Despite the protests of the Caye Caulker Village Council (CCVC), its residents and community organizations, a canal at Sunset Enterprises Ltd. on the southwest side of the island has been completed. Although, the Village Council Act was enacted to give more autonomy to local government, it would appear that, in the end, Central Government still retains the only and final say in the "sustainable development" of Belize.
Earlier this year The San Pedro Sun reported that a temporary "stop order" was issued to cease development of the canal, but no reason could be ascertained from any of the Natural Resources departments at that time as to why or for how long the order was issued. Since this canal development was highly controversial with the islanders of Caye Caulker, many decided this was merely a delay tactic until the pending elections were over. What was eventually revealed is that this has been an ongoing controversy with the following having taken place. The Caye Caulker Village Council provided this information after a decision to go public with this alleged abuse of government policy.
To review, on September 9, 2001 requests were made for environmental clearance and a mining license by Sunset Enterprises Ltd. to develop their property on the leeward side of Caye Caulker. Specifically included in this request was a marina, waterways, and a 1,540-foot canal which would run from the west (leeward) to the east side of the property. A mandatory notice was placed in the Government Gazette over the period April 13th - 24th, 2002 by the developer.
A condition of the mining license was Clause 17 (1) (L) which states "That the Licensee shall obtain written support of the Caye Caulker Village Council prior to the commencement of operations." On April 30th, 2002, a letter written by then CCVC Chairman Fermin Marin to the Chief Environmental Officer Ismael Fabro stated that because of safety reasons, "we are not recommending for Sunset Enterprises to make this canal." These comments on the project should have been sent to the Inspector of Mines, Evadne Wade. Instead, the letter she received stated, "In reference to cutting of a canal, waterways, the Petroleum and Geology Department needs to get in touch with Mr. Fabro from the Department of Environment." Ms. Wade stated in a subsequent communiqu» that "Mr. Marin did not indicate that he was not in support of the project of Sunset Ent. nowhere in this correspondence." Since this did not conform to the rules regarding objections, (i.e., the objections were sent to the wrong department) and by the time further objections were received at the Petroleum and Geology Department, the license had been issued (May 13, 2002) without the approval of the CC Village Council.
Following several letters of objection and discussions, the CCVC was advised at a meeting held at the Department of the Environment to seek a legal advisor. On July 16, 2002, the response from legal council J. A. Cardona stated that "at no time or in any sentence did the Village Council give support of such license for the Dredging of Canals in Caye Caulker." He further stated that, "It is a mandatory requirement which must be complied with before the licensee can commence any operations under the licence." On August 9, 2002, the CCVC reconfirmed their objections to the dredging of canals on Caye Caulker in a letter to Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment Johnny BriceÒo. On August 9th, another letter of support was requested from the CCVC by Sunset Enterprises Ltd. and on the same day, the Council refused any support.
On September 24, 2002, legal council representing Sunset Enterprises Ltd. inquired into the matter with the Department of Environment. After more correspondence, a letter dated October 23rd, 2002 was sent to CCVC Chairman Fermin Marin from the Inspector of Mines requesting written reason(s) along with supporting documents (if any), as to why the CCVC was not in support of the dredging of the canal. The Council Chairman replied that several reasons had been given previously and that the "community members have a right to decide the well-being of this beautiful island."
One of these reasons was explained in several pieces of correspondence with the Department of Environment and included that the width of the island in the area designated for the canal was approximately 3,200 feet. Thus, a 1500-foot canal would cut through about half of the width of the island. Islanders' concerns focused on residents' safety in the event of a natural disaster, as was the case in 1961 during Hurricane Hattie. At that time, because of the amount of water that surged onto the island, water pressure exploded a small channel dredged into the island, which became a split that cut the island in half. Subsequent hurricanes eroded and deepened this "split" to double its size. In comments dated May 30th, 2002, (after approval of the permit) Inspector of Mines Evadne Wade stated, "The concern of the Village Council as expressed by Mr. Marin is an issue which may be best determined by having the input of a bona fide structural engineer familiar with forces - stress, strain, etc."
Also of concern was the close proximity of the canal to the Caye Caulker airstrip and that if flooding should take place due to high tides and inclement weather or natural disaster, the already weak infrastructure that the airstrip is currently built upon would collapse even further. After further correspondence and discussions, on December 16, 2002, a letter signed by Chief Executive Officer of Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment Patricia Mendoza was sent to the legal representative of Sunset Enterprises Ltd. This letter stated that the Minister of Natural Resources, after consultation with Cabinet, had taken into account the concerns of Caye Caulker residents and approved the continuation of work on the canal "to a minimum length of 775 feet."
On February 10th, 2003, a letter written by the new CCVC Chairman Alberto Villanueva Jr. to Prime Minister Said Musa objected to the permission granted at ministerial level, stating operations on the canal had begun the day before (February 9th) and "by some measures have reached a length of 90 feet by 5 feet wide in one day." The letter referred to documents whichreiterated the Council's refusal to support this excavation and the law pertaining to it.
On February 13th, 2003, the Prime Minister responded to the CCVC with news that a stop order had been issued. He further assured "that our Government will fully consult with the Village Council and take account of your concerns before any further action is permitted." This stop order was confirmed in a letter dated February 10th, 2003 from the Attorney General's office and advised Sunset Enterprises Ltd. to "cease and desist in any operations you are or may currently be engaged in connected to the said canal until Clause 17(1) (L) of the Licence Agreement has been complied with." This information was reiterated in a separate correspondence from the Inspector of Mines.
In less than a month's time, and only two days following elections, a letter from Inspector of Mines Evadne Wade was given to Sunset Enterprises Ltd. informing them "As per correspondence of the Solicitor General dated 7th March 2003, the Licensee may commence operations under Mining License No. 3 of 2002 which is to be amended. Such amendment shall be communicated to Licensee on Tuesday the 11th of March 2003." The letter signed by Solicitor General Elton Kaseke on March 7th, 2003, stated that the stop order was issued to give government time to analyze Sunset Enterprises' licence with a view to its amendment, notifying that they may, commencing on the 8th March, 2003, "proceed and continue to do dredging, excavation and other works which we had previously required you to cease." The amendment allegedly also allowed them to dredge the previously agreed 1500-foot of canal. It ended, "...be informed that your licence and the said amendment will be communicated to you on Tuesday, March 11th, 2003 or so soon thereafter as is practicable." CC Village Council was not informed of this decision by government, but by Sunset Enterprises Ltd. who commenced excavation on the canal the following morning. As this was a holiday weekend, the Council had no means of recourse until the following Tuesday.
The Council immediately requested a meeting with the Prime Minister, but was informed that this would not be possible until March 24th. On that day, Prime Minister Musa and CCVC Chairman Alberto Villanueva Jr., Vice Chairman Javier Novelo and senior village resident Tony Vega Sr. discussed the concerns and possible compromise on the canal. At the meeting, the Prime Minister gave his word that he would respect the wishes of the majority of the residents of Caye Caulker. A formal request was also made by CCVC for government to conduct a public forum in regards to the issue.
As a matter of fact, this forum was never held, and the 1500-foot canal is now complete. On April 17th, 2003, Sunset Enterprises Ltd. submitted another application, this time to renew Quarry Permit No. 83 of 2002 (6 of 2001) to dredge sand from the sea on the western side of Caye Caulker. Reportedly, the sand is needed to fill a five-acre piece of land designated for a resort.
According to Caye Caulker Village Chairman Alberto Villanueva Jr., the Caye Caulker Village Council unanimously opposes any more dredging. On May 12th, 2003, the Inspector of Mines again requested a reason "why the Council cannot support the request."
Since, at that time, the CCVC was in recess, a reply was delayed until June 2, 2003. In that reply the CC Village Chairman noted that islanders were worried about the additional reef siltation that could occur from this additional dredging. These worries stem from the amount of damage done to the fishing grounds by the Caye Chapel project just a few years ago. A letter written by the Council to the Inspector of Mines stated that, "Considering the fact that the Petroleum and Geology Department may view that monetary compensation from Sunset Enterprises may substitute for our island's livelihood, it is the stance of the Caye Caulker Village Council that no amount of payment will fully compensate for the loss of fishing grounds on the leeward side of Caye Caulker as these fishing grounds will be affected for many years to come." The letter continued to inform Ms. Wade that the Council was not against development with the following statement: "It is the position of the Village Council that this project must conform with the traditional heritage/custom of our island, i.e., smaller is better." The Council's letter also denied accusations of "village politics," but stated, "The issue has now become a matter of two individuals versus an entire island."
The question still remains: Will mining permits be issued again without the permission of Village Council?