Development Project Imperils Important Mangroves, Marine Reserve and Reef

A particularly ill-sited development project now under final regulatory review in Belize directly threatens mangroves and significant surrounding ecosystems. The proposed construction site adjoins Belize’s first and most visited marine reserve and may actually violate its boundaries.

The massive development is intended for the mangrove wetland at the southern tip of Ambergris Caye, a tropical island lying some 35 miles off Belize’s mainland. Narrow and just twenty-five miles long, the island is a popular destination for divers, snorkelers and sport fishermen. Such visitors are attracted by the marine life surrounding Ambergris Caye, particularly that of Hol Chan Marine Reserve at its southern end. Another popular destination is nearby Caye Caulker, just south of the Marine Reserve.

Hol Chan encompasses more than 21 square miles of ecologically linked coastal mangrove swamp, sea grass meadows and coral reef habitats, including a portion of the Belize Barrier Reef, the Western Hemisphere’s longest coral reef. It is home to a minimum of 160 species of fish, an important spiny lobster nursery, 40 kinds of coral, 5 species of sponge, two seagrass varieties, three types of sea turtles and three species of marine mammals. Many of its inhabitants are endangered or threatened species. Further details are available at www.holchanbelize.org, http://ambergriscaye.com/holchan and elsewhere.

Because it is the single most frequently visited site in Belize, Hol Chan’s importance to the nation’s tourism economy cannot be overstated. Many jobs on Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker are directly affected.

The Project

Known as South Beach Belize, the 545-acre project proposed for Hol Chan’s border includes hotels, villas, a casino, shopping areas, a network of canals and marinas, and a water theme park, as well as roads, drainage canals and supporting infrastructure. See www.southbeachbelize.com to understand the development’s massive scope. As described and updated in the developer’s Environmental Impact Assessment Addendum, construction has been divided into 5 phases, each phase to begin when the preceding phase reaches 50% completion. See full details on www.doe.gov.bz/EIAs.html.

Construction of South Beach Belize will inevitably require the destruction of mangroves to make way for the project’s many planned structures and large acreage of reclaimed land. The first construction phase will also involve excavation/dredging of canals, an interior shallow lagoon and an access channel. Later phases will require significant seabed dredging, and operation will necessitate periodic maintenance dredging of the canals. The intended canals will drain into the sea, including directly into the waters of Hol Chan.

The Threat

The threat to Hol Chan and its mangroves is obvious. Hol Chan’s various ecosystems, although quite different from each other, are ecologically and physically linked. Many marine species, particularly reef fishes and certain invertebrates, rely on mangroves and seagrasses for the feeding and protection of their young. Numerous bird and reptile species nest, rest and feed among mangroves, safe from predators. The food chain for Hol Chan’s marine life begins in the mangroves with the algae that grow on mangrove roots and the bacteria and fungi that feed on decomposing mangrove leaves. When mangroves are destroyed, the effects are felt by all the species dependent on them, including bird and fish populations far away from the site of the damage.

Mangroves trap sediment washed into the water by rain and serve as a filter, keeping the water clear and protecting Hol Chan’s reef and seagrass beds. Dredging, even when it does not directly destroy corals and seagrasses, adds sediments to the water. These sediments harm corals and seagrasses by reducing the light that can reach them, smothering them and altering the area’s nutrient levels and sources. While dredging for South Beach Belize is slated for the back lagoon, westerly winds are known to send currents from the back lagoon towards the reef with drastic increases in suspended sediment.

Project Status

The developer of South Beach Belize is waiting for the Compliance Plan to be finished then will be seeking a permit from Belize’s Forest Department to cut the mangroves in connection with Phase 1 of project construction. A decision by the Forest Department is expected by Mid February.

Despite strong local opposition to the South Beach project, especially from the tourism sector, Belize’s National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC) voted in December 2008 to allow Phase 1 construction to proceed. NEAC did not determine the development’s effect on Hol Chan or resolve South Beach/Hol Chan boundary issues. Both matters were postponed until Phase 2 so that the Department of Fisheries might gather and present relevant information. For reasons not fully explained, NEAC nevertheless voted to allow irreversible construction to proceed.

Permit for Mangrove Destruction

Belize law provides strong protection for mangroves and requires a permit from the Forest Department for any “alteration” of mangroves. Despite the many reasons for denying such a permit for the South Beach Belize development, the Forest Department is under considerable pressure from developers to ignore the law and grant the permit. (Such pressure is believed to account for NEAC’s approval of Phase 1 construction.)

Before granting a permit for mangrove alteration, Belize law requires the Forest Department to find either (a) that the proposed alteration will not significantly lower or change water quality or (b) that the degradation of water quality is in the “larger and long-term interest of the people of Belize.” See Chapter 213, Section 5.5, of Belize’s Forest Act, http://www.belizelaw.org/.

In determining whether a project is in the long term interest of the people of people of Belize, the Forest Department must consider and balance a number of factors, among them the proposed project’s potential adverse effect on:

  • the conservation of fish and other wildlife species, endangered or threatened species or their habitats
  • water flow or harmful erosion, silt deposition or shoaling
  • the fishing or recreational values or marine productivity in the vicinity
  • current condition and relative value of the functions being performed by or in the areas affected by the proposed activity,
  • as well as the project’s proximity to a designated park or other type of protected area or coastal and reef areas known to be of outstandingly high ecological value.

What You Can Do to Help

Write the Forest Department to encourage it to deny South Beach Belize a permit for mangrove destruction. . Letters should be sent to fdsecretary@mnrei.gov.bz.

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