The people have spoken: Bacalar Chico will NOT be de-reserved!

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 17, No. 42            November 1, 2007

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“But what I can say today very categorically is that the Government will not be de-reserving any part of this World Heritage Site, any part of the Bacalar Chico Reserve and I hope that will make you and everybody else happy.” – Prime Minister Said Musa to Channel 5 on October 30th, 2007.” After much scandal, controversy, backlash, emails, forums, petitions, interviews and press releases, the People’s United Party (PUP) administration rescinded on its intentions or as they called it “general discussion” to sell and de-reserve a portion of the Bacalar Chico National Park.

    This week, Bacalar Chico made it and remained on the news frontlines. International and national outrage was sparked when the world found out that the Government of Belize (GOB) had intentions to de-reserve two thousand seven hundred acres of Bacalar Chico National Park. Deputy Prime Minister Vildo Marin informed the public on Thursday, October 25th, that the “decision” had been a “Cabinet decision.” On Friday, GOB issued a press release commenting on the heated discussion stating, “At the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, October 23, 2007, Cabinet agreed to sell the so-called Beltrade land in North Ambergris comprising of approximately 8,255 acres of land. […]Separate and apart from this, the Government of Belize has been in negotiation with another group for the sale of some 2,700 acres of land on the lagoon side or South Western corner, (not the reef side), of the Bacalar Chico National Park. No decision has been made for any de-reservation in this area and the Ministry of National Resources and the Environment wishes to assure the Belizean people and the conservation NGOs that were any de-reservation to take place, it would strictly follow proper consultation and due process.”

    However, in an interview with Mito Paz, Executive Director for Green Reef, Paz stated that no such consultation was carried out, either with him or the Bacalar Directive, prior to even considering de-reserving the area. “It’s a very unpopular decision if you want to de-reserve a World Heritage Site. You would expect the whole country and the whole world to pressure you on not doing this action.”

    And, that is exactly what happened. The Association of Protected Areas Management (APAMO) sent a letter to Honorable Florencio Marin, Minister of Natural Resources, expressing their “extreme concern” about the proposed sell off of the World Heritage Site.

    That was followed by a string of letters either emailed or faxed to the office of the Prime Minister from Green Reef, Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA), World Wildlife Fund, Dr. Melanie McField (Coordinator for Healthy Reef For Healthy People), BACONGO, BELPO, Wildlife Conservation Society and MesoAmerican Barrier Reef Systems all sending the same message, “we are in opposition of the potential de-reservation.”

    On Tuesday, October 30th, 2007, Natural Resources Minister, Honorable Florencio Marin, on the 92.3 airwaves, assured the San Pedro public that Bacalar Chico would not undergo any sell off or de-reservation. That night, Prime Minister Musa stated that “The Government has not decided to sell any part of the Bacalar Chico Reserve, nor has it decided to de-reserve any part of the Bacalar Chico Reserve. I need to make that absolutely clear.” He went on the record to comment that it all had been a matter of a “general discussion” on a “proposal […] to purchase some two thousand seven hundred acres of land on the lagoon side or the south-western side of the Bacalar Chico reserve. ... But what I can say today very categorically is that the Government will not be de-reserving any part of this World Heritage Site, any part of the Bacalar Chico Reserve and I hope that will make you and everybody else happy,” he told Janelle Chanona of Channel 5.

    On October 11th, 2007, exactly two weeks ago, The San Pedro Sun reported on the struggle between the Agua Caliente Management Team and the Government of Belize who was trying to de-reserve a portion of the Machaca Forest. The Sun’s interview was with Chief Forest Officer Wilber Sabido who highlighted the protocol followed to make land a reserve and the lengths which are required to go through in order to later de-reserve it.

    On March 1st of this year, seven months ago, we reported on the struggle to protect Bacalar Chico and the importance to preserve it. At that time, residents of Ambergris Caye fought against the development known as Ambergris Caye Belize Resort Development. Although, the resort would be built on private land, it was within close proximity to the marine reserve and park. This sparked outrage at the development’s future plans and the extent of the damage that it would cause upon Bacalar’s ecosystem.

    With all these potential acres at the brink of being lost, Prime Minister commented that “I think it would be irresponsible on our part to say that once these lands are in reserve, and am not talking about World Heritage Sites now, that nothing can be done with them other that to preserve the animals and the birds and all that. Yes, we do need to maintain our very wonderful reputation that this country has in terms of conservation, and that is certainly the policy of my government.” Even though the decision was recalled, conservationist say that the irreversible damage has been done. “It takes maybe years to build back your reputation once that’s lost and I think the fact that the government is even considering it has done a large amount of damage because it shouldn’t have been on the table for negotiation,” commented Dr. Melanie Mcfield. How much this “discussion” cost the Belizean public is still unknown, only future will tell. For the moment, conversationalists agree that standing together will make a difference.

    On October 30th, inside a packed San Pedro Lions Den, concerned citizens listened to remarks made by Honorable Manuel Heredia Jr., Green Reef’s Mito Paz, President of the San Pedro Business Association Elito Arceo, President of the San Pedro Tourist Association Billy Leslie and Mayor of San Pedro Elsa Paz. “This is one of the first times that I see all corners of Belize united as one,” commented Mito. “They (GOB) will try to do it wherever they can put their hands on. Let’s show them (GOB) that we will die for what belongs to our kids,” exclaimed Mayor Paz.

    “Discussion” to sell was done with the Belizean public in mind”, stated Deputy Prime Minister Vildo Marin to The San Pedro Sun. With more development come more jobs, jobs that according to US Warden, Dr. Wil Lala, will be shared among many, many more in two year’s time. “In two years, there will be twice as many hotel rooms in San Pedro as there are today. Hotels that are experiencing a 70 – 80% occupancy are doing good right now, because statistics are showing that in two years occupancy rates will be at 50%. […] With so much development we are devaluing the property of the investors that are already here.”

    Food for thought, perhaps, but a major development “boom” in the country calls for more land. Land that goes at the expense of many of Belize’s reserved areas. APAMO released the names of 15 areas, including Bacalar that are being looked at for proposed de-reservation. Because of this, a peaceful demonstration will be carried out on Tuesday, November 6th, 2007 in Belmopan.

Proposed areas for de-reservation.
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