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For the DOE, guiding national development is not an easy task

EditorialFor the DOE, guiding national development is not an easy task

Based on size, the development project at Angelfish Caye is insignificant, small compared to projects like the rejected Waterloo Cruise Terminal at Port of Belize Ltd., the still on the table cruise port project of Portico Enterprises Ltd. (Port of Magical Belize), and Port Coral at Stake Bank. The dredging at Angelfish Caye, in an area called Will Bauer Flats, originally called for the dredging of 44,000 cubic yards from the seabed, 4% of the 1.1 million cubic meters of material that Harvest Cay extracted, and less than 1.5% of the 2.9 million cubic meters that will be dredged from the seabed if Port Coral gets the go-ahead to create an access channel to link

Stake Bank with Grennels Channel, the principal artery into mainland Belize.

The primary concern with the proposed Angelfish Caye dredging is not the quantity of the material that will be extracted from the seabed, it’s the location, a prime fishing area named after Will Bauer, an American, who came to Belize in 1982 and became one of the pioneers of our fly fishing industry.

The decisions of the Department of the Environment (DOE), which are guided by the recommendations of the National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC), are influenced by the policies of the government of the day. This is no different from what exists all over the world. In the US, people who vote for the Republican Party know that if that party controls government, environmental restrictions on coal mining and petroleum extraction will be relaxed; and those who vote for the Democratic Party expect tougher environmental regulations and more investments in green energy.

The present government, following the blueprint in its 2020-2025 Manifesto, declared from Day One of its existence that it is “open for business.” But, especially when it comes to our marine space, it’s of little import what the vision of the party in power is; they will encounter strong headwinds from the environmentalists. Belizeans are pro-environment. The UDP pushed for oil exploration in the sea, and was stopped stone cold. It didn’t matter for the massive Waterloo cruise port proposal that the present government is “open for business” and the moving force behind it controlled 50% of commercial banking in the country; it got turned down.

The Angelfish Caye project, which is about ten and a half miles SE of Hopkins, got the go-ahead from the DOE, but the Ministry of Natural Resources, responding to a pushback from environmentalists/fishers, put it on pause.

In December 2022, Marco Lopez, in the Amandala, said NEAC “highlighted numerous issues with the overall quality and information gaps of the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) report” submitted by Angelfish Caye, and the DOE then informed the developers that they would have to “improve and resubmit its EIA.” In September 2023, Lopez said Lisa Carne, the Executive Director of Fragments of Hope (FoH), had written to the CEO of the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Dr. Kenrick Williams, calling “for the rejection of the Angelfish Caye LLC development EIA.”

Angelfish Caye, in its Environmental Impact Assessment report, says, “The existing coral systems are highly impacted from various forms of coral bleaching, and the coral formations are not located in the area of impact.” But Ms. Carne, a marine biologist, stated that the area “has been a coral reef monitoring site used by FoH since 2017”, that Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease which has plagued other areas of the Barrier Reef had not been detected in the area, that some endangered coral species and many others “still strive in the location where the eco-resort construction is being proposed.” 

Ms. Kristen Ku, in the Amandala, said Eworth Garbutt, a representative for Belize Flat Fishery Association, told reporters from Kremandala that the project wasn’t just a threat to fly fishers. Garbutt said the project was endangering “a top-notch nursery [with] queen conch all over there, all different kinds of crustaceans.” Wil Maheia, the leader of the Belize Territorial Volunteers, a heroic group that has maintained our presence in the Sarstoon in the face of belligerent Guatemalan soldiers who are guided by leadership that dishonor the 1859 treaty between our countries, told reporters that “fishing alone brings in over a hundred million dollars into this Belizean economy on an annual basis.” Maheia, an environmentalist, said the people should be consulted before projects like these get the go-ahead.

But the people were invited to voice their support for, or concerns about the project; it’s just that few turned up. Krem News said that Chief Environmental Officer, Anthony Mai said “there was poor turnout at the three consultations held.” In Lopez’s story in September last year, he said “the EIA annexes cite only 25 stakeholders as being consulted.”  

Despite the low turnout at the consultations, the project was scaled down. According to Krem News, Mai said that they ended up with “a reduced version of what was proposed precisely because of the sensitivity of the area.” Ms. Ku reported that the Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP) granted “dredging of about 15,000 cubic yards of material to fill some of the low-lying areas”, which amounts to a scaling down of the project by almost two-thirds.

Despite the scaling down of the project, there is still considerable resistance. Hon. Julius Espat, after personnel at his ministry had assessed the infrastructure that the previous government was handing over, noted that many were in a state of disrepair. Neglect of public infrastructure is standard with all our governments. We cut corners, and pay down the road. We also consistently fail in the monitoring of projects that have received environmental clearance from the DOE.

An alarm from concerned citizens awakened the Mining Unit in the Ministry of Natural Resources. In Ms. Ku’s report, she said the Inspector of Mines, Michelle Alvarez said the notice for the commencement of dredging was too short to allow staff of the Fisheries Department and the Mining Department to mobilize and get on site. When they arrived on site at Angelfish Caye, the project was found to be in breach of two conditions of the ECP.

Assessing development projects is no easy task for the NEAC. In its deliberations, the NEAC looks at all aspects of a project – its environmental, sociological, and economic impacts. When reviewing EIAs, they depend on people who are impacted by the projects to turn up and make their concerns/support known, and to provide historical information.

You can’t increase food production without clearing away some of the forest. But a project like this one isn’t about increasing fish stock; in fact, it will have a negative impact on our fishery. The developers would argue that the project’s negative impact will be minute. In his December 2022 report, Lopez said the developers, responding to questions about the project’s impact on the integrity of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, said its size would be reduced by 0.0008%.

It’s a tough job for the DOE. When first envisaged, the developers of the Angelfish Caye project said that it would create 6 permanent jobs, and “indirectly, numerous jobs will be created from the participation of the service sector, professional services, retail sector, etc.” It’s a small project, and the authorities did find that, if it was done right, it wouldn’t be unduly harmful. From the Amandala’s vantage point, it isn’t a given that the project would have gotten the go-ahead if it had been thoroughly aired out during the consultations. It might still be viable if its main operations are confined to the mainland.

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