Local environmentalists weigh in on Blackadore Caye Project

Saturday, January 30th, 2016

After a public consultation was held on January 14th in San Pedro regarding the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the development at Blackadore Caye, local environmentalists have been left with many questions and concerns. A number of local biologists on San Pedro were glad to share with The San Pedro Sun their expertise and professional opinions on the multi-million-dollar “eco-project” spearheaded by Hollywood celebrity Leonardo DiCaprio.14 Leonardo DiCaprio Blackadore (2)
Dr. Marisa Tellez, IUCN/SSC (International Union for Conservation of Nature/ Species Survival Commission) Crocodile Specialist Group’s Vice Regional Chair for Latin America, commented that although she was impressed with the presentation at the EIA consultation, her issues are more about the biological assessment process. “My issue was the lack of assessment. For instance, why did they hire international marine and terrestrial biologists to perform surveys instead of Belizean scientists? Given my expertise, when I travel to other countries around the world to conduct assessments, I would never go into another country without consulting locals or local scientists,” she stated. Dr. Tellez’s extensive research with Belizean crocodilians over the last several years has also broadened her scope to include all local wildlife in crocodilian habitats.

Marisa Tellez

Marisa Tellez

“My research would be nothing if it were not for local wildlife experts, enthusiasts and naturalists, such as Omar Arceo. I can say that with local help, I have been able to identify signs of the presence of wildlife that outsiders would never have considered. Additionally, there was mention that no crocodiles were spotted in the area which may be true. However, were they just looking for the animal? Perhaps they may have stepped over crocodile tracks or a nest without knowing it was there, their eye may not be trained to identifying such subtle signs. It is possible that the scientists may have missed something important,” she stated.
In regards to the over-the-water structures, Tellez commented, “It is an important and legitimate concern that needs to be considered by the developers. A great question that was asked was if locals would still be able to fish around Blackadore Caye as they have traditionally been doing for decades. Unfortunately, there was no direct answer from the developers, but I believe that if they want the support from Belizeans, the answer should be YES! In my opinion, building an innovative eco-friendly resort that hurts the local fishing industry and disregards culture negates any positive outcome the developers and DiCaprio are trying to accomplish.” Tellez believes that more inclusion of Belizean scientists, architectures and other local professionals should have been involved from the beginning of the design.
Now that the waters around Blackadore Caye are part of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Marine Biologist and Manager of Hol Chan Miguel Alamilla expressed a few concerns as well. “I think everything seems to be centered on the environment; however, I think we are missing a very important aspect of sustainable development. If we talk about sustainable development and eco-tourism [it] is not just about the environment. There are two other important components, which are the social and economic aspects of it, and these have not been considered,” said Alamilla.

Miguel-Alamilla

Miguel Alamilla

Although he thinks that the project sounds good in relation to the generation of jobs and contributing to the economy, Alamilla commented, “There is a social component happening in that area which is the traditional fishing rights, such as sport fishing, and there is an economic component due to revenue that is created from tourists who fly fish. So again in order for a project to meet the sustainable development criteria it needs these three components to be in equilibrium with each other, social, economic and environmental.”
According to Alamilla, the EIA presentation did not address these aspects. “They did look at their economic benefits but not at the local component, and that’s why the concern from the attendees came up and they could not be answered adequately because they [the developers] did not do that part of their homework. The fishermen were left out, they were not included and the EIA has not looked into that,” ended Alamilla who believes that the project needs major local involvement so that these concerns can be properly addressed and aid to the success of the project.
Dr. Rachel Graham, Executive Director of MarAlliance, also shared her professional opinion regarding the mega project. Like other environmentalists, she too has her share of concerns. “I am all for development that aligns with the environment in which they are being developed in. If they say that they are environmentally conscious and respectful of local population then they need to prove that, and this development as it stands is not promoting conservation. Also, I find it unfortunate that they think they will restore the habitat; the habitat is perfectly fine without their efforts. I don’t think the development as it is proposed is good for the environment, nor is it good for the dependent community in this area, and I don’t see how it is going to benefit us greatly. This is because the development is far too large for such a fragile habitat as Blackadore Caye. That area historically has been known as a nursing ground for a host of shark and ray species, and is a very important fly fishing ground for many of the fishing guides in this area,” said Graham.

Rachel Graham

Rachel Graham

Dr. Graham also indicated that there is a significant manatee population in the Corozal Wildlife Bay in which Blackadore is located. According to Graham, this level of development is going to mean a significant increase in the amount of boat traffic and it will likely require a lot of dredging. All of these activities are incompatible with the expanded Hol Chan Marine Reserve and fragility of that area.
During his Best Actor acceptance speech at the 2016 Golden Globes Award Ceremony, DiCaprio expressed his support for indigenous groups and working hand in hand with them to promote conservation in different countries. According to Graham, she has not seen that level of discourse in Belize. “This concerns me. I think it would have been beneficial for the owners and developers to actually sit down with the community before they started developing a project this big, and actually solicited local input into what is important. That would have helped to promote some of the beautiful, natural habitats of the Blackadore area as opposed to super imposing this large development on top of it. By working hand in hand with the community that is dependent on that area, it would have also promoted considerable good will, identify good potential staff and would have integrated good business into the community in a greater way than what it is currently being done now,” ended Graham. She added that for the project to be feasible it needs to be a rational, environmentally conscious development.
In response to some of the concerns expressed by these local experts, Juan Rovalo, lead biologist for the Blackadore Caye project claims that their science is sound. Adequate studies have been made, with some still being completed and its data is being processed. According to Rovalo, assessments included live capture of mammals (bats and mice) (species inventory, diversity, population), live capture, transect and point observation of birds in summer and winter (species inventory, diversity, migration), observation and capture of herpetofauna (species inventory, diversity), inventory, coverage, dasometric studies, abundance and diversity of the littoral forest, coconut and buttonwood trees, grass quadrants, Agrra method applied to 60 transects in the waters around the caye, fish population and benthos (inventory, population structure, coverage), Blue crab transect counts (abundance), coastal erosion assessment, soil sampling and laboratory analysis and water quality assessment (around Blackadore and in sampling wells). “With all of the gathered information we are confirming the biological baseline of the area,” stated Rovalo.

Juan Rovalo

Juan Rovalo

The San Pedro Sun contacted the Blackadore Caye project management team for a statement and on January 27th they submitted the following. “The development of Blackadore Caye is focused on restoring the island and serving as a localist project that supports the community and country through employment and supply chain. Prior to this recent EIA submission, the development of Blackadore Caye received a fully approved EIA for a project of similar use, but significantly greater size, density and overall impact to the environment of the island. Ownership made the conscious decision to substantially reduce the density of the project and target a goal of maintaining 50% of the island for restorative and conservation purposes. With this change, Ownership intended to maintain open transparency with the public by submitting for a new EIA approval, rather than amending the prior approval. In furthering this goal, it is our intent to work closely with the various stakeholders in this project, including the fishermen’s communities, NGOs, the National Government, San Pedro Town Board, HOLCHAN, the Reserve Management Organization, and the Tour Guide Association in the implementation of this development. We have collected a considerable amount of data on the ecology of the island, including fish and bird populations that we will share with relevant organizations.
We feel the restoration of the island will result in an increase to the overall fish population, which will provide substantial benefits to the fishing and tourism industries, and will have immense social, economic, and environmental benefits to the community. We look forward to continued collaboration and feedback from the general public, stakeholders and all those who are invested in Blackadore Caye.”
Concerns regarding the development have now gone global, with the Blue Planet Society, a marine conservation organization, initiating a petition against it on www.change.org .The petition reads, “Leonardo DiCaprio purchased Blackadore Caye, an island off Belize, nearly a decade ago for $1.75 million. In partnership with New York property developer Paul Scialla, DiCaprio now plans to turn the island into a resort for the mega-rich. We would like environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio to please reconsider. The world does not need another eco-resort. Restore and protect Blackadore Caye by creating a wildlife sanctuary, free from human interference. Turn Blackadore Caye into a wildlife sanctuary, not a rich man’s playground.” To date the petition has garnered 414 signatures.
The San Pedro Sun will continue to monitor and report on the Blackadore Caye development project as information is available.

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