The San Mateo Subdivision, involving 590 acres between Buena Vista and Punta Arena on the north side of Ambergris Caye, has been the subject of much controversy lately. The age old argument remains: Environment versus Development.
The San Pedro Town Council (SPTC) has possession of this land as a result of the parcel being traded for delinquent taxes. They have expressed the people's demand for land as the reason behind wanting to develop this parcel. A recently obtained copy of the plans for this area show a development consisting of over 300 lots, 26 "cul-de-sac" type streets, nine canals and two bridges. At the last meeting with SPTC they explained they had the property surveyed before submitting the above plans for development. They assume responsibility for that and will accept whatever land is approved for development. It was further stated that water and sewerage would not be available at the start of this project for lack of funding.
In keeping with the standards of development, The Ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Industry (MNRE/I) sent out an investigative team last Thursday comprised of Lands, Fisheries, Coastal Zone Management Authority/Institute and Forestry departments to determine if the area is suitable for a subdivision. As the land is composed of mainly wetlands, mangrove and lagoons, kayaks were needed for the team to explore the area and were provided by nearby El Pescador and Capricorn Resorts. It was stated that the team declined to walk the survey lines as the land was too swampy and "mucky" to walk through. he group was seen studying and observing the two foot height of nematophores (air-breathing roots of mangroves), a significant water mark indication that the area would be flooded in the rainy season. The team was overheard to question why this land would be considered a site for development.
Having extensive knowledge of this region from thoroughly studying it himself, Mr. Mito Paz, President of Green Reef, kindly offered his services in guiding the government workers through the area. Coincidentally, these same wetlands were endorsed as a proposed Wildlife Sanctuary by SPTC and have been awaiting approval from the MNRE/I for the past three years. The team observed that these wetlands appeared to be a critical feeding and nesting ground for countless birds, as well as a "recruitment area" for crocodiles and suspected spawning area for a variety of sea fish. Other comments overheard from the team suggested that "the area should remain the same," "it would be better used for eco-tourism," "this environment should not be disrupted," and "alternate sites should be found for development."
Although the team seemed to sympathize with the Town's need to provide land for their people, they appeared to be concerned that this development would adversely affect the island's natural resources and economy in the process, by destroying wildlife habitats and sabotaging the eco-tourism market. Some concern was voiced regarding whether individual lot owners would be responsible for their own fill and whether they would use proper and environmentally safe types of fill for their lots. Sources revealed that a decision should be made within two weeks of receiving the collective reports of these government agencies.
In speaking with a representative of the MNRE/I, The San Pedro Sun learned of the proper steps all developers must take when making plans for their land. The representative suggested the first thing anyone should do is to complete an Environmental Checklist. This checklist states, "The Department of the Environment requests all public and private agencies, corporations and individual persons consider the environmental impacts of a proposed project before making decisions. In accordance with the Environmental Protection Act, an environmental impact statement (EIS) must be prepared for all project proposals with potential adverse impacts on the quality of the environment. The purpose of this checklist is to provide information to assist the proponent and the Government of Belize, identify impacts of a proposal and to take adequate and practical measures to mitigate any adverse environmental effect that may result from the proposal." This checklist also helps the Department of the Environment decide whether an EIS is required for the said proposal. It was suggested that by filling out the checklist, the applicant answers all questions concerning the environmental effects in advance and may avoid unnecessary delays later. Based on the results, plans are submitted for approval to the Commissioner of Lands. (See Environmental Checklist in future articles of this publication.)
It was learned that legally the Lands department can order that an EIS be requested if the land is over 500 acres. If an EIS is determined to be needed, the developer must hire a team of qualified technicians with knowledge of geology, forestry, marine life, land, ecology and sanitation engineering. Appeals of any decision may be submitted to the National Environmental Appraisal Committee who meet once a month and consists of a well-rounded group of professionals, namely, the Chief Environmental Officer; Commissioner of Lands/Surveys; Archaeological Commissioner; Chief Meteorological, Agricultural and Forest Officers; Fisheries Administrator; Director of Geology/Petroleum Unit; Executive Director of BACONGO; Director of Housing/Planning; Principal Public Health Inspector; Chief Executive Officer of Coastal Zone Management Authority/Institute; the Country Representative of Pan American Health Organization and the Permanent Secretaries in the Ministries of Economic Development, Works, and Human Development. If the committee denies a developer at this point, an appeal may be submitted to the Minister of Natural Resources who would then appoint a tribunal and based on their recommendations, a decision would be made.
Letters of concern were recommended to be sent to the Minister of Natural Resources, Environment and Industry at firstname.lastname@example.org.