As Min. Tourism-Culture/NICH/Police commence “criminal” investigation, FECTAB “categorically denies” involvement
There has been no official word from police as yet, but according to the Ministry of Tourism & Culture, and the National Institute of Culture & History (NICH), on the weekend of Saturday, September 22 and Sunday, September 23, an individual or individuals sabotaged the rappel platform and other equipment at the Nohoch Che’en Archaeological Reserve in the Cayo District (commonly referred to as Caves Branch) belonging to Jamaican-based Chukka Cove Caribbean Tours.
The matter has been reported to the Police Department and Ministry of National Security, which has launched an investigation.
Said the NICH/Min-Tourism release, dated Wednesday, September 26, 2012: “Damages reported are deemed substantive enough to pose a serious safety risk to users at this site. Damages to the rappel platform include the cutting of client safety lines, the rope barrier, as well as partial cuts to the metal supports of the platform and to the anchor cable. There was also evidence of fire damage to the portions of the entrance stairway to the Crystal Cave.”
Government officials say that they were “disheartened and deeply saddened,” and that they viewed the attack as “criminal.”
Last week this newspaper featured the concerns of the Federation of Cruise Tourism Associations of Belize (FECTAB) concerning the platform, which was built only recently, six weeks ago, in a sensitive place – above and to the right of the entrance to Cave #3 in the Reserve.
The organization, an implacable rival of Chukka, has insisted that the platform’s existence represents a continued danger to its customers and those of Chukka, despite the assurances of the Jamaican company, the Ministry of Tourism and Culture and NICH stating otherwise.
CEO in the Tourism Ministry Tracy Panton told Amandala this afternoon that the investigation has commenced but at this early stage she knows of no arrests.
On Wednesday we were told by an anonymous source that a tour operator working on Sunday in Cave #3 noticed that it was “full of smoke” and it was after this that the damage to the facility was discovered.
The rappelling tour provided by Chukka has been closed, said CEO Panton, but other activities “continue as normal,” as the damage to the platform “does not compromise other activities such as cave tubing.”
Director of the Institute of Archaeology, Dr. Jaime Awe, told Amandala this afternoon that NICH and the Ministry have a team out at the site at present and they are expected to go back tomorrow for further evaluations with a team of technical experts who will calculate the exact damage and cost of repairs and time for repairs. Those evaluations will be complete by tomorrow, Friday.
“Depending on the evaluation we should have an idea of what the money value for loss of revenue is. It is now the slow season so visitation is down at all sites, some drastically,” Dr. Awe explained. He added that while Nohoch Che’en is considered one of the most popular tourist sites in Belize, most of its visitors are one-day travelers from the cruise ships and it is not as popular with the overnight visitors.
Today, FECTAB President Tom Greenwood and executive members and tour operators Yhony Rosado and David Almendarez, aware that suspicion is possibly on them due to their previously speaking out very strongly on the issue, visited Amandala and KREM Radio for a joint interview to “categorically deny” having anything to do with the reported sabotage and give their views on this turn of events.
The organization’s executive says it was emailed about the incident around 4:00 p.m. and says it is “not lost on us” that they could be suspected, but insists they are not to blame.
“…we have, from the very beginning, categorically stated to our members, that our fight is always open, our issue is always aboveboard; we take it to the public or to the various institutions or government agencies, whatever it is; we have nothing to hide…we categorically deny having anything to do with anything illegal or violent, that is not our way. We achieved so much, so much better with public support. And public support, we don’t lack. We have tremendous public support, nationwide and internationally…” said Greenwood.
Added Almendarez, “We believe this is [counter]-productive. Whoever did such an act of sabotage, we believe they are endangering our livelihood. We are stalwart keepers of the cave system; we would never put ourselves to that level to do something like that; this is our bread and butter too; it would be stupid of us to even consider…”
With all the support the organization has, he said, FECTAB would never act in such a “stupid” manner, and he accused the real culprits behind the act of plotting to “put a black eye” on them, as they do not even have access to the area for tours, much less for plotting and committing criminal mischief.
The operators point out that while the cave and the platform are on Government land leased by Chukka, the route to get there goes through private land belonging to the Jaguar Paw development and which has security guards and dogs. Indeed, Chukka’s people are swiftly passed through security checks at the entrance to Nohoch Che’en while FECTAB-aligned operators take a while longer to be checked.
Greenwood, Rosado and Almendarez pointed out that the organization has always acted “peacefully and legally” in relation to this matter, by meeting with NICH and MOTC before going to the press.
Rosado said that Chukka is being “cunning” in what he believes is an attempt to turn them into the victims and FECTAB into the villains, but he insisted that their fight was right and has support.
Regarding the Ministry’s promise to “continue improving visitor facilities through strengthening of relations and in cooperation with all industry partners,” Greenwood scoffed, “What dialogue? What cooperation? What consultation?,” reminding that there was none such with industry partners when the platform was supposedly being built with NICH/MOTC’s blessing to “international standards.” Later he said that our authorities tend to be more willing to consult with international entities rather than local Belizeans.
Greenwood added that additional danger comes from a walkway built suspended at a 90-degree angle on the limestone-cliff from left to right to access the platform, which he says Chukka has never talked about. The danger of falling objects from that height from rappelling participants passing one at a time on cave-tubers passing below is just as great and something they have been talking about since 2008 without anything being done, he said.
The understanding, according to FECTAB, is that the platform will be rebuilt, in what Greenwood calls “total, complete disregard for our primary cry: you are placing us, and 100,000 people per year floating into that cave system, at serious risk. Please, mek wi stop this ting…”
With even some reported voices in the Government camp admitting that “there is a risk” and that FECTAB “is on to something”, Greenwood says the dilemma is how the Government will get out of its Chukka agreement. “You either hold a human life precious, or you hold an agreement precious: which one will you choose?” he said.
The organization says the platform must be removed, but condemns the “monkey wrench” thrown into the system as a result of this attack and says its sabotage must not be used as a “smokescreen” to hide the real issues. It says it will be cooperating with the Police’s investigation.
Chukka country manager Valerie Woods has been unavailable for comment all day today, but has invited media houses via email to tour the area for themselves.