Belize’s first prime minister, George Price, once advised his people that “progress brings problems”, and at some point we will have to overcome the problems if we want to have the progress that will come to the nation with improved facilities at the Port of Belize Ltd. Presently, Waterloo Investment Holdings Ltd. has a proposal before the government and people of Belize which they say will deliver this necessary improvement.
Waterloo’s proposal is to improve the piers and the buildings at the Port of Belize, acquire better equipment, and deepen the access channel to the port so that big vessels can come in. The Port of Belize is presently only involved in the movement of cargo, but the proposal calls for considerable investment in cruise facilities, which the group says will make the enterprise more profitable.
Waterloo says setting up a cruise port at the Port of Belize is essential, because come 2023 the cruise ships will not be visiting countries that use tenders to take the tourists onshore. Presently, passengers on cruise ships have to get on a boat that transports them about five miles to the shore, a journey that dissuades the less agile ones from exploring Belize.
Belize already has a modern cruise facility coming on stream, the US$82 million Stake Bank Cruise Port, the construction of which started in 2019, and many people are wondering if little Belize can sustain two of such enterprises. In fact, there is also a proposal for a third cruise ship terminal —the proposed US$150 million Port of Magical Belize that would be sited just a few miles south of the Port of Belize.
We had to have this discussion about deepening the channel and improving the infrastructure of the Port of Belize, maybe even about the investment in a cruise port, and we would have been having it with the government, not with Waterloo, if the previous government had set about rectifying what the government that preceded it had done wrong.
The Port of Belize was owned by the people of Belize, and it was sold to Mr. Luke Espat by the PUP “privatization” government of 1998-2003. Control of the port landed in the lap of the Belize Bank, which is controlled by the same person who controls Waterloo, Lord Ashcroft, when Espat defaulted on loans he had received from the bank.
We don’t expect this new government with its plans to “bring back private sector investment as a true partner and driver of our economy”, its plans to “facilitate the building of… cruise port facilities”, to take control of the port, but we must demand that, if the project goes through, we extract for the people of Belize what they rightly deserve, that the dignity of Belizeans who work at the port is preserved, and that our environment is not violated.
The most significant part of the proposed project is a plan to improve the access channel that connects the port to South Grennel’s Channel. Waterloo proposes to dredge the 7.5 kilometers-long access channel to a depth of 12 meters, and a width of 190 meters. They also propose to deepen berthing areas and make a turning basin with a diameter of 550 meters.
That’s a lot of dredging; it will produce an estimated 7.5 million cubic meters of silt/clay/marl (call it mud), 2.5 million of which is to be used onshore at the port. That leaves 5 million cubic meters of mud, and the way Waterloo proposes to dispose of that has Belize’s environmentalists howling.
The Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) done on the project mentions several options the group has explored to dispose of this dredged material, and these include dumping it in the marshlands onshore, or in the shallow water along the coast nearby. Our marshlands have some utility, but they are not held in the same regard as the mangroves, the Mountain Pine Ridge or the Chiquibul, and the sea near the coast around the Port of Belize isn’t very alive with corals and fish, because every year the Belize and Sibun rivers blanket the area with tons of silt. After their studies, the group found the cost of disposing the 5 million cubic meters of mud in these areas to be prohibitive.
Their proposal is to barge the 5 million cubic meters of mud some 12 to 15 miles away, to the deep sea between the Turneffe Atoll and English Cay, and dump it there. The group says they have studied the currents in the area, and their studies show that this can be done with little or no impact to the reef system, that “the main eventual deposition of the fines (mud) will take place in an area of approximately 10 km² within the disposal location.”
There isn’t anything novel about exploring for oil offshore. We don’t have to go too far back to find out how Belizeans feel about that. There also isn’t anything novel about dumping mud in the sea. The ICES Journal of Marine Science says sediment disposal can result in increased turbidity, and the sediment plumes “have the ability to extend the impact of dredging over larger areas”; however, the research shows the effects to be generally short-lived, “lasting a maximum of four to five tidal cycles” and to be “confined mainly to an area of a few hundred meters from the point of discharge.”
That seems safe enough, and probably in every other country in the world the proposal would have gotten the green light, but Belizeans consider their reef system to be sacred ground, so sacred that any environmentalist who supports dumping mud anywhere near it will find him/herself buried in silt.
Some Belizeans will have to be pardoned if they believe that Waterloo is pulling our leg. How could they not have known that proposing to dump 5 million cubic meters of mud in the sea between the Turneffe Atoll and English Caye was akin to tying a pork leg on a piece of stick and waving it in front of a jaguar, like dumping chum for the sharks?
We are living in very difficult economic times, but no one should get carried away due to the fact that this is supposed to be a US$200 million investment. Much of that projected expenditure will be spent on foreign management, rental of expensive foreign equipment and purchase of foreign materials, so a lot less will end up in Belizean hands.
There are serious discussions still to be held about the long-term economic impact of this proposed project. What’s in it for us? Who will control the tours? Before we arrive at that discussion, there is the hurdle of environmental clearance to cross. It’s way too big a problem to dump that mud there.