Government agencies witness illegal dredging activities

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 11, No. 27            July 12, 2001

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Inspired by several local complaints and media reports, a team of government officials arrived on island last Wednesday at the request and expense of the San Pedro Town Council (SPTC) and the Ambergris Caye Planning Committee (ACPC) to investigate illegal dredging. Councilors, and members of the ACPC, Departments of Environment (DOE), Geology, and Lands and Survey as well as Coastal Zone Management Authority/Institute (CZMA/I) were joined by non-governmental organizations including Green Reef and the San Pedro Tourist Guide Association (SPTGA) to view the damage done to the coastal waters and terrain of Ambergris Caye.

    After a boat trip to random dredging sites, a meeting was held by the group in Mayor Alberto Nuñez's office at the Town Hall. While Councilor Omar Arceo thought it necessary to omit the press from these initial discussions, it was stated by other local government representatives that SPTC had nothing to hide. A fifteen minute question and answer session was instead provided to the media at the end of this meeting. Further questioning of individuals attending the meeting led to the discovery that their investigative trip of the island did not include the same amount of dredging site visits as the media's trip the previous week. For instance, the government team was not taken to sites north of Mexico Rocks nor south of Caribe Island Resort, where not only significant dredging had taken place, but illegal seawalls were being built.

    All agencies involved agreed that dredging permits were issued to all the sites for the purpose of "reclamation of lands lost due to the devastation of Hurricane Keith." It was further reported that almost none of the dredging operations complied with the terms specified on the permit. When questioned about their role in the monitoring of these sites, the same complaint was heard from each agency involved: NOT enough resources. Reportedly, budget cuts in the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment have led to a lack of manpower and the resources needed to monitor these situations. The departments all agree that monitoring is expensive and they need help. As a result of this meeting, the general consensus was that until more resources are made available, the SPTC, with help from Green Reef and the local tour guides will agree to aid in the monitoring so badly needed. The fact that government could pay for some of the site visits when permits were requested, as opposed to essential monitoring after the fact, was questioned and received no satisfactory answer. It was lamented by a team member that monitoring was a continuous process and again the expense was mentioned. Collectively it was agreed, by most of those attending, that dredging should no longer take place on the windward side of the island.

    Investigating the penalties of such illegal dredging, it was learned that the ultimate responsibility and penalty for infraction lies with whose name the permit is issued to and the number one infraction was "non-compliance with conditions". These permits are issued from the Department of Geology and Petroleum. At several sites, the investigating team found the amount dredged and the areas dredged were way beyond the limits stated in the conditions of the permit. At one such location the "mountain of sand" was clearly illegal, but the person whose name is listed on the permit is out of country and this is being investigated. Allegedly, part of this illegally obtained sand may end up being used by San Pedro Town Council. Because of the close proximity to the shoreline, an illegal distance of approximately 30 feet, the dredge operating just north of the river cut was asked to stop by the investigating team and as of last Tuesday remained shut down "pending further investigation". When asked about the other dredging machines operating around the island, it was stated that this was the only dredge seen to be operating on the day of the inspection. If a permanent bond ($3000) was deemed necessary and conditions of the permit were not complied with, this bond would not be refunded.

    Interviewing representatives from Geology it was learned that each agency will submit individual reports to their own department heads and these will be forwarded to the other agencies involved. These reports will then be compiled into a final report which will be submitted to the Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment, Hon. Johnny Briceño. It was stated, "The delicate balance between development and the environment will be taken into consideration when making these reports and recommendations."

    Coastal Zone Management Authority/Institute advised the San Pedro Sun that they have been working on the guidelines for marine dredging policies since 1995. An unofficial draft of this was presented to the minister in October of 1999, who supposedly recognized the benefits of it. At that time, minor changes to this document were recommended before its presentation to Cabinet. Yet, to this day, the document still awaits Cabinet's approval to be enacted into law. The proposed marine dredging policy is based on the scale of the dredging operation and includes requirements and controls in relation to factors such as: 1) the physical parameters of the site, 2) the condition of the dredging equipment, 3) the "borrow pit" dimensions and depth, 4) the containment area, 5) the use of silt curtains, 6) the monitoring and compliance requirements, 7) the requirement for a full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) according to EIA Regulations, and 8) the rehabilitation of the dredged site.

    When questioning the chairman of the Ambergris Caye Planning Committee on the amount of seawalls and other illegal construction going on along coastal waters, it was learned that all building permits are approved in Belmopan. This was confirmed with the Housing and Planning Department who informed that permits applied for go through a process of site inspection similar to dredging, involving a team from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment consisting of CZMA/I, DOE, Lands and Survey and Physical Planning. Geology is contacted only if dredging is to take place. Similar to the steps stated above in this article, findings and recommendations are compiled into a report and submitted to the Principal Planner. This person then forwards information to the minister. As in dredging, conditions are placed on the license or permit based on these recommendations. It was further learned that this department was scheduled to do an investigative visit to the island as well based on reports of illegal practices.
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