Ahead of a planned public consultation to be held on Sunday, October 24, in Alta Vista, Stann Creek District, concerning an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) submitted by New River Enterprises Limited of Orange Walk Town for an upgrade to 4.5 kilometers (almost 2.8 miles) of road beginning just outside and leading into the Billy Barquedier National Park, reportedly for access to a logging concession owned by New River in the area, residents of Steadfast village in Stann Creek yesterday, Wednesday, publicly protested the “invasion” of the park by outside interests.
The Steadfast Tourism and Conservation Association (STACA), joined by members of the Steadfast Village Council and residents of the village, has charged that it was not properly consulted by New River and that it has grave concerns with the proposal if it goes through.
STACA, managed by Steadfast resident Hyacinth Ysaguirre (a Belizean who previously lived in the United States), has co-managed the park along with the Forestry Department since 2003; the Park was declared a protected area at their urging in 2001.
The concession, a “long-term forest license” according to the EIA, is located in the Manatee Forest Reserve, which borders the park along the Mullins River, and there are reported plans to log and transport 150 truckloads of lumber per month through the area for the next 5-10 years, possibly beginning as early as this November.
In an interview with Amandala this evening at her home, which doubles as the makeshift “office” for the Park, Ysaguirre contended that the “hydrological stabilization” of the North Stann Creek and Mullins River Watersheds, which together drain most of the North Stann Creek area will be negatively affected if the plan is allowed to go through and timber in the upper mountain catchments are also cut, ultimately causing erosion of the hills in the area surrounding the two parks and the villages within it – Steadfast itself, Alta Vista, Mullins River, settlements along the Coastal Road and Dangriga. This, she added, would lead to potentially devastating landslides, mudslides and localized flooding in the area, jeopardizing the livelihoods of its residents and particularly threatening the water supply for Steadfast and Alta Vista, who pump water from the Billy Barquedier Creek which runs through and behind the Park.
Ysaguirre told us that she has spoken with older residents of Steadfast who say that in the days of the previous land owner, one Jerry Sharp, who operated a saw mill in what is now the National Park, the road was graded, but quickly wore down and caused mudslides and landslides, damaging the citrus fields and orchards in the area. The road has not been maintained since then.
STACA quotes the Hydrology Department saying that flash flood activity in Stann Creek Valley could increase by 89% in the next few years, and maintain that any activity, such as land clearance that would increase that possibility, should be strongly discouraged.
A meeting was held in Steadfast Tuesday night and on Wednesday; residents greeted the 15 members of the National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC) who had come to inspect the area with reported blocking of the road. Video footage of the confrontation was shown to Amandala, in which Ysaguirre was seen rebuking officials of the DOE and NEAC for failing to properly consult with the village and her organization, which she told us they had initially promised to do.
Villagers have gone on record as opposing any plans to log in the area and insist that the two issues, the road and the logging, are not mutually exclusive.
“Who is going to be legally responsible for this? Is it Forestry Department, or NRE? And they say that the road has nothing to do with the logging? The hell it doesn’t! They can’t be separated – one naturally leads to the other,” Ysaguirre stated.
According to Ysaguirre, she has been speaking mainly with the consultants who wrote the EIA on behalf of New River – Tunich Nah Consultants and Engineering, located on the Northern Highway in Belize City. Forestry and the Department of the Environment, she claimed, have said nothing to her about the proposal by New River. Even the Sustainable Forestry Plan for the Park has not been made available to them, she told us.
She further charged that the “environmental study” done by NEAC members on Wednesday consisted of them walking just half the distance of the road – which she contends is not enough to satisfy her.
While she concedes that any road upgrade would ultimately benefit the Park in terms of access, she maintains that visitors – particularly tourists – to the area come mainly because of its unspoiled nature and beauty.
STACA and village residents plan to make their presence felt at the Alta Vista Community Center at 5:00 p.m. Sunday, the planned date and time for the public consultation.