Tuesday, April 23, 2024

‘14 Years of neglect is enough’… say frustrated San Mateo residents


First created 14 years ago as a sub-division, the San Mateo community continues to be neglected. Residents have been deprived of the basic infrastructures required to have a normal life by world standards. After land was distributed in 1997 by the then Mayor of San Pedro Manuel Heredia JR, with the understanding that it would be improved, residents are now demanding that the adequate infrastructure be placed. The frustration and issues affecting San Mateo is not a new subject to San Pedro. In fact it has been chronicled time and time again in The San Pedro Sun. Most recently San Mateo was featured in the Spring 2012 publication of M-Powered, a magazine produced by journalism students from the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) USA, who visited the San Mateo area.

What is frustrating to the 569 residents of the San Mateo subdivision is the condition they are forced to live in. While it is a culture shock for visitors who may learn that within Belize’s number-one tourism destination lies one of the poorest and badly planned subdivisions in the entire country, the issues at hand are a harsh reality for the people who live there. The subdivision lacks proper potable water services, adequate road infrastructure, adequate or sufficient energy distribution and no sewage system. Homes are surrounded by mangrove swamps and the only hope of landfill materials available is the garbage collected from the island that is trucked into the area by the San Pedro Town Council (SPTC). The island’s garbage, combined with the improper waste disposal from the area poses not only an environmental concern but a very serious health hazard that residents have to live with on a daily basis, one that could be detrimental to the entire island.

We would want to see government, Town Council or Central Government, do more for this area…  I feel its high-time now. We are here for 14 long years and as you can see the conditions remain almost the same. We still don’t have the proper infrastructure,” said a very frustrated Everett Palacio, who is the Pastor of a local church and a resident of the San Mateo area.  According to Palacio, residents paid $500 for a parcel of land which was sold to them by the former Mayor and now three- term Area Representative Manuel Heredia Jr.  “We got the land with the understanding that they would have dredged and filled the area and put in the infrastructure,” continued Palacio.

Since 1997 the issues affecting San Mateo have been tossed around by four elected central government administrations (1998 to 2003, 2003 to 2008 under PUP; 2008 to 2012 and 2012 to present under UDP) with little excuse for making headway with the needed infrastructure. “In 1998 Heredia lost the election and the blue (PUP) took over. When we went to the PUP they told us that they cannot do anything because it was Mr. Heredia who gave out the land. Mr. Heredia said there was nothing he could do because he was not in power… In 2003 he (Heredia) won as Area Representative but the PUP won and again he told us that nothing could be done because his party was not in government…  We waited an additional five years until 2008 when Heredia won and the red (UDP) took over Central Government and we went after him and then it was another story. It has been like that, feeding and feeding us with all kinds of this stuff… it has been 14 years of false promises,” summarized Palacio.

Because San Mateo lacks the proper road infrastructure, utility companies cannot access the area with heavy machinery to place proper running water and electricity. Running water is limited and for those who have access, it’s a luxury because San Mateo residents pay 55 cents per gallon of water compared to the 5 cents per gallon in other parts of the island and country. The overpriced water rate is paid to the SPTC who buys water from Belize Water Service and re-sells it to the resident in San Mateo.  Electricity is not available to all in the area. Where electricity is available, the tangled wires stretch for as far as you can see placed on improper, thin sticks adding to a fire hazard as well as electrocution in the area. Those who have electricity get exorbitant bills because of poor wiring condition of the homes and the distance from which the main meter is to the homes.

Equally upset about the condition they are forced to live with is Frank Cadle who is an artisan and resident of San Mateo. “The government is just lying to everyone here. Mr. Heredia told Mr. Palacio that they have the money to put in electricity in here. Then Severo Guerrero Jr. (Deputy Mayor of San Pedro) told me that they have to raise the money to do the project,”  said Cadle. Adding to the insult, Cadle explains that the town council trucks that bring in landfill to the few who have road access further disenfranchises those who do not have road access. “Sometimes it seems like the fill brought in ends up in someone’s property and not for the streets; like the sanitation workers are hustling the materials”,” added Cadle. Where there is road access, residents like Cadle and Palacio remain grateful to the Ole Miss Students and Kim Shackelford for spearheading the San Mateo Empowerment Project.

Deputy Mayor of San Pedro Severo Guerrero Jr. explained that San Mateo should have never been the way it is now. “Sad to say but lots in San Mateo should have never been issued without the right infrastructure in place.” Nonetheless the situation in San Mateo is real and according to Guerrero the issues affecting that area is equally frustrating to the SPTC. “The issues affecting San Mateo are huge and would require Central Government input to address some of the huge undertaking. For example we got a $300,000 quotation for electricity expansion into that area. And we are speaking only about the light post and wire to be taken into the area not including streets lights. Currently there is no funds budgeted for that and we have to figure away to raise that money,” said Guerrero. Speaking on the issue of the 55 cents per gallon water rate being charged to the people of San Mateo, Guerrero explained that because water is being sold to the SPTC as commercial customers, residents absorb commercial consumer price which are far higher than residential consumers. “It is a system that we found. There is nothing we can do about it because that is the bracket we fall under when purchasing water from Belize Water Service (BWS) unless we decide to simply cut off the residents from the basic need. Until BWS decides to extend service over the bridge there is nothing that can be done but I know that they are looking to do so in the near future,” said Guerrero. As for the San Pedro garbage being used as landfill, Guerrero said that currently the council is removing old metal scraps. He added that the SPTC have diverted to using only organic material for road and landfill but said however the residents in the area are using their own garbage as landfill.

And while even the SP Deputy Mayor conceded that addressing some of the issues genuinely requires Central Government assistance, residents believe that even with the senior portfolio currently held by Heredia for the second time, their plight might go unattended. “We are frustrated that we are always forgotten. One thing I can tell you about the people of San Mateo, we want to help ourselves. We don’t want them (Town Council and Central Government) to take on our responsibilities, we just want them to give us the proper road access and the adequate infrastructure that we need to live a normal life like the rest of the island does. After all we are required to pay the same in taxes,” ended Palacio.

While the issue of San Mateo has not garnered enough government attention for the relevant elected officials to spring into action, it has received major attention in Mississippi, USA. Students at Ole Miss, via their journalism and study aboard program have documented the living conditions in San Mateo. By doing so it is the hope of the Ole Miss students that they can build awareness to raise money that can be used to finance the road project being undertaken by the San Mateo Empowerment project.

The San Pedro Sun tried on several occasions to reach the Area Representative and Minister of Tourism and Culture Hon Manuel Heredia Jr. for comment but to date all attempts have been futile.

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