Belveal

Lorenzo had a 30 year view of the destruction of the forests and reefs of Roatan. We saw most of this happen in the last 15 years. Such a shame.

I wish to enter a firm disclaimer to the allegation that I have sought to attribute Roatan's continuing and increasing rate of destruction entirely to "the increase in human population". I do, however affirm my unwavering view that the trashing of Roatan, including the island itself and its surrounding shores, reefs, marine life and related ecological inventories, is almost exclusively due to human abuse.

Hurricanes Francellia, Fifi, Greta and Mitch didn't do it. People did it. Too many people and too many ignorant, uncaring people. Too many people looking for a quick buck - and willing to trade anything for it. Too many shortsighted, money-grubbing, exploitive, self-styled "developers", who had/have neither the intelligence nor the sense of responsibility to include saving the ambiente in their drive for the quick buck and a soft life in a tropical 'paradise'.

Roatan could have survived everything else that nature dealt up, but it couldn't the resist the destructive ingenuity of too many people in too confined a living space. It took natural forces at least a million years to fashion Roatan into the ecological jewel that awaited "modern man". But it only took "modern man" four decades to transform natures miracle into a botched, despoiled, raped and ruined caricature of its former natural grandeur. And the continuing destruction of scantily remaining resources continues unabated, with no thought for either conservation or restoration of the land or the submarine treasures surrounding it.

I took extensive note of this trend in a letter I wrote to Diputado Julio Galindo, almost a decade ago. That letter is still as pertinent as ever it was.

13 August, 1993
Honorable Julio Galindo, Deputado, Coxen's Hole, Roatan, Islas de la Bahia Republica de Honduras, C. A.

Dear Julio:
I got my first glimpse of Roatan in 1967, out the window of a Cessna 170 that I had chartered in San Pedro Sula. At first impression it reminded me of Tahiti, but greener, and with softer contours on the hills. We landed on a grass strip, closely hemmed in by two rows of coconut trees. Thus began a love affair that continues to this day - twenty-six years later. For sixteen of those years I was a permanent Roatan resident. For ten of them, I have come and gone as my other activities have required. But I have always remained an "islander" at heart, and this will never change.

I did more than just "live" on Roatan. For a few examples, I personally built the road from Punta Gorda to Oak Ridge. Then Jorge Bogran and I first laid out the track and then built the road from French Harbor, east, to intersect the Punta Gorda road. I put most of a million dollars and fifteen years of my life into building and operating Spyglass Hill Resort. We "invented" SCUBA diving n Roatan, at Spyglass Hill Resort.

Although it had to be closed for lack of any viable means for moving guests in and out, Spyglass was an important step in getting Roatan a foothold in the vacation resort industry. It just happened that my idea was about twenty years ahead of operational reality.

I have just returned home from a month spent on the island, and what I saw both on land and in the sea is certainly a shame, if not actually a crime. Roatan is being systematically raped and ruined and, insofar as I can learn, there is nobody at official levels who seems to give a damn. Or if they do, they have failed up to now to translate their concern into practical efforts to stem the ruinous tide.

Item: When I first came to Roatan there were lots of big trees: Caoba, gumma-limba, and several beautiful stands of white oak, one of which was on my Spyglass Hill property. We positioned our buildings so as to not have to cut any of them down. Even back then, we understood that a damned fool with an ax can cut a tree down in an. hour and a half that took a century and a half to grow. This truth seems to have been forgotten in the current milieu. Roatan has almost no trees now. They have disappeared into firewood and fence posts.

Item: With the loss of the trees, the water-table on the island has dropped like a stone. I dug three wells on my own property, and saw a hundred others that belonged to other people. The best well in the village of Punta Gorda belonged to "Uncle" Santiago Castro. It was about one meter square and two meters deep. The rim of the concrete casing was about a foot above ground level. Over years that I was a Punta Gorda resident and neighbor, I often saw water overflowing the top of that cement well lip; in dry years I saw its water level halfway down from the cap; but that well never had less than three or four feet of water in it for the more than a decade that I observed it.

Two weeks ago I looked into this same well. There was at most five or six inches of water in it. One of Uncle Santiago's great-granddaughters lives close-by. I asked her what had happened to the well. "Oh, Mr. Dee, it doesn't have much water any more. We have to carry water from the creek."

Item: I see trucks running up and down the roads on Roatan, SELLING DRINKING WATER IN GLASS BOTTLES! Is there anyone on the island over the age of forty who would have ever thought this could happen? I operated a fresh-water swimming pool and provided all of the water needs for the resort and its guests from a single forty-foot-deep dug well, and never ever saw the water-level in that well down more than ten or twelve feet!

Genius is not required to realize that when the trees are removed from land, the aquifer characteristic is destroyed and the water-table drops to a level below solar adsorption,

Wherever this might be. With the tropical sun on Roatan, this drop is already measured in feet - and it's not over yet. As things are currently going, the islanders will be hauling all of their water from Tela and La Ceiba within another decade.

The beautiful warm seas that surround Roatan, their incredible fish populations, and underwater visibility that regularly equaled 150 feet, were the attractions that brought me to Roatan initially - and kept me there. I've been wearing SCUBA gear for more than fifty years. I've dived from Seattle to Singapore, and from the Caribbean to the Bay of Bengal. When I told people that we had the BEST DIVING ON THIS PLANET, it wasn't promotional puffery. We had it!

But no more.

Ben Castro and I have dived both sides of Roatan in recent weeks.

Report: Underwater destruction is much advanced on the north shore barrier reef. Fish populations have been decimated. Indiscriminate anchoring along the fifty-foot level underwater tidal plain has left in its wake a shambles of broken coral, uprooted coral, and injured coral that has had its arms chopped off by so-called "sport divers," to whom the idea of ecological protection has apparently never occurred.

While Ben and I were diving the north reef, a boat with perhaps forty sport-divers aboard anchored some 800 yards to the east of us, and then put its divers over the fantail and into the sea. Insofar as I could observe, every one of the divers carried a spear-gun.

But there are no more fish on the reef of a size that anybody would think to spear and take home for supper. This kind of consideration makes no impact on the thinking of the spear-gun set. They shoot anything and everything: Angel fish, puffers, old wives, parrot fish, eels, flounders - if it moves, it's a target! In addition to the fish, indiscriminate "collecting" has stripped the shallow (sun-penetrated) water; that used to be rich in a hundred different kinds of shells, ranging from Triton Trumpets and Angel-Wing conchs that can weigh ten pounds apiece, to colorful flamingo-tongues, and tiny "dipper" cones - half the size of a shirt button.

The south shore of Roatan is gone. It's now little more than a submarine biological desert. Not only did we not see any large fish there, we hardly saw any fish at all! This underwater landscape looks like those pictures of the moon that NASA showed us: Bare, desolate, gray expanses, devoid of anything that could be deemed healthy marine vegetation (soft coral). The entire panorama is shrouded in a gray-brown blanket of silt, the result of too much dredging - and too little concern to keep the tailings from leaching out into the sea and quite literally smothering every living thing upon which it falls.

In one location where we dived, the hulk of a drag-line sprawls across the coral shelf where it fell from a capsizing barge. This moribund machine might be taken as a fitting symbol of what has brought Roatan's once-beautiful south-shore to its present state of ruin: Nature and natural processes can't stand up to man's endless quest to "change things" to suit his short-sighted economic objectives - nor survive the brute machines with which he resolutely tackles the tasks of ecological destruction. It took nature at least one tectonic cataclysm and the larger part of a million years to create Roatan's barrier reef and its indigenous submarine life. Aided by modern technology, we can destroy it in one generation!

I don't like being such a crepe-hanger, Julio, without at least being able to make some positive suggestions to halt the destruction and - hopefully - begin the long trek back to recovery. Here is my "short-list" of things that must be considered imperative if Roatan is to be saved:

    1. Certainly the island needs reforestation, and strict enforcement of laws against cutting down the few trees that remain, burning pasture-land, etc. Results from this kind of effort come slowly; fifty years is a ballpark estimate. Roatan doesn't have fifty years to spend waiting.

    2. All dredging activity on the island must be strictly controlled with a view to keeping the dredged residue out of the sea. Unless this can be done, then dredging should be absolutely prohibited.

    3. Human and industrial wastes provide proteinacious food support for algae infestations that reduce oxygen levels and "smother" coral growths. If the sea-plain is to be saved, both human and industrial (shrimp plant) solid wastes must be treated and disposed of on shore in non-contaminating fashion.

    4. Spear-guns of all kinds must be banned throughout the Bay Islands. I would urge that Honduras Customs officials be directed to confiscate any and all spear-guns found in visitor's possession, receipts given for same-, and then returned to their owners when they are ready to depart Honduras.

This is, by no means, everything that needs to be done, but it constitutes a sensible start in the right direction.

Adding to the difficulties of resuscitating a once-"living reef" is the frustrating reality that 95% of almost everybody have no idea about anything that goes on under the surface of the sea.

Some two weeks ago I had the pleasure of making two SCUBA dives with President Rafael Callejas, and who is a friend of mine of some twenty years standing. He is just learning to dive. In fact the dives we made were his numbered 6 and 7, he told me. To the best of my knowledge he is the first Honduran Head of State to EVER take a look under the sea! Neither can I recall a Minister of Natural Resources who ever put a tank on his back and went down where the fish hang out.

The result of this has forever been that when people like me (and you) undertook to call some of these problems to high official attention, it was like talking into a void: The people who should have been most concerned about this ongoing tragedy couldn't even understand what we were telling them. Lacking some fundamental awareness of the processes involved, it is expecting too much that they are going to provide the political and social leadership needed to halt the destruction.

Now, with a diving Presidente, perhaps other officials will take some interest in these issues beyond lip-service. Roatan is in big trouble, and anyone who doesn't realize it had better wake up to reality. Anyone who thinks it can't happen should take a good close look at places like the Gulf of Thailand, Acapulco Bay and Florida's Inland Waterway. It CAN happen. It is happening again to Roatan.

I realize this isn't exclusively your problem. But I also know that you lived through the same period of development on the island that I did. And I hope that, like me, you feel deeply about these things. Somebody has to begin making some waves, and you just might be in the right place to run up some long-overdue warning flags. I certainly hope so.

Sincerely yours,

Lorenzo Dee Belveal

Diputado Julio Galindo didn't even respond to my letter. I didn't understand this until, some two months later, he moved a dredge in and cut a huge piece out of the shoreline and then dredged a canal back into the land behind the Anthony's Key beach. The last thing he wanted was for my letter to raise any concerns about dredge damage to the underwater environment - at least not until he had his own particular project finished.

Instead of long overdue ecological projects that might at least prolong the island's useful life, we hear sophistic excuses for further delay, on the basis that the minutae of the tragedy need more study, to-wit: "We need to know the whole picture before we can see how the little pictures interact" and perhaps begin to take some protective measures.

This has always been the cop-out of the of the exploiters, with a sharp nose for their own self-interests and a fast-buck gig of some kind.

The above letter I wrote to Julio Galindo when he was a Diputado, some ten years ago, could be rewritten under today's date. Nothing has changed except the degree of destruction - and the increased pace of it.

It is included here, for those who might give a damn - and reject the idea that "more study" is required before some selectively corrective steps might be usefully begun:

Lorenzo Dee Belveal

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