Government in court over Port issues

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 17, No. 37            September 20, 2007

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The Belizean Government is again being taken to court for breach of contract. The fight began with power over whose cruise terminal plan would be approved but has moved into deeper waters treading into absolute control over the country’s three main ports in Belize City and the South. Courtenay, Coye and Company filed a claim on behalf of the Port of Belize and its majority shareholder, Belize Ports Limited, owned by Luke Espat.

    In 2009, major cruise lines require that Belize have in place a cruise terminal that can accommodate their ships. Failure to meet this requirement would mean that cruise lines would bypass the country. In response to this request, Espat proposed the Belize Cruise Terminal Limited as a solution. This proposal first began in March of 2002 when Government sold 99.5% of Port of Belize Limited to Espat’s company, Belize Ports Limited. In 2004, Government and Port of Belize and a major cruise line – Carnival Corporation – toasted over the future port which would be constructed at its present site in the Port Loyola Area in Belize City.

    Also jumping in the cruise ship industry bandwagon was Michael Feinstein who in turn proposed the Stake Bank Project. Unconfirmed reports have suggested that Government has “green lighted” Feinstein’s project and not Espat’s as had been originally agreed upon. Because of this and many other disagreements, Prime Minister Musa and his administration must once face court proceedings.

    It is alleged that the controversial Stake Bank project has been approved. Whether that may be the case or not, it is a major development that will change many lives in Belize – good or bad. It is a huge development which will have many effects on Belizeans, the community, tourism, and most importantly our environment.

What is Stake Bank?

    Stake Bank is a US$250 million project named Ocean View Grand Development. The Environmental Impact Assessment was presented to the Department of Environment in October of last year. At that time, Chief Environmental Officer Martin Alegria stated that vital information pertaining to the proposed causeway was missing. What causeway?

    Stake Bank includes the construction of three luxury hotels, a restaurant, a causeway that will link Belize City to two islands which form a part of what are known as the Drowned Cayes, and the construction of a docking pier as well as a marina. Two of the three proposed hotels will be built on the Drowned Caye while the third will be constructed at Stake Bank.

    The intended causeway will connect Belize City from the Marine Boulevard on the north side to the twin islands which are located approximately four miles east of the city. It will be a two-lane causeway and will include a pedestrian walkway. However, one of the many concerns will be the fact that the height of the causeway will range from nine feet to 30 feet above sea level in some areas to allow for bigger vessels to pass.

    Stake Bank Caye itself will go through a reclamation process where the size of the island will double its size from 21.6 acres to 41.95 acres. The main pier will have the capacity to accommodate as many as four voyager class cruise ships, construction of a primary resort facility with theme park and construction of a 60-slip luxury yacht marina with a dock to receive the needed supplies.

What are the impacts?

    One of the many impacts includes employment since Stake Bank alone will maintain a work force of 375 full time staff members. Secondly, the cruise tourism industry will continue to prosper since the ultimatum has been given that if by 2009 there is no adequate docking facility and the cruise lines will bypass the country on future Caribbean visits.

    The Drowned Cayes are a string of mangrove islands, comprised mainly of red mangroves, about 13 kilometers long and are located less than two kilometers from the reef. Any development will greatly affect the eco-system. The Cayes offer an excellent opportunity to observe manatee behavior below water since there is a large population of manatees which presently use the area. Maria Vega, Secretary of Friends of Swallow Caye Organization, commented that a massive project such as Stake Bank will have significant impacts on the area, specifically the fact that marine traffic will increase heavily.

    Drowned Cayes’ mangrove islands also form a buffer zone, protecting Belize City from storms and ocean surges. Once removed, this protection will be lost forever.

    The proposed causeway is also a major concern since the Department of Environment required an in-depth geological data study conducted on the seabed to determine of it would be able to withstand such a massive structure. The height of the causeway will be too low in certain sections, hence making it impassable for some vessels, disrupting the marine traffic flow. This causeway also will disrupt the flow of currents and the slow rate with which the water moves from North to South or vice versa.

    Stake Bank is expected to reach completion in two years and the developer has stated that work shall not commence prior to receiving approval to build the causeway. As per the lawsuit, sources state that it will go on since Espat wishes that Government will adhere to their side of the agreement.
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