Belize City, Thurs. Oct. 7, 2021– A group of NGOs, including the Coalition to Save our Natural Heritage, Oceana, and the Belize Audubon Society, has been reaching out to the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Climate Change, Disaster and Risk Management as well as the Department of Environment to express concerns about certain construction projects being carried out as part of the Ocean View Grand Project facilitated by the Feinstein Group — particularly the building of a causeway which they believe could cause environmental damage.
For over a decade, the Feinstein Group had been seeking to construct a cruise ship port and entertainment hub for cruise ship passengers on Stake Bank Caye, four nautical miles from mainland Belize City. The second development is to be a resort community named “Ocean View Grand” located two miles outside of Belize on North Drowned Caye. The two destinations are expected to be connected via causeways, and beaches, restaurants, bars, duty-free stores and a theme park are to be erected on Stake Bank.
During the Feinstein Group’s public consultations, however, various representatives from the public and private sectors, as well as conservationists and NGO’s, raised questions about the project’s environmental and economic impacts. In 2013, it had been reported that the project received full environmental clearance subsequent to investigations into two matters: the proposed fuel lighters designated for refueling cruise ships, and the potential threats of the causeway to the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary.
Last month, however, the company issued a press release announcing the installment of a new billboard on Marine Parade which depicts a sketch of the two-lane causeway expected to connect Belize City to Stake Bank Island and North Drowned Caye. The release further stated, “The Ocean View Grand project is a mixed use development project encompassing both commercial and residential ventures which will be fully accessible to the Belizean public at all times. It will feature a residential community of 330 waterfront properties, coupled with a 100-room hotel, marina, water park, two tourist terminals and a wide selection of shops, stores, restaurants, bars/clubs. Port Coral, located four miles east of Belize City at Stake Bank Island which is currently under construction will be connected to Belize City via the causeway that passes through North Drowned Caye to Belize City.”
The release also indicated that a total investment of nearly a quarter billion USD is being made in the project and that 350 Belizeans are already employed as a result of the ongoing work being done on the project, and over two thousand Belizeans are expected to be employed in the long term.
Despite all these findings, however, a number of conservation NGO’s are arguing that, based on their internal research, there is no “valid/approved Environmental Compliance Plan than includes causeways.” The group of NGO’s has asserted that during consultations carried out prior to the issuance of approval of the project, the proposed causeways were one of the foremost sources of public concern, and the group is now calling on the government to make a public statement to clarify the status of causeway approval and to host additional public consultations on the Ocean View/Stake Bank projects that will specifically address the possible construction of causeways and the potential impact of such construction.
Vice President of Oceana, Janelle Chanona, stated, “This has been such a controversial proposal since it was initially proposed way back in 2006. It’s never been something that the conservation community has walked away from, particularly I’m isolating it to the causeways. Specifically, these causeways had major public outcry at both consultations when they were initially proposed. As recent as 2019 when we started to see some renewed activity, we wrote a series of letters to the DOE, to the Prime Minister at the time, to the Ombudsman requesting status on the causeways related to the Stake Bank and the Stake Bank itself. None of the material that is on the DOE website up to now and none of the material that was shared with us, referenced, noticed, brought up any approvals for causeways in 2019.”
When asked about the public concern, Chanona explained, “…. The concern was not just environmental, it was economic also, because if we can compare based on previous projects as well, what Fort Street’s experience has been in terms of economic benefit to the community and the surrounding vendors, what Harvest Caye has been to the community and surrounding vendors, then that offshore location is also going to be extremely interesting in terms of, there is always promises being made in terms of access, but then when it comes to fruition, that is often something that falls way short.”
The coalition is now asking for both long-term and short-term measures to be taken. “The immediate ask is that if there was an ECP granted in 2019, that needs to be revoked…. There was no disclosure that an ECP had been approved. We have consulted with our NGO reps in 2019 as well as other members of the NEAC, and to their recollection, no conversation happened at the NEAC regarding causeways. So, when you look at the due process and the laws that are there to surround this process, then if there was failure to comply to those laws, then that to me renders any ECP or any decision null and void….”, Chanona said.
In the group of.NGOs’ letter to the Ministry dated September 22, 2021, the coalition expressly requested four things: (1) that the National Environmental Appraisal Committee posts its action/decision matrix following every meeting on the DOE website for public record; (2) that civil society be engaged to develop and adopt transparent public consultation guidelines, (3) that penalties be imposed for non-compliance with the ECP, and (4) that civil society organizations/non-governmental organizations endorsed by the membership of the Belize Network of NGOs formally be involved in the monitoring of the compliance plan and the preparation and monitoring of the Comprehensive Monitoring Plan required to be developed and implemented under ECPs. This representative would be additional to the NGO representative selected by the Ministry to serve as a member of the NEAC.
Interestingly, last week, in a statement released by the Belize Network of NGOs (BNN) to extend its congratulations to the Government of Belize (GOB) for the success of its innovative Blue Bonds initiative, the BNN cautioned the government, not only about the way it henceforth approaches the management of debt, but also about the way it views its natural resources, which were so key to the financial reprieve the nation was able to secure. The BNN statement was particularly focused on the construction of cruise ship terminals and the potential harm that could be caused to the marine resources of the country — the very resources GoB pledged to conserve in order to obtain Blue Bond financing from the Nature Conservancy.
In a large portion of the release, the BNN referred to proposed projects that involve the construction of cruise terminals at locations near to delicate marine systems that could be disrupted by such large-scale activity. Belize currently has two cruise ports, and there are reportedly three additional ports that could be in the pipeline — one that is currently in the development stage (the Feinstein Group’s project), one that was previously granted environmental clearance and another port proposal that is undergoing EIA consultation. Scientific evidence indicates that cruise ships generate millions of gallons of toxic waste and burn significant amounts of heavy diesel, and according to the BNN release, allowing the operation of five cruise ports in our country would be inconsistent with Belize’s nature-based economy and a violation of the principles underpinning the recently secured Blue Bonds.
The BNN release states, “The cost of the resulting environmental degradation would subvert the Blue Bonds’ savings in the long term. The idea that the GOB will let ‘market forces’ decide which cruise port(s) will advance is not in alignment with the Blue Bonds Initiative and is an unwise approach that will be deleterious to the marine environment.”
In concluding its statement, BNN noted, “The fact that the integrity of our natural resources is helping Belize to emerge from its darkest hour is testament to the fact that we truly are a nature-based economy…. While the BNN is pleased to congratulate the government on a job well done; the government must not lose focus and continue championing a more resilient environment that supports Belize’s nature-based economy.”