Editorial - Is the reef really protected?

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 11, No. 26            July 5, 2001

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"We need to maintain the ecological integrity of our beaches, seagrass beds and mangroves" were the words spoken by Prime Minister of Belize Said Musa on June 20th, 2001 at the official launching ceremony of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (MBRS) Project. Project representatives from Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico as well as friends from Panama, El Salvador and Nicaragua gathered together in unity to support the sustainable use of the barrier reef. Bearing this in mind the question remains, why is government allowing unregulated, unchecked, out-of-control dredging to occur on the island?

   Anyone who has traveled Ambergris Caye's coast in the last several months has seen one of the five dredges raping the seabed of sand. These dredges are sometimes as close as fifteen feet from the beach and have carved huge craters in the sea floor. One can step from the beach and be, almost immediately, up to their neck in water. Continuing outwards, you can eventually wade in water only ankle or knee-deep. Mangroves have disappeared - callously chopped, their exposed roots covered over. Is this progress, ignorance or just plain old greed?

    Belize was one of the first CARICOM countries to have specific provisions for environmental impact assessments and perhaps the first to develop regulations to this effect. The problem is peoples' adherence to the rules and government's enforcement of them. Government budget cuts were blamed for the infestation of the beetle that destroyed the Mountain Pine Ridge forest. A lack of forestry rangers to monitor the damage being done to this "natural resource" was given as the excuse. Will these same budget cuts now also lead to the destruction of our reef because of a lack of manpower to monitor and enforce the law?     

     This activity has been allowed to go on unchecked for months. At first, the dredging was called "beach reclamation" to combat the effects of Hurricane Keith. It was allowed to occur only on public lands with the intention of benefiting the community and tourism industry. It can no longer be considered reclamation when sand is being "mined" to fill speculator's or certain individual's land to simply increase their property values.   

    Is government aware of this? When the launching of the MBRS Project was happening on the island, the dredges were "relocated" while the ceremony was held. Cunning or coincidence? The Prime Minister bragged to the visiting dignitaries at this event that Belize had established nine marine protected areas, but are they REALLY protected?

    Illegal dredging has been the subject at meetings of the Belize Barrier Reef Committee, Coastal Zone Advisory Board, BACONGO, DOE and BEMAMCCOR and many have sent letters to the Minister of the Environment Johnny Briceño and other pertinent agencies. Green Reef has sent letters, the San Pedro Tourist Guide Association has sent letters, the Town Council is aware of this abuse but their concerns have fallen on deaf ears. All government agencies who have issued these permits and have legal authority to stop it are aware of it. Why is it necessary then for individuals and organizations to launch a media blitz just to shame people who can stop this into finally coming to the island to see what is going on? And why is it up to the town council to pay the transportation costs of these government employees to come to the island to carry out the responsibilities of their job? Are all the fees and taxes we are paying only for air-conditioned offices? Do fees charged for permits only allow for the issuance of the permits, not the enforcement?  If there is money in the budget to fly to the island for ribbon-cutting ceremonies and speeches, there should be money to come to the island to investigate matters that affect the economic and environmental future of the island.   

    If government does not have the funds to monitor the permits they issue for development, they should form a partnership with local organizations. If two of the three local organizations such as the Tourist Guide Association, Green Reef or Hol Chan think a situation warrants an investigation, they should be able to make a phone call and get an inspector to come to the island inside of a week's time. This would help alleviate infractions and save government (the people's) money. People who live on, and have a stake in, the future of the island can also help those behind a desk in Belmopan make informed and educated decisions concerning future island projects.

    It has been proven that the wanton destruction of the mangroves caused loss of property, high waves and erosion during the last storm. Has it not been proven that dredging becomes a continual process? A dredge operator digs out sand to fill the beach creating deep water next to the shore. Strong winds or hurricanes bring in waves from deep water to shallow water and then to deep water again, creating high wave action that in turn allows the ocean to reclaim the sand already dredged from it. It also unfairly places a burden on adjacent property by making others erect sea walls to stop the erosion of their property. Don't believe it? Ask anyone who dredged after Mitch and then ask them if they had to dredge after Keith. Ask their neighbors if they were forced to erect sea walls to protect their property from erosion. Or you can wait until another hurricane or tropical storm hits and you can ask the people who once owned houses in the new development in San Pablo.

    Have we learned nothing from the last two hurricanes? It would seem not!

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