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May 30, 2000

Eco-confrontation at Rocky Point revisited

Story Picture
On last night’s newscast we highlighted Channel Five’s winning of three trophies in this year’s Caribbean Broadcasting Awards. Since the story that won two of the prizes may not be fresh in your memory, we’ll bring it to you again. The report, first broadcast on April 27th, 1999, brought to light a confrontation between some San Pedranos and developers of a shrimp hatchery at a place on northern Ambergris Caye called Rocky Point.

It’s been called one of the seven wonders of the underwater world. The Belize Barrier Reef stretches over 150 miles along the entire length of the country, an almost unbroken wall of coral that provides a haven for a rich variety of marine life and a magnet for an increasing number of tourists attracted to its pristine beauty. Perhaps nowhere in Belize is the reef so vital to a community than it is to the town of San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. So it’s not surprising that when reports reached San Pedro of reef threatening developments near the island’s northern border several boatloads of activists set out to take a look.

Stewart Krohn

“It’s at this place called Rocky Point that the Barrier Reef comes closest to land. Several years ago it was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. But the big news at Rocky Point today is a pile of rocks that a developer is pushing out to the reef.”

The nearly 200 feet of earth and stone that was dumped onto the seabed of the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve was the work of Nova, Belize’s largest shrimp farming operation. While Nova’s growing ponds lie on the mainland it is building a shrimp hatchery here at Rocky Point to take advantage of the clean seawater that continuously flows through the channel. The jetty being pushed out to sea, says Nova officer Jim Hyde, is merely a temporary construction to allow a 200-foot intake pipe to be buried under the shallow seabed until it can reach the deeper water near the reef.

But what Hyde saw as a temporary construction technique, San Pedro’s tour guides and environmentalists viewed as a major source of deadly siltation: a threat to their livelihood and the health of their greatest natural resource.

Omar Arceo, Tour Guide

“We are here for the right of the people, for the children of tomorrow. We gotta save the reef for the children of tomorrow, not for the pockets of the individuals that are just sharing out.”

Stewart Krohn

“Do you believe that the process of putting this jetty out here has in fact harmed this particular area?”

Jim Hyde, Shareholder, Nova Limited

“We are sorry that the contractor put black dirt; he was told to use only white sand and you can see we had white sand. That is unfortunate; we don’t want any organic material at all in this environment. It’s not good for anybody.”

Billy Leslie, Tour Guide

“I want you to tell these little kids first, that you are sorry for damaging this pristine area. When I spoke to you I explained that black soil was being pumped into the ocean. You can see from the beach line that probably about 250 feet have gone. If you put on a diving mask I could take you right now to the area. That stuff will never live again. You have professionals here you could ask them; how long does it take for the corals to grow back? Not in our lifetime. These kids will never see what we’ve seen. We are sorry to lay a pipe? There’re other places in this country that could have taken it. If you look at this site; look at that pristine environment; that coral reef environment, that’s not mine or yours. Our democratic duty is to protect it for them and their kids. We’re not doing a good job.”

While the tour guides’ argument was rich in emotion it was not without scientific foundation. Gregg Smith is one of the island’s leading environmentalists. He’s also lived near Rocky Point for almost 20 years.

Greg Smith, Rocky Point Resident

“Precisely the problem is they built something that looks like an earthen jetty that has been releasing sediment for three weeks into the coral reef environment that is immediately adjacent to this. It is not a quarter or a half-mile away; it is right here, within a couple hundred feet. And for weeks they have been releasing sediment into that environment. They say that they will take this back up again but we’re talking about weeks of sediment going directly on coral.”

“We’ve done all kinds of training in Belize telling the tourists not to kick up sediment on it. We’re within a marine reserve, a World Heritage Site. This is one of the sites we should definitely be trying to protect.”

Stewart Krohn

“The problem is not necessarily putting an intake pipe out to get clean water or to have a hatchery here, but it’s the method of building an earthen jetty and dynamiting the bedrock to do it?”

Greg Smith

“One hundred percent! That is the real issue and the fact they’ve done it without consulting the agencies or more important the people who live here and use here.”

It is that failure to communicate which has these people just as upset as the actual damage to the reef. And that failure to consult also applies to government officials. While Hyde claims to have all his environmental permits in order when we checked with the Department of the Environment we found out otherwise. According to the D.O.E. while Nova did have permission to lay a pipe a few feet into the sand, it had no authority to build this jetty or to use dynamite to penetrate the seabed.

Stewart Krohn

“Essentially you did this without anyone’s knowledge. You did it quickly with, I suppose, the intent that if you could do it without anyone knowing about it and getting it all cleaned up, it would be too late to fuss about it; no one would really fuss about it?”

Jim Hyde

“That is not true; clearly not. How can it be? What we are trying to do is to get this hatchery operational this year and we’re running against time. We’re hoping to have larva being produced in this site before this year is out.

It had become extremely urgent in view of the fact that shrimp farmers on a whole are seeking to close the country to the importation of larva in order to prevent viruses and diseases to enter our industry, things that would wipe us out totally.”

Gerald Leslie, Tour Guide

“This is the second largest barrier reef in the world, the second largest. It is the first living in the Western Hemisphere. We tour guides, not only from San Pedro, but if you start from San Pedro all the way to Punta Gorda protect this reef. We give reef ecology to our divers, to our snorkelers, our beachcombers about how we can protect this reef and when we get here we see something like this. We work hard to protect it.

For an overnight development to damage something that takes millions and millions of years to grow… It’s gone in an overnight statement. This will not be able to clean up. The Exxon Valdez drops oil on the beach, there’s no way you would be able to clean that. Same thing with this development. There’s no way that they can reverse what they have done. The only way to reverse this thing is to stop it right now as it keeps going on.”

It was an argument that in the end proved persuasive… at least to one person whose opinion mattered most. Area representative Patty Arceo looked and listened… but when she’d heard enough she confronted Nova’s Managing Director Bob Phillips with an unequivocal decision.

Patty Arceo, Area Representative, Belize Rural South

“Are you aware that this place is a reserve and I don’t know who gave you the authority to de-reserve this reserve. I think you can see that our concern is very big because this has been a traditional usage for boats to go across to Mexico. I don’t know who on earth gave permission, which ministry, but this is my area and as far as I know I am the boss here.”

Bob Phillips, Managing Director, Nova Limited

“Actually we have permission to go a lot closer to the reef. The pipe was going to be about 6 or 700 feet and we cut it to 250.”

Patty Arceo

“We will have to look into that. Like I have mentioned, I order you to cease all operations until further investigation.”

Bob Phillips

“We’ll be happy to comply.”

Stewart Krohn

“About a half hour ago the area representative, who is also chairman of the house committee on environment, whether she had the authority or not I don’t know, ordered this project, at least this one out here on the beach, to stop. What comes after that?”

Jim Hyde

“If the chairman of the environmental committee orders this to come to a stop then it comes to a stop, plain and simple.”

Stewart Krohn

“What is your next move?”

Jim Hyde

“I can’t say. We hope that there can be dialogue and we can come up with a way of doing it. Whatever is required by the Government of Belize we are going to do.”

Stewart Krohn

“The controversy at Rocky Point may be more about politics than it is about the environment. The question of who runs things in this

ecological wonderland seems to be forever up for grabs. Stewart Krohn for News Five.”

Since we reported this story one year ago, efforts to assess the damage to the reef have fallen victim to a combination of bureaucracy and lack of resources. The Department of Environment ordered Nova to have an independent consultant assess the damage while at the same time asking the Fisheries Department to do its own assessment. The Nova consultant, not surprisingly, said there was no damage. The Fisheries Department is yet to do its report. A DOE spokesman told News Five that despite the delay they were still trying to assemble evidence and are negotiating with Nova over the amount of a fine the company will pay for violating the terms of its permit. At the site itself the jetty was removed following the installation of the water intake pipe and the beach restored. The project did fall behind schedule, however, and the hatchery is not yet in full commercial operation.

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Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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