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Home Editorial Safeguarding the “wealth untold”

Safeguarding the “wealth untold”

Nostalgic old-schoolers and tree-hugging environmentalists vs going-for-broke developers

Mon. Oct. 25, 2021
In the drive for economic growth and more jobs for the masses of unemployed Belizeans, politicians and government bureaucrats, including, it seems, top officials at the Department of the Environment (DOE), have a natural tendency to give the “thumbs up” when potential large investors propose projects that could foreseeably make a big impact on the country’s economy. And there have been some missteps along the way, with the tax-paying Belizean people being on the losing end of failed ventures. One such glaring example is the historic Pound Yard property, released by the Belize City Council for a symbolic token of only $500.00 to facilitate the development of a large, modern bus terminal. After a failed venture and mortgage default, the property ended up being sold for millions by Belize Bank to a foreign businessman, and Belize citizens had lost their Pound Yard just like that. In the latest situation, where it appeared that cruise tourism developers were in a mad rush to build as big as they could, and as many cruise tourism ports as there was land and water space, it does seem that there has been a welcomed return to development sanity by government, aided and abetted no doubt by the strong environmental lobby, and to the delight of nostalgic old-schoolers, who, like the indigenous people all across the Americas, instinctively find common ground with environmentalists where the health and sustainability of our land and marine resources are concerned. A Cabinet release last week focusing on the “Cruise Sector and Ports Development” is very encouraging, and the language suggests that the message of environmentalists on the importance of long-term sustainability for our natural resources has found fertile ground among our BluPlan leaders. From the vantage point of our nostalgic old-schoolers, it just makes simple common sense: you can’t “kill the goose that lays the golden egg.”

A famous foreign traveler once sensationally opined that, if the world had an end, the backward little outpost then called British Honduras would be it, or something like that.

For many ensuing decades, the backward, undeveloped colony remained just that, backward. To the point where the ambition of most young people, men and women, was to leave the place for greener pastures, specifically the USA, at the first opportunity; away from the disgusting broken, pot-holed streets and the awful inconvenience of “night soil” disposal, with the open sewer canals an accepted annoyance. The beginnings of an interconnected water and sewage system did not occur in Belize City till the mid-1970s, courtesy of a grant (loan?) from Canada.

The tourism industry didn’t begin to get traction in Belize until probably well into the 1980s, getting a boost when the new UDP government gave the green light to the Ramada Royal Reef Hotel & Casino, which sacrificed the three end-to-end football fields that used to adorn the Barracks. In the mid-70s, the legendary Lionel “Chocolate” Heredia, a former Caye Caulker fisherman who had taken up residence in Belize City, was just pioneering with his famous Soledad wooden skiff in the hosting of visiting tourist travelers on trips to the cayes and reefs, especially for diving and swimming at Goff’s Caye or snorkeling on the edge of the adjacent English Caye channel. Soon, an enterprising American visitor saw the potential and tried to connive the heavy traffic of small fisherman skiffs to Caye Caulker by commissioning a huge, double-decker inboard launch, the Mermaid, whose lower prices for a while undercut the hustling of the small-skiff fishermen, as tourist and local traffic to the island increased. With the booming lobster industry, a number of enterprising fishermen were extending their homes or building new structures to enter the hotel business. In short order, the Mermaid’s engine was sabotaged, and soon the Caye Caulker locals were building bigger skiffs — water taxis, to accommodate the exponentially increasing tourist traffic. Tourism was growing by leaps and bounds in Caye Caulker, as it had been also growing in their competitive northern relation, San Pedro.

As the Belize tourist industry really took off into the new millennium, the major selling pitch to foreigners was that Belize was “nature’s best kept secret.” Indeed, what was once a curse of being “backward,” had now become our greatest blessing and attraction to the citizens of advanced societies. Even our old Swing Bridge, one of the last such remaining artifacts still in use in these modern times, was part of the primeval allure of the Jewel. And in a few short decades, our little Belize, the end of the world, now had something special to offer to the rest of the world, where their stressed out citizens of the concrete jungles in the big American and European cities, found irresistible the appeal of this as yet unspoiled, undeveloped, pristine garden of nature, with a warm, friendly and loving people.

So, here they come! Growing by leaps and bounds, investors from far and near have been pumping it up in the Belize tourism industry. San Pedro and Caye Caulker, and now Placencia are packed with overnight hotels and cabana accommodations for the growing numbers of tourist visitors. And all across the country there are now wonderful resorts providing all sorts of nature- driven tours and entertainment for local and foreign tourists. And one-day cruise tourism has also taken off, accommodating the largest number of tourist visitors, but still not having as big an economic impact as the overnight visitors. In fact, the latest craze seems to have been a rush to build as many cruise ports as possible to accommodate an ever growing number of massive cruise ships. More and more seems to be the thinking, with little consideration for a possible limit to the sustainable carrying capacity of our natural attractions and ecosystem.

At the current juncture, with proposals on the table for three different cruise tourism ports within the few miles of the Belize District coastline, the message being sent from Cabinet echoes the tone of the Nature Conservancy, who recently partnered with the Belize Government in the launching of the Blue Bonds as a novel means of removing the stifling yoke of the Super Bond from the weary shoulders of Belizean citizens. Maintaining and protecting our natural land and marine resources, our “wealth untold”, has never been more profitable for the nation, and there is reason for hope among nostalgic old-schoolers that the beautiful skyline that greets the breaking dawn along Fort George’s Marine Parade will not be soon blighted by a monstrous modern causeway that would gain efficiency in transporting tourists to shore, but would lose the “natural mystic” appeal of Belize and make the bus journey to the main just like they get in Miami.

There are questions that need clarification from DOE officials regarding decisions that appeared to take us to the brink of a run-away development project without above-board environmental clearance. Addressing these matters adequately may bode well for the future, making our DOE a more effective safeguard agency for the sustainability and security of our precious natural resources.

Cabinet’s own words are inspiring: “Sustainable development, including cruise tourism expansion, must not contemplate only this decade’s gains, or even this generation’s, but must be demonstrably sustainable for the long term.” Keep watch, Belize!

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