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Jun 16, 2014

Media gets a first-hand view of proposed Puerto Azul development

There are still more questions than answers in the Puerto Azul mega development planned for Sandbore and Northern Cayes. Last Friday, the Minister of Tourism, Manuel Heredia finally spoke on the photographs featuring him and the Minister of Economic Development partying in Cannes for the launch of the controversial project. Heredia said that while the trip was paid for by the Italian investors, he would not support the development if it is not good for the environment. Those comments were followed by a trip by the media to Northern Caye, the proposed site of the luxury resort, organized by the Puerto Azul representatives. And while the pristine state of the Northern Two Caye was not lost on the media, there is still a long list of lingering questions. News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.

 

Isani Cayetano, Reporting

Since its grandiose introduction on the French Riviera a few weeks ago, the proposed Puerto Azul project has brought new focus on the Lighthouse Reef Atoll, particularly on a pair of islands designated for the billion dollar development.  Of the five coral isles within the atoll, Sandbore Caye and Northern Caye, collectively known as Northern Two Cayes, both privately owned properties, have been identified as the ideal location for an investment the like of which would propose to spotlight Belize as the finest destination worldwide.  In fact, developers say that Puerto Azul will become a benchmark for sustainable development worldwide.

As expected, the sheer magnitude of the idea and the manner in which it was put forward to prospective clients during a swanky event in Cannes, to coincide with the annual film festival, has given rise to more questions than answers.  Subsequently, in view of the fact that pictures of government ministers rubbing shoulders with A-list celebrities, including John Travolta and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, have been floating around on social media, the environmental community has raised a number of concerns.  Those questions range in importance from the cost of the trip and if it was financed from the public purse to whether or not government, through the presence of ministers Manuel Heredia and Erwin Contreras, have given the project its blessings. The Developers felt it was important to invite the ministers in the sectors that will be affected, to inform them first hand of the proposed project. In addition to those in attendance, invited guests were the PM and the minister of environment.

To get an idea of what’s presently on the ground, a team of reporters and cameramen were flown out to the island on Saturday.  Northern Caye, from above, is covered by well-matured mangrove patches; its colonies of coconut palms, however, are being decimated by lethal yellowing.  Once we disembark the aircraft and walk along the shoreline from the windward side of the island it becomes apparent that there is a recurrent issue of trash washing up on the beach. It is apparent that efforts to assist the area are needed on both islands.

At the proposed twelve-hundred acre site are plans to erect a number of villas of which the design focus on the beauty of the environment, some on land and others over the surrounding Caribbean Sea.  With an estimated cost north of one billion euros, funds have already been earmarked for the project.  While a design has been conceptualized, there are still a myriad processes to be undertaken, including an environmental impact assessment, as well as other relevant studies to determine the effect of such a development on the ecosystem.  One concern that immediately comes to mind is that of waste water and sewage treatment.  According to our source, Puerto Azul is proposed to be a beacon for eco friendly and sustainable development not only because the developers have planned it that way, but because they are catering to an elite clientele that demands it.  ”Environment first the developers say, the latest and greatest technologies implemented to attain the ultimate goal of a flourishing ecosystem.”

That being said, in a letter to Minister Godwin Hulse, chair of the Ministerial Investment Sub-committee, dated June twelfth, a consortium of environmental NGOs acknowledge that a five-point criteria be satisfied in order for the project to be green lighted.  Is Puerto Azul socially and economically acceptable?  Is it legally doable?  Will the development bring revenue to the Government of Belize, as well as meaningful jobs to the country?  And, most importantly, will the project aid in enhancing the environment? The developers assure the country a resounding yes to all points and assure transparency.

Included in the blueprint are plans for a forward operating base for the Belize National Coast Guard, as well as a branch of Immigration and Customs Department at the cost of the developers.  Additionally, the environmental studies necessary for the project will be done by world renowned experts in collaboration with the Belizean environmental engineers and the Department of environment. These studies will be more elaborate and conclusive than any studies done in the country prior and will serve the DOE as a standard for future sustainable development.  Once the plan meets all the aforesaid requirements, it is the goal of Domenico Giannini, President of Puerto Azul Exclusive Resorts and Hotels and partner Fabio La Rosa that it be a legacy property, one that promises to be an icon for the country of Belize. The developers have also created a fund of which twenty percent of the proceeds of the project will be designated to assist the country in philanthropic ventures.

 

On the other hand, the conservation community has long made it a point that it is not against development but any project, particularly of this magnitude, has to be sustainable in order to safeguard Belize’s precious marine ecosystem.  An environmental impact assessment, we understand, can take anywhere between six months to a year with reassurances that the project will not commence until the appropriate studies are concluded to prove conclusively without a doubt that the development is environmentally sound and subsequent permits are attained.

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