Stakeholders declare Puerto Azul project “preposterous”
Thursday, June 5th, 2014
Northern Two Caye and SandboreCaye, located in the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, is the location being proposed for a mega project called Puerto Azul, developed by Puerto Azul Holdings. The concept of the mega development was unveiled in May during the 2014 Cannes Film Festival in France, and hosted a Ministerial delegation led by Minister of Tourism, Culture and Civil Aviation Manuel Heredia Jr. Even as the project is in a concept stage, stakeholders are not willing to risk the pristine and unique location for what many call a “preposterous” project.
The concept plan calls for construction of a luxury resort consisting of 970 acres of luxury amenities for the world’s elite. It includes shopping centers, restaurants, bars, a golf course and club house, spa, a (floating) over the water airstrip, marina, churches, business centers, botanical garden and health care center. Puerto Azul is expected to be the most luxurious and expensive tourism destination in Belize, accommodating approximately 1,000 guests and 2,000 employees.
But even as the project is just in its conceptual stage, it has been met with great disapproval by Belizeans, led by various environmental groups. Local stakeholders such as tour operators and traditional fishermen also have concerns about the proposed project. They claim that if given the green light, the project can change the dynamics of the entire ecosystem in the Lighthouse Reef Atoll.
The atoll in which the resort will be purportedly built is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (Belize Barrier Reef) which is a UNSECO World Heritage Site. There are only four atolls in the entire Caribbean and the Atlantic region, and Belize’s territorial waters are home to three of the four atolls in the region, with Lighthouse Atoll being one. Different from the rest, Lighthouse Atoll is a crib to the world renowned and one of a kind, Blue Hole – a sink hole in the middle of the sea that can be seen from as far as space. Lighthouse Reef Atoll is also home of the Booby Bird, one of only two Booby Bird sanctuaries in the region.
In addition, both small islands on which the proposed project will be built on sit within the area of the reef system that is known as Belize’ prime spawning and aggregating sites for the endangered and protected Nassau Grouper. Northern Two Caye plays a very important role for Belize’s ecosystem, since it is the larger of only two nurseries and is habitat for all the juvenile marine wildlife in the entire atoll.
But to accommodate the proposed project, clearance, land reclamation and massive dredging is absolutely necessary. According to Roberto Pott, Belize’s Coordinator for the Healthy Reef Initiative, the project can completely change the ecosystem in the area, thus affecting everyone that uses the atoll. “We have seen unofficial plans for development for that area and the last plans we saw was essentially going to shred Northern Two Caye, and that is one of only two cayes that have mangroves on Lighthouse Reef. I could see obvious conflict being created because you have a large stakeholder group that comes out of San Pedro that uses the Blue Hole and they’ve been very good at having a small ecological footprint when they go into the Blue Hole and visit Halfmoon Caye. There are a lot of fishers who frequent that area, especially for the conch. So I am trying to wrap my head around how this development will fit into the existing uses. One of the things that are critical to any ecosystem is mangrove. I mean it is even in the best interest for landowners. We found that parrot fish and other herbivorous fish depend on that mangrove as their nursery and you only have two of those out at Lighthouse Reef. You lose one; you are going to have a heavy impact on the ecosystem out at Lighthouse Reef. And so trying to see how you can fit a mega development into a very small area is hard to conceive. There are a lot of people that will be affected by this development if it proceeds.”
According to some of the dive companies in San Pedro Town that offer trips to the Lighthouse Reef Atoll as a tourism attraction, the development will impact nursery and breeding sites for 2/3 of the marine ecosystem, thus impacting the entire atoll. “Northern Two Caye is the largest juvenile habitat for the ecosystem that eventually makes it way out to the rest of the atoll. If we kill Northern Two Caye, we will kill the Blue Hole and we will kill the entire atoll,” said the owner of a San Pedro based tour company that has been operating in the area for over 20 years. According to the tour operator, the area is highly sensitive, and more should be done to ensure the protection instead of the degradation of the atoll.
But beside the tour operators, traditional fishermen who are members of the two fishing cooperatives in northern Belize also find their livelihood is at stake. That is because SandboreCaye and Northern Two Caye have been used by traditional fishermen for almost a century as shelter from sudden extreme weather condition. In addition, the two cayes in question are the only place within the atoll they are allowed to shelter and stock up on fresh water while on long fishing trips. More importantly, traditional fishermen also claim that mangrove clearance and dredging will have a direct effect on their usual fishing grounds since it will affect fish, conch and lobster stocks.
According to Government of Belize Chief Environmentalist Martin Alegria, the project has been in discussion for over a year, and that there are procedures in place that looks at an investment of such nature. “There is a procedure for some time now whereby cabinet has a subcommittee that reviews these concepts, these megaprojects, as we call them… There is an environmental screening process that we have been using for years now which tries to balance the approach of investment. We acknowledge investment and that development needs to occur but at the same time we have key environmental issues that you need to address in terms of developing sustainable. We insist at the department of the environment that we get official submission of application of any project. The environmental screening is one such process that will ensure at the end of the day that all critical issues and environment is taken into consideration and addressed prior to any approval, permits or go ahead being given,” said Alegria.
When questioned by the media about the project, Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Trade, Michael Singh said that project is too huge for the environment in the area. “I sat on the Evaluation Committee the first time the project was presented, and I will tell you, my opinion is that some things in the project are a little bit too fantastical and as a Belizean they are some things that I think needs to be shaved down, and my advice to them is that if you guys want to do a project in Belize, I think it needs to be at a level that is acceptable to what our environment can handle, to what our culture can handle and that will give maximum benefits to Belizeans… I don’t know if our ecosystem can handle it, that’s my opinion. When you think about things like waste disposal, you think about the increased traffic, the idea of putting a runway on top of the reef is preposterous. I’ve been a diver all my life and I don’t believe that is something that is wise for the environment, particularly since that is the attraction that brings people here.”
Singh confirmed that Puerto Azul Holdings is working on an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). That EIA has not been yet submitted to the Department of Environment as of yet. Singh also said that the proposed investment is a tourism project, thus explaining the attendance of Heredia at the unveiling of the concept in France. Heredia has remained unavailable for comments since the unveiling of the project and is currently on a one week trip to New York, USA.