Development jeopardizes Bacalar Chico

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 17, No. 13            March 29, 2007

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The San Pedro Sun’s Volume 17 #9 Issue informed readers of the reasons why saving the prized World Heritage Site known as Bacalar Chico National Park/Marine Reserve is so important. It also spoke of Ambergris Caye Belize Resort Development (ABR), which plans to build next to the park and on the reserve. On March 22nd, 2007, members of the Department of Environment (DOE) as well as Jose Garcia, who performed ABR’s EIA, arrived on San Pedro for a public consultation to discuss the environmental documentation and its impact.

    During the meeting Garcia stated that the property is owned by the Santiago Castillo family. The property that they purchased is the parcel of land north of Rocky Point and when they decided to build on the land, he was commissioned to carry out the EIA. First thing on his agenda was to inform the general public that the land area owned by the Castillo family is not part of Bacalar National Park; it is private property, owned by a previous owner over 30 years ago. The private property includes the sand dune (beach area), mangrove and a big portion of the lagoon. To be precise, the Santiago Castillo family owns 185.1 acres of land. Broken down, they own 48.2 acres of Littoral Forest (Sand dune), 43 acres is mangrove while 93 acres is the big portion of the lagoon, which is 50% of their title.

    Development will include rooming accommodations, meeting/conference facility, restaurant and bar, boat facilities, diving centers, employee housing, spa cabañas, hotel, suites, over water cabanas and recreation facility for children. Timeshare facilities will consist of cottages, villas and bungalows. ABR intends to have three piers; one will service the tourists, the second one is basically six cabañas over the water (Garcia assures that no dredging will take place for the construction of these) and the third one will be for the spa. According to Garcia, sand from the sand dunes will be used to create a sand bottom swimming area.

    Dredging has always been an issue; Garcia stated that for building purpose no dredging will be required. What will be done is to remove some sand from the very high dunes which will then be transferred to where it is needed instead of dredging.

    Development is based only in the sand dune area; elevated walkways will go through some of the mangroves to allow access to the lagoon at the back. “Owners wanted to develop the entire property but they were convinced to protect the mangroves as much as possible. They will not destroy the mangrove in its entirety; most will be left in its natural form. […]They are willing to give up their lagoon they are willing to spare the mangroves […] for permission to encroach their three piers within the national park [reserve]. They are willing to give up 73% of their property […] the lagoon will be given to government and mangrove will stay in its natural form where they will sign an agreement with DOE where they guarantee that it will remain as a reserve and that they will be responsible in managing,” commented Garcia.

    Full capacity (100% occupancy) including workers, will be approximately 1,000 people at ABR (578 residents and holiday makers; 289 staff workers; and 100 transient visitors). Water usage needs to be taken into consideration and ABR’s main water source will be in three forms:

1. Water harvesting which will include the building of a cistern on the foundation of the building.

2. A water desalination plant which will consist of two wells, one will be used as a standby.

3. A well where brine coming out of the plant will be injected into. This well will be deeper than the first two and will take brine 200 feet into the ground. As to whether brine in the ground would affect the island’s underwater source, Garcia commented that tests were carried out where the brine’s density is much higher and therefore it does not run the risk of resurfacing and contaminating the environment.

   Water recycling will be used by ABR and this water will be used for flushing of toilets and irrigation. ABR will not use septic tanks or soak aways; what Garcia suggested to the Castillo family was the use of a pre-fabricated secondary treatment plant which is the best environmental sewage treatment option.

    For electricity, ABR will use approximately 13 mega watts of current, which they learned that Belize Electricity Limited (BEL) would be able to provide. However, with no power lines reaching ABR, a generating plant will be built and this plant will run on diesel. ABR plans to also use solar energy and once they are able to get connected to BEL, the plant will be used as standby generators only.

    The next item on the agenda was transportation and what Garcia proposed was that all commercial activity (material used for construction) will come through the Nova Shrimp pier and then transported via road way to ABR; this road will be built and will encompass five kilometers behind the sand dune. This road will then be a public access road and not a property of ABR. Fuel transportation, storage and disposal will follow national guideline and will be at local and governmental recommendation.

    Construction waste will be used as landfill, not any organic material. Domestic waste will be composted and the other waste such as bottles and cans will be transported to the San Pedro dump site but will in the future be transported to Belize City. All organic material will be used as compost for fertilizer.

    Loading and dockside impacts will not be great according to Garcia since not many boats will be docked at the same time on the dock. As far as fuel on the boats and their impact goes, fuel on them will be very small and a non-spillage protocol will be implemented by ABR. The floor was open to questions and concerns and everyone was eager to stand up. Some of the concerns are as follows:

a) First main concern was that the 285 people who will be employed by ABR fails in comparison to the hundreds of tour guides who work on Ambergris Caye and who make Bacalar Chico Park and Marine Reserve part of their livelihood.

b) Many complained of not being able to hear the consultation since a public address system was not used and as such could not form their opinions and understand properly what had been said.

c) A third issue brought up was that since at full capacity the resort will house 1,000 people, the impact on the reserve and the park’s beaches will be significant.

d) A 66-foot beach reserve, according to the compliance plan, will remain for public use.

e) Garcia was asked whether he stood by every word in the EIA he presented. To this he answered, “there may be a couple of errors.” To which the public was asked to please voice their concerns and to ask their questions to make sure that they are heard. However, they were also made aware of other projects that need addressing and to get involved.

f) A comment was made about that it is not about the money. “If you can’t protect the park, you can’t protect anything.”

g) Injecting of brine in the ground, a concern was brought up that it will allow algae to grow and Garcia stated that it is a practice that is used in many countries but that they met and surpassed the standards required by the national standards.

h) The use of sand to create the swimming area was of great concern because of the probability of it damaging the environment. Garcia stated that a “textile” will be placed over the grass beds and then sand placed over it. The audience was in an uproar as to the destruction of what Garcia called “some li grass” (a bit of grass).

i) “As a tour guide, when people from the US come to visit, what do I show them? More buildings, more houses, more bars. Where are the mangroves and the reserve? What do I show them then?”

j) Q: Who will perform the compliance monitoring? It hasn’t been done in the past so who’ll do it now? A: Seven DOE workers monitor compliance plans around the country. We have been here more often. And, we will be here more often. The general public needs to come forward. If you see something is wrong, let us know.”

k) According to DOE, effective April 1st, more monitoring will be able to be held as the first ever Monitoring Fund has been established. DOE commented that they had discovered six developments that were in the building process that had no proper paperwork from them. the developments were fined (law states the fine can be anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 depending on how far the development has gotten) and that a cease order was delivered to them. DOE is working with them to get their paperwork in order before they are allowed to continue. However, a couple of these developments chose to ignore the cease order and have continued building; these are the ones being taken to court.

    DOE representatives stated that NEAC (National Environmental Appraisal Committee) will review the EIA and will present its decision. Because the general consensus was that audio was poor, NEAC might consider the possibility of holding another public consultation. To get better informed of ABR, kindly visit the San Pedro Library and the San Pedro Town Hall where you may find a copy of the EIA.
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