San Mateo Phase II - Financially and Environmentally Unsound?

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 10, No. 32            August 10, 2000

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The San Mateo subdivision Phase II is being proposed on North Ambergris Caye on a 590-acre section of wetlands, lagoons and mangrove swamps. The plan calls for 308 lots to be "created" for housing. The site of this proposed subdivision has caused much controversy and criticism in recent months. The tract in question was given to local government by Caribbean Coves as a future tax credit. According to unconfirmed reports this area was given because the developers thought it to be undevelopable. This pristine acreage between Buena Vista and Punta Arena was designated as a conservation area in Ambergris Caye's Conceptual Master Plan of 1993. This "land" was also designated a site for protection in a Wildlife Sanctuary Expansion and Management Plan proposed by Green Reef, the local marine conservation group. That plan in turn, was endorsed only last year by both Mayor Alberto Nuñez of the San Pedro Town Council and Area Representative Patty Arceo, and subsequently the Belize Hotel and San Pedro Tourist Guide Associations. The "land" is composed of mainly wetlands, mangrove and lagoons that the coastal ecosystem depends on as a critical feeding and nesting ground. It is also a nursery and suspected spawning area for mutton snappers, cubera, bonefish and tarpon. Lobsters are often found in this area as well, since there are a number of sinkholes that tunnel out to the reef through underground waterways. Recreational activities include bird watching, hiking, kayaking and sport fishing as just a few of the many income earning eco-tourism benefits. The above reasons illustrate how development would negatively impact the environment and adversely affect the island's natural resources and economy in the process; by destroying wildlife habitats and sabotaging the eco-tourism market. Development of this area is also contrary to many international environmental agreements of which Belize is a member, including the International Ramsar Convention and the World Wildlife Fund. Proposed development of this area is already generating negative publicity from other countries and eco-conscious organizations which may result in the loss of future tourism dollars and jobs for the local population.

    The need for decent land and housing is of great concern to all on Ambergris Caye. The San Mateo subdivision, as proposed will not give the residents of this island either but rather, will continue the cycle of slum conditions for the residents it was designed to help. As stated by the local Area Representative, the proposed San Mateo Subdivision will not be given basic infrastructure such as water and sewerage at this time. Residents who purchase a lot will not have access to clean, fresh water for cooking, bathing or drinking. Homeowners who currently live just on the other side of the cut of Ambergris Caye, are seen crossing the ferry daily, carrying five-gallon buckets, in search of water. The occupants of San Mateo will have to hike miles daily in order to secure potable water. With a lack of sewage and refuse disposal in a plan for a subdivision that is to contain 308 houses, the health risks to the residents of the island and visitors is tremendous along with being an environmental disaster in the making. Where is the waste and refuse to go? A series of canals are in the plans. This is very disturbing since a series of underground channels empty out to the reef. Without proper garbage and sewage disposal available it is feared the sewage and refuse will be dumped into these canals and eventually choke and destroy the reef. This area is also three feet below the flood line and subject to storm surge and erosion. Our Area Representative stated government will not fill this land which can only mean the landowners will be responsible to have it filled. Observing other subdivisions on Ambergris Caye shows that, usually, people do not have the money to properly fill their lots, and subsequently trash or any other material available is used, compounding the contamination to, and destruction of, the environment. It has been stated that this subdivision was to be a model, that other subdivisions were poorly planned and lacked the proper infrastructure along with having a negative environmental effect. This subdivision, as proposed, except for destroying a unique area of our eco-tourism market and possibly losing local jobs, is said to mirrors all the mistakes of the past.

    The Department of Environment, Coastal Zone Management Authority/Institute, Fisheries, Lands and Forestry Departments have all visited Ambergris Caye and made a visual inspection of the site, most by kayak. DOE issued their report in May of this year denying environmental clearance for this project. All preliminary reports from subsequent agencies indicate the same conclusion; this land is not suitable for development, as it would have a detrimental effect on the environment and be cost prohibitive. At a meeting held in May of this year, attended by Green Reef, Area Representative Patty Arceo, members of the Belize Hotel Association and concerned citizens, it was stated by our Area Representative that an EIA would be requested before any final decision on the project would be made. At press time no EIA has been requested or ordered for this project yet it is rumored from San Pedro to Belmopan to be a "done deal". Mr. Mito Paz, President of Green Reef had this to say at one of many meetings dedicated to this controversy: "In essence our natural resources bring tourism, tourism breeds employment which brings workers to the island, which in turn brings a need for development and necessitates a need for land to build on. But if we destroy the reason that tourism is here (our natural resources), we will not have a need for any of the rest."

    Editors note: According to government's own Environmental Checklist this area would NEVER be a suitable site for development. If government does not follow the proper procedures and laws they made, how can they be enforced on private individuals or companies? Will the hotels proposed on North Ambergris Caye with a total of 500 rooms have to have an EIA done before construction begins? Will they need to have the basic infrastructure such as water, refuse and sewage disposal in place? Or will they be allowed to save millions of dollars by digging a canal and using the ocean as their toilet? Will this set a precedent for any home-owner or resort that wants to cut costs by saving thousands in water bills by disposing of their sewage into the ocean?

    There is no logical reason to destroy this land, local jobs and the environment along with costing the taxpayers millions of dollars trying to make this land semi-inhabitable and at the same time condemning its inhabitants to slum conditions. There is plenty of GOOD government-owned land available on Ambergris Caye. The Ambergris Caye Conceptual Master Plan of 1993 designated the land to the west of the proposed subdivision site as a satellite town. The area is high, dry land that has the proper foundation to build on and is five times the size of San Pedro proper. It is the area most residents feel would be best suited to build on and would do the least amount of damage to the environment. Like any properly planned housing development it will need to have the proper infrastructure in place. It is a way to have your cake and eat it too by balancing the environment and development without sacrificing either. The million-dollar question is, why is this government-owned land not available to the people of Belize? The answer remains a mystery.

    It is time to let your elected officials know how you feel about this project before it is too late. They are elected, by you, to serve you. Call, write letters or e-mail your Town Council ([email protected]), Area Representative ([email protected]) and Minister Briceño ([email protected]) with your opinion. What happens to your island is your decision, but if you do not speak out now, you will not have lost your voice, you will have given it away.
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