The use of national land for private means is a growing concern for the Belizean population, especially for those who advocate for sustainable development and environmental conservation. With the booming tourism industry, some developers have pushed the boundaries of environmental compliance with their design of new hotels and resorts, and some projects have even flown under the radar of the Department of the Environment (DOE). One of the most controversial elements of development in Belize is over-the-water-structures and the privatization of beaches and docks. By law, the seabed and all reservations along all water frontages including rivers and the sea, commonly referred to as the 66-feet reserve measured from the high-water mark, are classified as national lands, and are the property of the State and should be freely used by the public. In some cases, there seem to be exceptions to this rule.
While all new developments in Belize are required to undergo the approval of an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) by the DOE, shortcomings in the legislation and process are resulting in the construction of developments that pose considerable damage to the surrounding environment. These issues include the large-scale clearing of mangrove, dredging resulting in increased sedimentation, and of course, the use of national land for private gain.
To strengthen the EIA process and reduce these damaging effects to the environment, the Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries, and Sustainable Development (MFFSD) are looking to standardize the EIA program to meet international standards and possibly making amendments to the Environmental Protection Act. This is being done through the Management and Protection of Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) Project between Belize and The World Bank. The project entails a Global Environment Facility (GEF) grant of US$6.09 million to support forest protection and sustainable forest management activities in KBAs; promote effective management of KBAs; institute strengthening and capacity building for enhanced enforcement of environmental regulations to promote enhanced coordination and provide training among government agencies charged with environmental management; and to implement a project implementing agency group for project management, monitoring, and assessment. The project was approved on September 29, 2014, and is to be completed by September 30, 2019, by MFFSD with fiduciary support from the Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT). The Project became effective on January 26, 2015.
Under Part 3.2. of the agreement, MFFSD must “Support for the establishment of a standardized environmental impact assessment program and protocols for enhanced environmental screenings and scoping, including revising the Recipient’s existing environmental impact assessment program, updating the environmental impact assessment manual, and mainstreaming environmental impact assessment processes into relevant institutions and entities.” According to a representative of the MFFSD, in accordance to the agreement, a review of the existing EIA program has been completed, however an update to the EIA manual is still pending.
Now in its third year of implementation, The World Bank has indicated that “implementation pace and disbursement rate is low (22.8%).” According to them, the slow implementation is compounded by (a) frequent turn-over of Project Managers; (b) limited integration of the project activities into the program of the Ministry of Sustainable Development (MAFFESDI); and (c) FM capacity issues. The World Bank is now stating that “The Project needs to expedite the implementation to catch up with the delays during the first and second year. The Project Implementation Unit has developed an action plan and is making efforts to achieve the milestones. If the project is completed as specified in the agreement, DOE will be more stringent in the approval of EIAs.
Today, some of the more controversial developments which have benefited from questionable EIA regulations include Caye Chapel and Cayo Rosario. The Caye Chapel development is a proposed US$250 million 5-star resort that over the next four years will include an extended airstrip, brand new buildings along with a beach reclamation project and over-the-water-structures. The Caye Chapel EIA is yet to be approved.
As for Cayo Rosario, the risks it poses to the marine environment are even greater as the location for the development is located within a protected reserve. Cayo Rosario is situated on the north-western coast of Ambergris Caye within the Hol Chan Marine Reserve extension. Developers are proposing a luxurious resort with over 40 over-the-water structures atop two piers at the southern end of the island. Despite environmentalists and residents rallying against Cayo Rosario, some authorities have gone on record to justify the development.
According to Alex Anderson, Executive Director of Turneffe Atoll Trust, if the EIAs for these developments are approved, they are “clearly contradicting the National Tourism Master Plan and other national planning for Belize.” He goes on to pose the following question to the Government of Belize: “Why aren’t our leaders following their own national plans?”
With these potentially harmful developments to the environment looming in the construction phase, residents are hopeful a revision of the EIA process will protect Belize’s precious resources.
To learn more about the Management and Protection of KBAs Project and the progress Belize has made, please visit this LINK.