For the past two weeks, fishermen from southern Belize, as well as concerned persons from within the environmental community, have been questioning an ongoing dredging operation inside the conservation zone of the South Water Caye Marine Reserve. When we first heard of the case more than a week ago, we checked with the Department of the Environment, but we were told that they were not aware of any such operation.
Roberto Pott, chairman of the South Water Caye Marine Reserve Advisory Committee, told Amandala today that they had received no notification that dredging would ensue inside the protected area.
Amandala confirmed today from Michelle Alvarez, Inspector of Mines at the Geology and Petroleum Department, that the department did issue a permit to Devon Castillo of Dangriga to dredge inside the protected area – but only after the required clearance was received from authorities such as the Fisheries Department and the Department of the Environment.
James Azueta, the Fisheries Officer responsible for protected areas, told our newspaper that Castillo followed due course in obtaining all the necessary permits to do dredging within the given guidelines.
The Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP) signed by Castillo and Chief Environmental Officer Martin Alegria for Eagle Land Development permits development of 1.9 acres for residential use only at the Tobacco Caye range, Stann Creek.
The ECP, dated May 2013, gave clearance for a 30 by 20 foot building, a 20 by 20 caretaker house, a 75-foot long pier and a 40 by 50 deck, as well as the dredging of material for filling not exceeding 5,000 cubic yards.
Alvarez told us that the dredging has been approved for land reclamation, so that Castillo, director of Eagle Land Development, can build a dock for his boat.
Some of the persons we spoke with on the matter told us that the person who has sounded the alarm in the media about the dredging, Mark McKenzie, has a personal gripe with Castillo, because the two had a court dispute over the land and Castillo won the case.
However, several persons we spoke with in the environmental community also expressed concern about the dredging and the inadequacy of information from official sources.
Alvarez, who spoke candidly with us on the matter, told us that the landowners who hold properties inside these protected areas still have a right to develop their property; however, she said, they have had to turn down several other applications because of the potential harmful impacts. Pott told us that there are many landowners who hold titles for properties within the protected area.
According to Alvarez, authorities had done a site visit as well. She said that the DOE had initially demanded that Castillo do an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), but he said that he only wanted to develop the land for residential purposes – not commercial purposes, and so clearance was given in 2013 just for the residential development.
The South Water Caye Marine Reserve Advisory Committee has also written Hon. Lisel Alamilla, the minister with responsibility for fisheries and for protected areas, but Pott said that while the minister has acknowledged having received the letter, she has not yet replied. (Our attempts to reach the minister via phone were unsuccessful.)
Samir Rosado, the Coastal Science Research Officer at the Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute, told Amandala today that their information about the dredging operation is unclear, even after having consulted with the advisory committee. Rosado said that the CZMAI is still not sure who is doing the dredging.
He said that they have checked the GPS coordinates and verified that the dredging is being done within the protected area, and inside the conservation zone.
Fishermen in two associations in the south have complained that they are not allowed to fish in the area where the dredging is being allowed.
Information published by the Belize Fisheries Department indicates that, “There shall be only non–extractive recreational activities in the Conservation Zone,” and “no person shall engage in commercial, sport or subsistence fishing within the Conservation 1 Zone.”
Azueta confirmed that the conservation zone is a no-take area, and it is a replenishment zone for fish.