“…It is time that we recognize your history and that we protect your indigenous lands from corporate interests and people that are out there to exploit them. It is time that we heard your voices and protected this planet for future generations.” Leonardo DiCaprio, owner of Blackadore Caye, Belize.
In early 2015, plans were revealed for a multi-million dollar eco-resort on Blackadore Caye, just 7.5 miles west of Ambergris Caye and owned by American Actor, Leonardo DiCaprio. On Thursday, January 14th, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was presented before the island community during its first public consultation. The proposed schematics for the island consist of only 41.4% of the land being developed, with 58.6% left untouched as a conservation zone. While the EIA seems to promote development in a sustainable manner, and offers great potential for Belize’s tourism industry, there is still skepticism over how environmentally friendly the construction will be, what the impacts will be on the neighboring marine environment and how it will affect local fishing guides who depend on the area for tourism based catch-and-release sport fishing.
A Maiden Project, backed by big names in green building initiatives
Blackadore Caye: A Restorative Island Project is being developed by DiCaprio, founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Delos Developments Paul Scialla, CEO of the International Living Future Institute (a leading NGO that focuses on the transformation to a world that is socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative) Jason F. McLennan and President and CEO of Construction Management & Development Inc (CM&D) Scott M. Stay. Blackadore Caye is the maiden development for Restorative Islands LLC, a company created with “goals to help preserve and restore sensitive, yet diminished habitats around the word using deep green development as catalyst.” Projects undertaken by Restorative Islands will consist of developments where the natural world can be in harmony with humans.
Expected to be the epitome of luxury while promoting environmental conservation, the Blackadore Caye: A Restorative Island Project consists of the construction of 50 units, comprising of 20 two-bedroom Beach Bungalows, 4 three-bedroom Deluxe Villas, 18 one-bedroom Suites which can be adjoined two at a time and 8 two-bedroom Lock-Off Suites; 34 estate homes; a helipad; spa; and clubhouse. In keeping with the environmental friendly approach to the project, the island will be equipped with its own drainage system, power plant, solid waste treatment facility, liquid waste treatment facility and water supply facility, all-encompassing top of the line ecofriendly designs.
While all this may sound like a lot of development, the initial plan included even further more land use: 68 villas, 48 estate home, a private club house, world-class restaurants, spa and wellness center, and airstrip. After several drafts, developers decided to cut back on the development to ensure that the majority of land is being conserved, resulting in 58.6% of land devoted to a conservation zone and 41.4% for resort amenities.
An ailing island in need of restoration
According to the EIA report, Blackadore Caye’s island ecology has experienced continual use and significant decay from its former pristine state. The island is threatened by climate change, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and pressures on habitats and by years of deforestation and salt water intrusion. Without a positive development that is ecologically sensitive the island will further degrade and thus the current developer is excited about helping to fully restore and improve Blackadore Caye. In this current state, the caye presents an unparalleled opportunity for the development team to create a truly restorative island concept with the deepest level of sustainability for the resort development, helping to set new standards for Belize and the world. This development will be a demonstration of the powerful collaboration of human development and a truly regenerative natural environment.
The development will be completed in three stages, starting as soon as the EIA consultation process is complete. Developers hope to open the resort by 2018, but at this stage, the EIA is yet to be approved by the Government of Belize. If approved, an estimated 250 person will be employed during the construction phase providing employment to local residents. The EIA indicated that the first phase of development “includes construction of a temporary docking facility for construction access in the central utility zone, the infrastructure at the South End of the island, construction of prototype Estate Homes and construction of the Clubhouse and a temporary road for construction.” Phase two is to consist of “the infrastructure at the North End, construction of the Outrigger, construction of the Hotel Suites/Beachside Bungalows.” And phase three includes the “construction of the Village Center, as well as final restoration of any disturbed areas.” The EIA also indicated that no sea walls or bulkheads are anticipated to be needed for the development of the island, as the primary protection of the shoreline is the development of new mangrove encasements.
Plans look good at first glance
At first glance the EIA seems to portray a proper balance between conservation and development, but concerns arose as the island sits within the newly expanded Hol Chan Marine Reserve. However, when speaking with the Manager at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Miguel Alamilla, he stated otherwise. “Blackadore Caye is a privately owned island, so it is automatically excluded from the marine reserve. Even if it was a protected area, it’s not that they can do what they want to do, but they need to go through the environmental impact assessment which would reveal if the project should be carried on or not,” said Alamilla who believes that the development could be environmentally feasible. “The project could be sustainable as long as main components are met, and we are talking about ecological balance and social equilibrium. And, as the project is proposed to be using green energy and other environmental aspects we can say is sustainable,” explained Alamilla.
Other island tourism stakeholders also believe that the Blackadore Caye: A Restorative Island Project is beneficial to the island. According to Billy Leslie, president of the San Pedro Tour Guide Association, if the project was downsized it would be more accessible to visitors, but nevertheless, he believes that the project will benefit the San Pedro tourism industry to some extent. “It will benefit our stakeholders, especially in the construction sector during the development of the site. Then there will be the need for maintenance and other service employees; there will be job opportunities person of all vocations from culinary to customer service to sanitation. It is up to us to be positive, put everything in balance so things can work,” said Leslie. But even though he sees good coming from the project to Belize’s economy, he also considers the dangers to the environment. “In any development, there is always some extent of damage done to the environment. For example you have certain types of fish that live around the island and once development starts you will destroy their natural habitats.” Leslie is hopeful that indeed the developers conserve and protect the majority of the land at Blackadore Caye.
Local elected officials believe in the project
San Pedro Town Mayor, Daniel Guerrero and Area Representative, Honorable Manuel Heredia Jr. expressed their support the development. “I think the kind of investment DiCaprio is doing – you will not get from another investor. He is pumping a lot of money for studies in this country that will not benefit just this island, but can actually help areas such as Half Moon Caye, Turneffe Atoll, Glover’s Reef Atoll and all the others beautiful cayes in the future. It is very impressive what they are doing and it will help to boost the name of Ambergris Caye because of the celebrities that will be coming there. These experts can also help save our beaches with their knowledge, and I give them the green light,” said Guerrero. On the environmental aspect Guerrero said. “They are trying their best to reduce impact on the environment the best possible way they can, taking all necessary measures to make it sustainable and healthy. At the moment it is dead, there is nothing there. These plans will increase the fishing as they will enhance the marine life over there,” stated Guerrero.
Minister of Tourism applauds ‘restoration’ concept
“As the Minister responsible for Tourism, [I can say] our philosophy calls for sustainable development. This is one project that I have seen taken us two years of studying the area, the sea and all aspects of livelihood. They have invited all the NGO’s and other organizations to come and see what they are doing and to find a solution to anything that may not seem to work, because there is always a solution. At the end of the day, I believe we have to look at the future of everybody,” said Heredia. He also spoke on how the development will affect the use of the island’s surrounding waters by the public. “There is the concern about the use of the waters around the development. And yes I will never like that a tour guide or fisherman has to move away from an area where they have fished traditionally, but if we don’t take the opportunity of this type of development, if we don’t try, how would we know if it works or not. I know that there is resistance to everything but we have to be practical and conscious about the whole community and the benefits that such a development may bring,” said Heredia. “This is the first project I have seen where it is clear that these people want the best for this island. It is clear when you hear the word ‘restore.’ Most investors that come to the island they are just looking at how to build their hotels, but not these developers at Blackadore Caye. They want the island to be the best of the best in the years to come. This will not happen fast, but it will benefit everyone in the country and Ambergris Caye in the longer run. We have to keep positive and see how practical things can turn out for the benefit of everyone, especially Belize,” ended Heredia.
EIA Consultant says project is sound
Owner of Tunich Nah Consultancy, Jose “Pepe” Garcia, who prepared the EIA report, also believes the project is feasible due to the finance status of the developers. “The owners are serious and they have the finance availability, which has been a problem in the nation. A lot of things are approved and nothing happens, but this project, financially it is sound and it will happen,” said Garcia. According to him, the project has met the EIA’s environmental requirements. “Yes, they have met the requirements, but there is one little difference now. When we started this project, it had not been declared a reserve around the island. Now it is declared a reserve, but the owners are willing to work with that situation because they want to improve the quality of the island and also protect around it and they want to enhance the fish life, plant life and bird life which will be a plus for the whole region.”
Garcia stated some of the benefits that a project of this magnitude can bring. “Well one, economic benefits, which definitely will enhance the whole region. It will create employment during the construction phase, operational phase, and let me tell you, once this project is constructed and finished, all the property values surrounding the whole region will go right up. Now that they have a new team of experts and professionals, I am very much impressed with them and pretty sure that this project is very good for the nation of Belize.”
McLennan, who was the main speaker at the EIA consultation on Thursday, January 14th, elaborated more on the potential benefits of the development, both financially and environmentally. “Financially it will create a lot of jobs. It will be very good for San Pedro specifically, but will also bring a lot of attention to Belize and show what the country has to offer,” said McLennan.
Local stakeholders express concern
After the EIA presentation, the standing-room-only audience of over 100 people had the opportunity to ask questions. Stakeholders expressed many concerns, one being access to Queens land and the use of it for development. According to law, the first 66′ of land along all waterways is not private property, but public land. According to the EIA there are plans to request an exception to this law from the government of Belize, stating concerns for the safety standards of their guests. Many others voiced the concern of how legal it is to have over the water structures on land that in essence does not belong to them. Developers responded that if they cannot move forward with their over the water feature, the entire project is not financially feasible.
Many local fishing guides were in attendance; several voicing their concerns regarding the developments impact on the popular fishing area, how it would affect the fish populations and if they would still have access to the flats where they take customers to catch-and-release sport fish such as bonefish, tarpon and permit.
Others commented on the three-year process that local organizations such as the Ambergris Caye Citizens for Sustainable Development, Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Ambergris Caye Tour Guide Association invested in expanding the Hol Chan Marine Reserve within the area where Blackadore Caye lies. “After all these years of hard work to protect this area, now we are looking at a development that sits in these very waters,” commented one stakeholder.
Local biologists also questioned the scientific process of how environmental assessments were made, and why resident experts were not used during the EIA study. “There are many of us who have studied these areas for years, we are experts in the marine life, the birds, the amphibians and the reptiles of this area. How can the biologists they used from other countries be better equipped to make these decisions?” questioned one biologist after the presentation.
Other questions concerning environmentally responsible ways of eradicating insects on the island, removing “problematic” crabs, where their landfill comes from and preservation of possible Maya artifacts on the caye were posed.
At the end of the meeting the general consensus seemed to be the opposition to the over the water structure. “We don’t care what you do on the island, just keep the building out of the water,” commented President of the Ambergris Caye Tour Association Billy Leslie. Belize Tourism Industry Association representative Mike Huesner commented, “Although this is an impressive project, the over the water structure is a concern. Is there a possibility of reconsideration?”
For those who missed the first consultation, the EIA report is available for reading at the San Pedro Town Library and Hol Chan Marine Reserve Office in San Pedro; Caye Caulker Village Council Office in Caye Caulker; Leo Bradley Library and Turton Library Center in Belize City; and the Department of Environment in Belmopan City. An online copy is also available at http://doe.gov.bz/index.php/eias.
About the Leadership team:
Jason F. McLennan – Considered one of the most influential individuals in the green building movement today and the recipient of the prestigious Buckminster Fuller Prize (the planet’s top prize for socially responsible design), Jason F. McLennan’s work has made a pivotal impact on the shape and direction of green building in the United States and Canada and he is a much sought after designer, presenter and consultant on a wide variety of green building and sustainability topics around the world.
McLennan serves as the CEO of the International Living Future Institute – a leading NGO that focuses on the transformation to a world that is socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative. An Ashoka Fellow, Jason is the founder and creator of the Living Building Challenge, widely considered the world’s most progressive and stringent green building program. McLennan works on cutting edge projects through a unique collaboration with the Integral Group – one of the globe’s most innovative engineering firms as well as his own architectural practice, McLennan Design. McLennan was recently awarded the World Changer Award by Green Bizmagazine and voted by Yes! Magazine, as one of the 15 people helping to reshape the world. He is the author of 5 books on green building including the Philosophy of Sustainable Design, considered by many as the ‘bible’ for green building.
Scott M. Stay – provides leadership within CM&D based on his wide range of real estate development, acquisitions, business development, and construction project management experience. His background and proven track record allow him to further CM&D’s global reach while overseeing the successful completion of all current projects both in the US and abroad. His educational background of architecture and economics have allowed Stay to gain a diverse range of experience over the past two decades, which include government contracts, residential and commercial development, asset management, construction project management, and business consulting. Stay has specialized in national and international projects including resort hospitality, urban high-rise hospitality, residential mid-rise, single family master plan subdivision, student housing, and large scale mixed-use development. Through his experience, he has built extensive networks within the Capital Markets, including institutional investors, lenders, private equity firms, special servicers and international owner/developers, which has resulted in numerous “marriages” between CM&D clients capitalized projects and spearheaded by CM&D.