Development projects halted until environmental clearance is issued

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 18, No. 8            February 21, 2008

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Clearing of mangroves had started in this area.

DOE and the Forestry Department conduct “sweeps” sporadically.

On February 19th 2008, Mayor Elsa Paz, on behalf of the Ambergris Caye Local Building Authority sent a letter addressed to Mr. David Gibson of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment. On the letter, Mayor Paz explained DOE [Department of Environment] decisions in San Pedro have a direct impact on the people, and we were elected by the people. Obviously, we are the first line of recourse, and we are mandated to represent them on all matters. We need to work as a team in all aspects of policy implementation. For example, if the DOE has problems with the mentioned 28 projects, share with us your expectations, so that we can be part of your effort here and achieve full compliance. Drastic decisions such as those taken over the weekend can literally bring to a grinding halt the local economy. Copied in the letter were Honorable Gaspar Vega, Minister of Natural Resources and Honorable Manuel Heredia Jr. Minister of Tourism.

    What urged Mayor Paz to send such a letter has to do with the actions taken by the Department of Environment. “Sweeps” are held at sporadic times by DOE where they visit construction sites countrywide and ensure that they are following all compliances set forth by our Environmental Laws. Over the weekend, DOE visited San Pedro Town and reports are that up to 28 construction sites were instructed to halt all work until environmental clearances were issued.

    The closing down of 28 construction sites obviously left a bad taste in developers’ mouths and as such protested this course of action. Honorable Manuel Heredia Jr., Minister of Tourism and Area Representative of Belize Rural South stated that he spoke to Honorable Vega of his concerns on the illegal dredging and cutting down of mangroves on the islands and the surrounding cayes. According to Honorable Heredia, directives were given to visit the island and cayes and halt illegal dredgers and those cutting down mangroves without the approved clearance. Our call to Minister Vega was not returned.

    According to Senior Environmental Officer, Martin Alegria, the sweeps fall under the Environmental Act component which are conducted on a regular basis by DOE along with the Forest and Lands Department who designate a geographic area in Belize and spend two to three days to monitor which projects are in compliance to the environmental act or projects that are not in their record database. In this case, officials from both departments along with the media visited four sites where they were told to halt operations until further notice. “We had our representatives sent out to San Pedro for two days to check up on the projects and find out if they are in compliance to the act. If they were found in breach, then they were given verbal citations stating that they stop all operations until environmental clearance has been issued. On Friday, we had six projects halted, but up to now, we have had three of the projects come in and we resolved their issues. Those three have been given the go ahead to resume operations,” explained Alegria. However he denies the allegations that his department shut down 21 or 28 sites. “We halted work on three construction sites, two acts of cutting down mangroves and one dredging project,” he stated.

    However, Honorable Heredia told The San Pedro Sun, DOE did what they were asked to do and more. The letter sent by Mayor Paz states It would have been productive to inform the Town Council who would have defined the Resources to access the islands and accentuate and focus on the problem areas. Unsuccessful at finding anyone on the islands, [DOE] proceeded to issue “stop orders” to 28 local construction sites.

    Some of the developers whose work was halted by DOE state that to their knowledge they were doing everything in compliance to the Environmental Laws of Belize as well as following correct procedure and protocol before beginning construction. “I always do everything according to the law. I always ensure that my papers were in order before I begin. Our paperwork was approved by the Ambergris Caye Local Building Authority (ACLBA) who had our site and plans inspected by the various departments. Now, DOE is claiming that we need more and that it will take 30 days to two months to get the Environmental Impact Assessment that we need. We have talked to ACLBA who state that we do not need one,” stated one of the contractors.

    DOE officials state that the sweeps are routine and although the projects have been approved by the Ambergris Caye Local Building Authority, developers should know that the pre-requisite to development is to get environmental clearance before any development takes place.

    ACLBA states that their board meeting are where developments, whether residential or business are approved or denied. During those meetings an empty chair, held for a member of DOE, remains and has been empty since the invitation to attend was extended to them. Mayor Paz’s letter states Although we have a seat in our Building Authority Committee meetings reserved specially for DOE representation; it has never been occupied. We reiterate our desire to have the DOE part our deliberation and part or our decision making process. In this regard, we reaffirm our offer to bear the cost of air-fare, food and hotel if necessary.

    Consultant for the San Pedro Town Council’s ACLBA Omar Mitchell explained that ACLBA and DOE are to work together and as such DOE needs to be present and active in the board of ACLBA. Once applications are approved no such problem should continue. By all departments being present, a correct assessment of the plans will be made and any department having problems can speak up during the meetings. “We will not act against DOE. All we want is for them to take an active part in the decision making and approval process of any development. We want them to play an important role. We know the importance of their participation.”

    Mayor Paz’s letter explains The Town Council would like the DOE to conduct a comprehensive assessment of all projects in the island in spite of the construction stage; and advise us on the environmental risk and implications. We, in San Pedro seek a more meaningful participation from the DOE and a desire to work most closely with the Town Council. […] The Building Authority is a subset of the Town Council and has been mandated to issue “stop orders” and we invite DOE to visit with us, talk to us, be part of our decision making process, as we work together towards a more beautiful San Pedro and a better Belize as a whole.

    It is the hope of ACLBA and the rest of developers that this matter gets addressed quickly and that representation of all departments be present for the very important building authority meetings. Mitchell ended by saying that the invitation extended to DOE is not the only one, an invitation has been extended to the Ministry of Fisheries as well.

    Failure to comply with Environmental Regulations set forth by the Government of Belize, Alegria states, “may have harsh fines and anyone found in violation will be penalized from $5,000 to $25,000.”
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