Mon. Nov. 1, 2021
After the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Stake Bank Cruise Tourism Development Project (now Port Coral) had been reviewed by the National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC) of the Department of the Environment (DOE) in mid-September of 2006, a first public consultation was held on September 27 at the Princess Hotel & Casino, at which there was a strong response from a number of citizens who voiced their concerns. According to the DOE report, which can be viewed on their website, doe.gov.bz, “over 220 individuals attended the public consultation.” When questions began to be directed towards the planned causeways, the moderator of the evening’s event cautioned the gathering that the EIA meeting was only to discuss “the proposed development at Stake Bank Island,” because the EIA for the causeways was at the time “just being developed.” Thus began an up-and-down sequence of events leading to the current stalemate and a pending decision by government on the approval of the causeway portion of the Stake Bank Enterprise Limited’s Port Coral Cruise Project.
By August 2007, an Environment Compliance Plan (ECP) had been signed by both the Stake Bank Project developer/owner, Mike Feinstein, and then DOE Chief Environmental Officer, Ismael Fabro; but according to that ECP, clearance was only being given for specific construction relating to Stake Bank Caye itself and the “dredging of an approximately 8.6 km long, 150 meters wide and 12 meters deep access channel to link Stake Bank Caye with Grennel’s Channel.” No mention was made of the North Drowned Cayes Project and connecting causeways, over which some serious concerns had been expressed by members of the environmental NGOs and some private citizens at the Interestingly, a slew of changes to our environmental laws were passed in Statutory Instrument 24 of March 15, 2007; and the Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment at that time was Hon. John Briceno, our current prime minister, who is therefore quite familiar with the EIA process. The Stake Bank Project was, and is, a huge potential investment, reportedly around US $100 million, but the proposed causeways, 8.6 km dredged channel and the major residential development on North Drowned Caye, which would impact the Swallow Caye manatee reserve, posed some difficulty in gaining support from the environmentalists as well as some fisherfolk and sentimental old-timers.
A UDP government came into office in February of 2008, and the Stake Bank project seemed to remain in a state of limbo for a while. With ECP approval only good for two years if a project is not started, a new ECP was apparently signed in September 2013, and this one was all-inclusive: “A Cruise Tourism Development Project located on Stake Bank Caye and a Residential Development on North Drowned Caye” that included the “elevated causeway from Belize City through North Drowned Caye to Stake Bank Caye.” There was no news flash, however, and few people were aware of the signing of that ECP by the new DOE Chief Environmental Officer, Martin Alegria. But by 2015, following the completion of a long ongoing Supreme Court case from back in 2004 that successfully challenged the “port exclusivity” of the Fort Street Tourism Village, then P.M. Dean Barrow gave a bright “green light” to Feinstein’s Stake Bank cruise port project.
But again, with only a two-year life before commencement of the project, a new ECP was needed, and on August 4, 2017, a new Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP) was signed, again without any fanfare. But it is on the DOE website, and it clearly states that: “This ECP supersedes any previous ECP for STAKE BANK ENTERPRISE LIMITED, including the ECP of September 19, 2013 and of April 23, 2015.” And it says the ECP is “FOR A CRUISE TOURISM DEVELOPMENT PROJECT LOCATED ON STAKE BANK CAYE, BELIZE DISTRICT.” It then goes on to list the “SPECIFIC ACTIVITIES FOR WHICH CLEARANCE IS BEING GRANTED,” and the only item is “(i)…. a Cruise Ship Terminal, Resort and Theme Park” which would include construction of “main pier/trestle-way” for berthing of up to four cruise vessels, “60 slip marina.. and service dock,” “fuel dispensing facility,” “80-room luxury hotel and casino,” “Market Square, inclusive of Mini-Marts, Tiki Huts, Restaurant and bar,” “Theme Park, including water rides, roller coaster and aquaria,” and a “17-acre staging facility at Mile 5 on the Western Highway on the mainland.”
And to avoid any chance for doubt, the ECP then emphasizes: “No further development whatsoever shall take place outside of what has been agreed to and described in this ECP, without the prior written permission from the Department of the Environment.” Nothing on North Drowned Caye; nothing on causeways; nothing on dredged channel to Grennel’s Channel.
Nevertheless, the airwaves were charged with emotion and eloquent drama last week, as representatives of FECTAB came out swinging in support of Stake Bank Enterprises Limited, with which, they boasted, they have entered a 25-year agreement as partners in the Port Coral cruise tourism project being developed on the island, and for which they contend the causeways are a vital component. The controversy surrounds a supposed 2019 ECP that purportedly gives clearance for the North Drowned Caye Development, the two causeways and the channel dredging to Grennel’s Channel. The problem is that Chief Environmental Officer, Martin Alegria is yet to produce that document, which would supersede the 2017 ECP that excluded those latter three components.
Both former UDP Minister of State in the Ministry of Investment, Hon. Tracy Panton (now Albert area rep.) and former UDP Minister of the Environment, Dr. Omar Figueroa (then Alegria’s boss), claim “no knowledge of the existence of this ECP.” And now, Port Coral’s lawyer, Glenn Godfrey, has even threatened a lawsuit against UDP area rep, Tracy Panton, unless she submits a “written apology” to Port Coral owner, Mike Feinstein, for what he claims are “defamatory statements” in regard to the matter.
The situation is a bit of a pickle for P.M. John Briceno, who has taken a non-committal stance, declaring simply that: “If the process was followed, then it would be difficult to stop anything, because there’s going to be a lawsuit. But if the process was not followed, then obviously then we have to ensure that the process is followed…” It would seem that the P.M. is comfortable with his implied willingness to not “stop anything,” and if needs be, just get the process “followed.” But there is another aspect he needs to consider, and that is the timing of this major environmental controversy — just as his government is celebrating the landmark agreement with The Nature Conservancy that has effectively solved our Superbond nightmare, but which is hinged upon our nation’s prioritizing its marine conservation initiatives.
If approved, the 11-foot-high causeways may seem a bonanza in transportation efficacy and cost savings for FECTAB; but navigating a narrow bridge passageway may be more problematic for sailing craft than realized, and the anticipated new free access “by road” to the islands might have unexpected consequences.
If indeed there exists a signed 2019 ECP plan allowing all components of the Port Coral project, the environmentalists will be “up in arms,” not having gotten a chance to challenge this latest manifestation of the project; and, despite Briceno’s sweeping amendments to the environmental laws in 2007, this would expose some glaring weaknesses in the process.
And if there is no 2019 ECP document, P.M. Briceno would still have to grapple with a problem in the leadership at DOE, as well as with a big decision to be made about a huge infrastructure undertaking that, once implemented, will be with Belizeans for generations to come, and cannot be undone.
This is not just Mr. Feinstein’s or FECTAB’s project. We Belizeans will all sink or swim together if the proposed causeways and dredged channel become reality. Such a hugely impacting decision, “for better or for worse,” has to include the developer’s capitalistic dream, the DOE’s honest and expert advice, the conscience and enlightened concern of environmentalists, and the common-sense instincts of an informed people. Our P.M. may need more time to think this one through.