The Minister of Sustainable Development, Hon. Orlando Habet recently chose Mr. Markhelm Lizarraga, a former private sector senator who earned respect across the nation for his work in the Senate, to replace the sitting senator for the private sector on a three-member Tribunal that was set up to hear Waterloo’s (Waterloo Investment Holdings Ltd.) appeal of the decision by the DOE (Department of the Environment) to reject its application to set up a cruise port at the site of PBL (Port of Belize Ltd.) in Belize City. The Minister felt he was obligated to bypass the business senator, Hon. Kevin Herrera, who by law should be one of the members of the Tribunal, because of an obvious conflict of interest situation. The law governing the Tribunal states that no one “involved or associated with the project in question shall be appointed as a member,” and the senator’s brother is a leader of the Waterloo team that prepared the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) that was rejected by the DOE.
The Tribunal is primarily about finding out if parts of a project can be salvaged — a more likely possibility when there is a major division among the NEAC (National Environmental Appraisal Committee) members. The vote against Waterloo was reported as unanimous, until the BCCI (Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry) said that its representative, who missed out on all the technical and scientific data that was shared because they didn’t attend the relevant meeting, voted for it.
The first choice of Minister Habet to replace Hon. Herrera on the Tribunal was highly respected resort owner, Ms. Lucy Fleming, but she recused herself after Waterloo registered strong objections to her selection. After she stepped away, the Minister chose another highly respected individual, former BTIA (Belize Tourism Industry Association) president, Mr. Paul Hunt, but he too recused himself after Waterloo expressed objections. And now, Waterloo has objected to the selection of Lizarraga, their argument being that the government is biased against their proposal and he would do the government’s bidding because he is beholden to the PM for his job as Chairman at BTL (Belize Telemedia Ltd.). Throughout this relentless assault by Waterloo, the BCCI has largely been mute, offered no defense for private sector luminaries, one of them a former standout senator.
Waterloo claims the government is stacking the deck. Attorney Godfrey Smith, a representative of Waterloo, said that notionally the senator representing the private sector should be looking out for the interest of the developer, while one Tribunal member looks out for the DOE, and an independent judge who has the deciding vote presides over the process. Smith says the GoB should have gone back to the private sector to have them choose a new representative.
Waterloo should be grateful that there is a Tribunal to look at its project with the objective of finding something salvageable. Instead, Waterloo is frustrating the business of the government and people with its tactics. Quite likely the BCCI could, simply by endorsing the Minister’s choice, force Waterloo to end its obstruction.
Understandably, the private sector is interested in the improvement of the port in respect to its cargo facilities; the GoB and Belizeans are too, but the private sector can’t endorse Waterloo trying to force the hand of the government against the advice of the NEAC. Does Waterloo feel it can get the Minister to find a private sector representative who has no regard for the environment? Would the private sector, after learning all the facts, select a senator who would wholesale defend Waterloo’s rejected project proposal?
Two private sector groups, the BCCI and the BBB (Belize Business Bureau), participate in the selection of the business senator. In 2020 Kevin Herrera was put forward by the BCCI, and the BBB did not contest. The president of the BBB has asked some serious questions about Waterloo, none of which have been answered. Did all 300 or so members of the BCCI actively participate in Herrera’s selection? Would more serious scrutiny be done if the group chose a new representative?
Waterloo charges that the government prefers a rival project, Portico. If government of, for, and by the people, acting on the advice of the NEAC, prefers a rival group, isn’t that its prerogative? Recently, certain sections of the law that govern the sugarcane industry to ensure its viability were found to be unconstitutional, a victory for the processor and some big farmers, a loss for the small farmers. The GoB would be happy for the victory of the processor and the big farmers, if it didn’t come at such a high cost to the latter group. Government of, by, and for the people has a responsibility, the absolute duty, to protect the interests of the smaller farmers, and in the days ahead the nation will be observing keenly what measures it will take and how effective they will be in ensuring their prosperity.
Originally, when the Environmental Protection Act was passed back in 1992, the Minister of the Environment was all powerful. There was a distinct worry when the Chalillo Dam (completed in 2005) was being contemplated that if the NEAC ruled against it, the Minister might brazenly disregard their advice. There were a number of amendments to our laws in 2007, a year of major political upheaval in Belize, and one of them was that the power of the omnipotent minister was transferred to a Tribunal.
It is incredible that the power the minister had could be passed to an “independent” judge. That would absolutely bypass government of, by, and for the people, and bypass the NEAC. An “independent” judge could completely ignore government policy when casting the deciding vote, after the representative for the minister voted for the NEAC position, and the private sector representative voted for the developer.
However, the fact is that the judge must act within strict guidelines. The law states that the Tribunal must arrive “at a just and equitable decision in accordance with the Environmental Protection Act and these Regulations” and whatever decision the Tribunal arrives at must be “in the interest of the protection and management of the environment or the conservation and sustainable use of Belize’s natural resources.” The NEAC has looked at the PBL site for Waterloo and declared it wanting. Why can’t the group get that?
The law wasn’t changed to give the developer their way; it was changed to prevent any overeager minister from being persuaded by big developers who always have gobs of cash. No credible country can ignore the advice of its most professional body on these matters — in our case, the NEAC.
In the first days of this PUP administration, the Waterloo principal went on his television station, Channel Five, and accused PM Briceño of dragging his feet. The previous government had ignored Waterloo’s overtures and given a cruise port license to Stake Bank Enterprises (Port Coral), and for whatever reason Waterloo thought the present government would favor them. But a government would run the risk of being classified as rogue if it overrode a NEAC decision.
The BCCI needs to call on Waterloo to stop its naked attempts to influence, even control, a process that wasn’t set up to allow a developer to embarrass the NEAC. By its continued silence the BCCI is seen to be in full support of a project that has been declared environmentally unsound, and that position puts it at great risk of alienating Belizeans.