Friday, June 21, 2024

BEL conducts Mangrove alteration to upgrade power supply in San Pedro; Iguana Sanctuary affected

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The cutting of mangroves within a property owned by Belize Electricity Limited (BEL) in San Pedro Town has not only raised eyebrows in the conservation community but also those supporting an Iguana Sanctuary established on the said property by an islander that is now affected by such development. BEL explained the need to access this section of their property to prepare the grounds to install 10 MW of battery storage to address the growth in demand for power on the island and increase the reliability and sustainability of the electricity supply.
The mangrove alteration started on December 28th, when images of a crew hired by BEL showed them chopping the mangrove trees were shared. It was reported that the San Pedro Town Council intervened, but it continued after clarifying that the project had all the required permits. The development of this space had been discussed at a consultation session on November 29th in San Pedro with stakeholders and local leaders. The project, dubbed BEL’s Generation Expansion Plan, outlined the strategic initiatives to meet the island’s growing demands and avoid an energy crisis.

The company’s property on the island is 1.83 acres, located behind BEL’s power substation in downtown San Pedro. Under a permit issued by the Forest Department for ‘Mangrove alteration/selective trimming,’ BEL altered 0.39th of an acre of Red Mangroves. As discussed in the November meeting, the space cleared will accommodate a mobile power generation infrastructure to house the battery storage system. BEL stressed that this is important to ensure islanders’ uninterrupted electricity supply, even when the power demand is higher. The electricity company has indicated that the demand for electricity in San Pedro is growing faster than expected, peaking at a record high of 16.4 MW in 2023. Thus, it is essential to deploy the battery storage system.

According to BEL, this project is guided by the Least Cost Expansion Plan study, which provides a 20-year roadmap for meeting Belize’s growing energy needs sustainably and cost-effectively. The 10 MW battery storage system is the first phase of a larger plan to deploy 40 MW of battery storage across the country, ensuring islanders’ uninterrupted electricity supply, even when the power demand is higher. As for the issue with the Iguana Sanctuary, BEL will leave an area of mangroves on the same property to continue housing the project.Iguana habitat
One of the main issues raising concerns among some islanders and even tourists is the fate of the iguanas that lived in the portion where the mangroves were altered. A visit to the site revealed several mangrove trees cut down, and large male iguanas were observed among them. They perched on what was left of the mangroves, appearing confused about what had happened to their habitat. Several tourists who have heard about the attraction noted their dissatisfaction, and some even shed a few tears. They shared that it is understandable that BEL needs to expand its power supply infrastructure but that something should have been done with the now displaced reptiles before moving forward with the cutting of mangroves. The same sentiment was shared by several island residents who oppose altering mangrove forests, an ecosystem serving as a buffer for coastal communities and nurturing ground for juvenile marine life.
Calvin Young, founder of the Iguana Sanctuary, thanked everyone for the support and told The Sun that the project now totals 300 iguanas, and the remainder of the mangroves left on the property may not be enough for so many animals. He said the male iguanas are territorial, which may cause issues with the other reptiles inhabiting the rest of the mangrove forest. Young said he was very disappointed with the alteration of the trees and was unaware of such actions by BEL. Young said that there had been meetings with BEL for him to continue using the property for the iguana habitat. Still, he would have preferred them to address a possible relocation of the iguanas before clearing the area.
According to him, he has been looking after the property since 1998. He said it was a dump back then and made it a task to keep it clean. Young said he started with two iguanas, and as the project grew, it became popular with visitors and a tourist attraction. Young built walkways through the mangroves and even hosted students to educate them about the iguanas.
The islander said he has been protecting these animals from poachers. He added that the Iguana Sanctuary is a haven for these animals and an educational attraction for tourists and locals. In December 2019, he reported registering the sanctuary as a business and was formally listed as an attraction for nature lovers visiting San Pedro. Young said it is not fair for the displaced iguanas. BEL maintains that they had conversations with Young for years and was made to understand that, at some point, the company would need to access part of the property for their infrastructural upgrades.
Sanctuary on private property and feeding of wildlife
One of the concerns from several islanders is how this iguana project was allowed on private property in the first place. No clear answers could be obtained other than Young was allowed to operate via a lease agreement to use part of the property. The issue now is that the iguana population has populated the 1.83 acres. As a result, the mangrove alteration has affected the animals living in the space needed for the battery storage system.
Another concern is that humans are feeding these iguanas. Some conservationists believe this is wrong as animals now depend on humans to survive. As per Belize’s laws, feeding wildlife is a crime. Under Chapter 220 of the laws of the Belize Wildlife Protection Act, molesting (including feeding) wildlife is punishable by a $1,000 fine and/or six months in prison. However, this law is poorly enforced, such as the practice of nurse shark feedings during snorkelling tours along the Belize Barrier Reef and other marine attractions.
According to The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species (IUCN), the Common Green Iguana inhabiting Belize is listed as ‘Least Concern’ as threatened.
As we continue to follow these developments, BEL stated that the power supply upgrade in San Pedro will be completed by 2025. In addition, they noted that all their activities align with the environmental clearance and mangrove permits and remain open to dialogue with their partners and key stakeholders. The electricity company emphasized that this upgrade is imperative while installing a second submarine cable connecting San Pedro with the national grid.

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