Highlights — 26 January 2016 — by Adele Ramos

BELIZE CITY, Mon. Jan. 25, 2016–Hollywood superstar Leonardo DiCaprio—best known for his leading role in the 1997 movie, The Titanic—is seeking environmental clearance from Belizean authorities for a multi-million-dollar resort island development at Blackadore Caye, near San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, which is being dubbed a restorative resort.

The National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC) met last week and decided to go back to the developers for more answers, after concerns were raised at a recent public consultation held on the island of San Pedro by the fishing community over the effects the project could have on their access to traditional fishing grounds.

It has been reported that DiCaprio—who was designated UN Ambassador for Peace with a special focus on climate change in September 2014—bought the 104-acre island 12 years ago for roughly US$2 million, and last April, the New York Times announced his intent to develop an eco-resort on the island, which includes the creation of conservation areas for hosting research conferences.

Blackadore-Caye-project

Dr. Omar Figueroa, Belize Minister of State with responsibility for Fisheries, Forestry, the Environment and Sustainable Development, told Amandala today, when we asked him for his thoughts on the project, that he and his technical team would be meeting this week to discuss the details.

Chief Executive Officer in the ministry, Dr. Colin Young, told our newspaper that he had been briefed by the Chief Environmental Officer, Martin Alegria, who heads the NEAC, on the recent consultation and the subsequent meeting of NEAC.

Fisheries Administrator Beverly Wade, a member of NEAC, told the media last Friday that DiCaprio’s project is being viewed as “a totally green project,” and it won’t be on the national power grid. She added that the developer is looking at how they could improve the ecosystems in the area.

Wade confirmed that NEAC had discussed the EIA at their meeting earlier in the week, and “there are some matters that they are asking the developers to go back and elaborate further on.”

She described the project as “a work in progress” and could not say when the project would commence.

Ambergris Today has reported that Billy Leslie, president of the San Pedro Tour Guide Association and member of the Ambergris Caye Citizens for Sustainable Development, raised concerns at the January 14, 2015 public hearing.

“We do not have a problem with you building on the island—it is yours. Our concerns are those with problems arising from the over-the-water structures that are being proposed for development in pristine fishing areas surrounding Blackadore Caye,” Leslie is quoted as saying.

There are also concerns about the over-the-water structures which are proposed to be built in an area recently designated as part of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve—something Leslie said took over three years to be established for protection.

The news report also pointed to concerns of the fishermen and tour guides over whether beach access would be eroded to facilitate the development.

In reply, developers representing DiCaprio claimed that their project would, conversely, improve conditions for fishermen, and the development entails enhancing the island which has been deteriorating, partly due to erosion.

Young told Amandala that the response to the project, for the most part, has been positive, but he did acknowledge that there are concerns which have been raised by the fishing community and other stakeholders.

“In terms of concerns about the project, as it relates to fishing and so on, NEAC looked at these concerns that were raised at the consultation and they are writing—in fact this week they wrote to the developers—asking for additional information,” Young said.

He added that the developers are being asked to submit the documentation required to address public concerns so that at its next meeting, the NEAC can decide on what the next step should be.

We asked Young when the project would start, whether they would proceed with construction in 2017, as had been reported, or whether they will fast-track the development to commence this year, 2016.

Young said that, from speaking with the Belize Trade and Investment Development Service (BELTRAIDE), he knows the developer is serious about starting as soon as he can.

Young said that whatever requirements the NEAC sees fit for ensuring minimal environmental damage or displacement of any other stakeholder—fishermen included—will be communicated to the developer.

He said that NEAC is scheduled to meet again on February 11, when they will decide whether the concerns have been adequately addressed.

Of note is that after the Blackadore project was considered at the Cabinet level, the Government and the developer signed a memorandum of understanding on December 16, 2015, Young informed us.

One of the specifications in that MoU is the requirement for the developer to seek environmental clearance. Young said that the government is being careful not to circumvent or sidestep any of the necessary licenses or applications which are needed.

Young conceded that they are learning from the recent ruling handed down by the Supreme Court on the Harvest Caye project by Norwegian Cruise Lines, in which the court ruled that there was a breach of environmental regulations.

Young said that, “the Ministry wants to ensure that the process is followed, as per the law, to avoid any kind of challenge from anybody.”

While the project has been lauded in some quarters as a “green” development, Young pointed out that people are more interested in the economic impacts, including the impacts on the business of fishing in that area.

Young said that the bottom line is that there should be a win-win situation for the livelihoods of fishermen, as well as for tourism.

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