Natural Resources reports on Wetlands issue

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 10, No. 18            May 4, 2000

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Last week's edition of the San Pedro Sun disclosed information on the proposed San Mateo Phase I subdivision. This is acreage that was formerly owned by Caribbean Coves and is now the property of San Pedro Town. Much controversy has arisen as a result of these wetlands also being included in Green Reef's proposed Wildlife Sanctuary Expansion and Management Plan. Last Friday, Mr. George Hanson, a Forest Officer from the Ministry of Natural Resources, conducted an investigation of this area and a meeting was held at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve (HCMR) office to discuss his findings. Representatives from Belize Rural South, San Pedro Town Council, Belize Audubon Society, San Pedro Tourist Guide Association, Green Reef, Fisheries, Coastal Zone Management Authority/Institute, Caribeña Cooperative, and Belize Hotel Association were invited. Attending the meeting were Miguel Alamilla, Manager of HCMR; Mito Paz, President of Green Reef; Ann Hayden, Peace Corp Volunteer for Green Reef;  Manuel Heredia of Caribeña Coop; and Omar Arceo, Board Member of Green Reef.

    After a thorough walk-through of the surveyed area, Mr. Hanson stated he would make a recommendation to the Ministry of Natural Resources for a stop order to cease all surveying of this area until an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was completed. As a result of the investigation, he found cement pillars depicting lot markers and survey lines running across the lagoon to the west. Mr. Hanson was unsure whether permits were issued for clearing by the surveyors and continued saying what land is there would not support development as it was mostly peat with only about 10 acres of the area at the back of El Pescador being high ground. He estimated that in wet season, the water in the area would rise anywhere from one foot to one meter in height. The Forestry Officer further added that development of this type of land in Belize City was quite costly to fill and develop, at an average one half million dollars per acre. He said that, even then, there were no guarantees that it would support development as it sometimes continues to sink. In his opinion, government land to the west and north would be more economically feasible as it is all high ground and would not incur enormous developing or environmental costs, also noting that the land in the north would be the safest in the event of a hurricane. Stating that an Environmental Impact Assessment should have been the first step in this proposed subdivision to determine if this land was suitable for development, he added it also would have alleviated the expenses of surveying should it be turned down. He cautioned that aside from the amount of money development would demand because of dredging and waste management, the environmental costs could be severe as the reef is already being overtaxed by the development on the front of the island. Information gathered showed that because these are wetlands, which filter and hold impurities from the soil, filling this land could ruin the pristine waters at the back of the island when contaminated waste water runs off the land. Noting that this was a heavily utilized tourism area for kayaking, bird watching and fishing, he warned development could seriously affect the island's earning potential, specifically the fishing and tourism industries. He continued to explain that even if filling was completed, the land would still be inundated with water in the event of storm surges and flooding would be a certainty. An additional concern was if development takes place the wildlife in this area, such as the protected Black Catbird, could be threatened.

    Mr. Hanson ended by explaining that the fate of the wetlands is part of an age old debate-environment versus development-a decision for the people of the island. He further concluded that although he would make his recommendations, the ultimate deciding factor for approval of development and the subdivision would be the decision of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Natural Resources, Hon. John Briceño.
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