“Belize is just trying to look at the potential for blue carbon marketing. We don’t currently have a national policy to pursue it, but there is something drafted, so there is movement in that direction. Because of the important role of these ecosystems as carbon sinks, it means that Belize can get monetary benefits if it keeps these blue carbon ecosystems intact,” WWF's Nadia Bood explained.
Belize City is highlighted as an important area for investing in mangrove protection. According to Belize’s 2021 National Determined Contribution (NDCs), blue carbon is one of the financing schemes under consideration as a part of the blended approach to finance the cost of the implementation of targets and activities related to commitments under the Paris Agreement. It stated that the nation hopes to “enhance the capacity of the country’s mangrove and seagrass ecosystems to act as a carbon sink by 2030.” The country committed to protecting an additional 12,000 hectares (ha) of mangroves and restoring 4,000 ha by 2030. “By committing to — and fully implementing — protection of these mangrove hectares, the country safeguards double the area of mangroves contributing to the national carbon sink in the future. In combination with restoration commitments, these mangroves play a critical role in achieving Belize’s low-emission development strategy, which aims to reduce national emissions by 86% by 2050. They also buffer impacts to coastal infrastructure and provide for the safety of its citizens,” states the study, which further notes that “Evidence-based target setting informs blue carbon strategies for nationally determined contributions."
In addition, the study claims that the protection of 12,000 ha of mangroves discussed in the NDCs would preserve a total carbon stock of up to 7.7 million metric tons. And, according to ecosystem service modeling results, protecting this amount of mangrove hectares can safeguard 300,000 pounds of spiny lobster catch worth BZD $2.5 million, and encourage the continued visitation of at least 3,000 tourists to mangrove destinations worth BZD $800,000.
Roberto Pott, Carbon Specialist at The Nature Conservancy (Belize), explained that Belize has been involved in the carbon market since the 1990s, and is considered a global pioneer for the work the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area has done in the market. He explains that early investment in the carbon market by protecting these carbon capture ecosystems creates an advantage.
“I think the government is excited about this; we are seeing a lot of interest from the government. But we know that policy does take some process and that policy process cannot move as fast as we want. But it does not mean that you do not pursue the opportunities, and be ready to take care of those opportunities. Be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that are available in Belize because Rio Bravo was what we called a ‘green carbon’ forest — we think that the blue carbon market is wide open. We will have some challenges; 70% of our coastal areas are privately owned. This just means that you have to work with the private landowners and you have to create incentives,” Pott explained.
The Blue Loan Agreement signed in November 2021 is the second largest Blue Bond deal globally to date, totaling US$345 million. The country is touted as a world leader in marine protection by organizations like UNESCO and has received three international awards for its historic debt-for-nature swap/restructuring.
The Blue Bond agreement potentially presents a significant economic benefit for years to come — with US $180 million earmarked to be generated for marine conservation. If a balance between tourism development and the protection of these ecosystems is established, the country could very well live up to its commitment to “support the vibrant marine life” and “maintain the rich biodiversity that is crucial for the health of our ecosystem and the planet.” The government and conservation groups working alongside developers to achieve this will be key, according to WWF’s Senior Program Officer.
Bood explained that vast private landownership on the coast “creates the need for government to work with private landowners to secure the protection of these ecosystems. Developers will need to see the economic benefits of that, of conserving the ecosystem as opposed to clearing and putting up a resort or a hotel.”
TNC’s carbon specialist, Roberto Pott, concurred.
“The government has to partner with private landowners and the carbon developers to make sure that when you share the benefits; and all feel that they have walked away without losing,” Pott shared. “We are hoping that we can develop a market for seagrass as well, but at this point, we are targeting mangroves,” Pott added.
Another threat to the integrity of marine ecosystems: cruise port boom
The National Sustainable Tourism Master Plan for Belize 2030 (NSTMP) states, “The target for cruises is to double visitor arrivals by 2030 while moderating tourism growth in the short term to better prepare for higher expected growth in the medium term.” In 2022, 615,020 cruise visitors are recorded as having arrived in the country. The plan also cites the “development of a secondary cruise port and complementary services in Belize City for conventional cruise market,” and the “development of a pocket cruise port and complementary services in the southeastern coast of Belize” as key private sector priority projects.
A total of 6,869 new hotel rooms are also to be constructed by 2030. According to the master plan, the country is currently in “Building Phase II (2020-2030), where 63% of that work is expected to be accomplished." Cruise lines have long been dissatisfied with the tendering process countries like Belize must undergo to take visitors from cruise vessels to the mainland. At this time, the Fort Street Tourism Village has a tender port that takes passengers from the ships to the mainland in about 15 minutes. The only operating docking port in Belize is located in Stann Creek, Harvest Caye, and currently caters to only Norwegian Cruise line passengers.
But the BTB has taken a hands-off approach as it pertains specifically to development clearance, according to what Minister of Tourism, Hon. Antony Mahler, stated during an interview in September 2022.
He said, “Look, there is a process for you to do any development, and I don’t care which investor it is. That person or that entity has to go through the necessary steps — whether it is approved or denied — that is not up to me. Our role at the Belize Tourism Board and the Ministry of Tourism and Diaspora Relation is to ensure that cruise ships go to those ports or whatever it is that is built in Belize. We’re not responsible for the development of the port.”
Cabinet announced on April 28, 2023, that an updated Cruise Port Policy was approved. The brief states that the policy seeks to modernize the country’s approach to cruise tourism and commits to “promoting inclusive leadership, social equity, cultural integrity, responsible environmental stewardship, economic optimization, product development, and resilience building.”
Three ports — one city
Three cruise ports are proposed within an approximate eight mile radius off the coast of Belize City. In the draft version of its new Cruise Port Policy, the government had outlined that only one cruise port would be allowed within the Belize District location.
Project one: Port Coral, which is furthest along in construction — removed 8.74 hectares of mangrove from Stake Bank Caye. The entirety of the mangroves of that island was removed. Stake Bank estimates that 2.97 million cubic meters of dredge material will be extracted to facilitate its access channel required for the Voyager class cruise vessels that are to call to the port. Port Coral wants to create a causeway linking the island to North Drowned Caye, and subsequently to Belize City, creating a bridge from Port Coral to Belize City and eliminating tendering. The environmental community has, however, rejected this aspect of the development, which poses a significant risk to marine flora and fauna. There is still not a clear indication from the DOE if the full causeway has been approved.
Project two: The proposal for a cruise and cargo port at the Port of Belize LTD (PBL) compound in Belize City is currently locked in local and international legal battles. A total of 7.5 million cubic meters of dredge material needs to be removed to facilitate the berthing channel required for the port, but the disposal options proposed have remained inadequate for the public and the Department of the Environment. The project has been rejected twice and is currently subject to an appeal process that has been derailed several times. At this time, while most of the primary mangrove that once inhabited the area has been removed, a significant amount of secondary growth has sprung up. PBL estimates that they will have to remove around 19.5 hectares of mangrove and coastal forest in the area.
Project three: About a 10-minute ride from Belize City, the Port of Magical Belize is proposing the most expansive undertakings of the cruise ports. It has gotten full approval on paper and holds a controversial Definitive Agreement from the past administration. Located just near the mouth of the Sibun River, Port of Magical Belize has estimated that they would need to clear at least 18 hectares of mangrove and coastal forest to construct the port and a resort. They are proposing to dredge the mouth of the Sibun River to source land reclamation material, and in essence, create a new peninsula on the coast of Belize. In total about 8.5 million cubic meters of dredge material is to be extracted — five million cubic meters is proposed to be reused and the remainder to be disposed of, with offshore disposal as an option. By all indications, from our last visit on April 29, no construction has commenced on this project. The Belize Port Authority has also announced that they have granted the port no clearance to begin construction.
In their EIAs, none of the cruise port developers gave any concrete estimate of the amount of seagrass that will be impacted by their activities. Yet, all make mention of the likely impact that their projects will have on these marine systems. This is important when one considers that seagrass is a major carbon sink and key nursery ground that supports fisheries and provides storm surge protection, according to the Seagrass Conservation and Protection in Belize guidelines.
The data published in the study outlines that seagrass beds have been long overlooked and are now, “under increasing pressure from both direct and indirect anthropogenic activities, including dredging, siltation, nutrient enrichment, tourism, and other recreational activities, and climate change.”
Over-the-water structures and resorts
Project four: MDL Investments LTD is proposing to convert three mangrove islands into an over-the-water resort in the Turneffe Atoll. Turneffe is considered the largest and most biologically diverse coral atoll in Belize. The area also houses the largest seagrass meadow within the Mesoamerican Reef and is one of the most pristine locations. For the 1,200 fishermen registered to fish in that reserve, the nursery the seagrass provides is pivotal to the fish stock and overall health of the area.
Nigel Martinez is the Director of the Belize Federation of Fishers. During the public consultation for the MDL Investments proposal he asked, “How would you address the fact that the area where these structures and the walkways are going to cover is going to kill those areas, all those seagrasses under those areas will be killed. How do you address that?”
The developers claimed the structures will be built over sand flats, not over the seagrass beds closer to the reef crest. They claimed that 0.56 acres of mangrove would be removed, and about 0.2 acres of seagrass. However, the National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC) highlighted various inconsistencies and scientific information gaps in the developer’s proposal. They have been directed to submit additional information.
Project five: Angel Fish LLC is proposing a similar over-the-water structure in a marine reserve. They want to build within the South Water Caye Reserve and plan to dredge a significant amount of material to reclaim the area which is currently over-washed. This location is about 10 miles from Hopkins Village and has been used traditionally by local fishermen for fly fishing. The developers made no mention of the amount of mangrove to be removed, claiming that “mangrove habitats in and around the property will be kept in its natural state,” adding that “landscaping” within the compound will be done.
It has been found, however, that aspects of their proposal demand the removal of mangroves. They plan to remove 1.52 acres of seagrass during the dredging, which is estimated to excavate 2.9 million cubic meters of material.
One fisherman from the Hopkin’s Fisherman Corporative, Clyde Martinez, was taken aback when he learned of the development.
“I am familiar with the area because I do go fishing in that area, but what surprised me was the peg that I saw in the water because those mangroves are actually surrounded by water,” Martinez said.
“I could not think or conceptualize in my head that that area would be used as, or converted, or developed to some land area because the water is like two feet of water, and that whole area is used by fly fishers as one of the shoals,” he explained.
The project was also sent back to the developers to be improved due to “numerous issues with the overall quality and information gaps of the EIA report.”
In total, these five projects if approved can result in the removal of 46.5 hectares of mangrove and coastal forest. An accurate assessment for seagrass damage could not be determined due to the lack of data provided in the cruise port EIAs; however, across the two over-the-water resorts, a total of 0.69 hectares of seagrass may be impacted. As for dredging, 18.9 million cubic meters of dredge material will be extracted from the marine space if all five projects are approved. The solid waste generated during the construction and operation of these locations was also cited as having a significant impact on the marine environment.
Finding middle ground
Finding a sustainable way to continue the development of the tourism industry while protecting these coastal environments is pivotal. Bood believes it is possible.
“I firmly believe that there can be a balance between development and conservation. One of the key things is to try to convince developers to fit their project or their development within the landscape rather than significantly altering the landscape for their development,” Bood said.
Recently, the Belize Mangrove Alliance has been working on an initiative called the “Friendly Mangrove Development Challenge.”
“It’s like a contest, where anyone that has taken steps to conserve mangrove on their property, whether for conservation value, whether for aesthetic value, they submit their designs, those designs are reviewed, and they get an award. They are reviewed by a panel and they are chosen based on different criteria; they are shared with the government, and the Department of the Environment, and they are shared with EIA preparers. They are aware that there is a better way of doing this,” Bood explained.
“So, this is something that could be very good, because you would have people really sharing these approaches as a way to conserve these ecosystems, you can get your development, but you can work towards conserving these ecosystems at strategically important locations,” she said.
This is the second installment of a two-part story. Click here to read part one.
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network through its Strengthening Blue Economy Journalism in Belize project. It was originally published in Amandala on June 28, 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Aerial view of the project site / Credit: Angel Fish LLC 2022 EIA.Credit: Marco Lopez.