Last week, environmentalists raised alarm with regard to a proposal by Italian investors to completely transform the Northern Two Caye in the Lighthouse Reef range of cayes into an exclusive resort complete with airport runway and massive marina.
These types of mega-projects are becoming increasingly a source of conflict for the Government as the interests of private developers and their local backers clash with those of the environmental lobby.
Today, the man on the hot seat was CEO Michael Singh who reiterated that the project has yet to reach the stage where it can even be considered for an environmental impact assessment or EIA.
“They have presented us with a project concept and a business plan. I am not aware as to how the plan along with purchasing the real estate. We haven’t been given any indication of any titles being in their names for the real estate. In respect to environmental assessment, I understand that they are preparing the EIA. It has not been submitted to the DOE and it has not been evaluated as yet. So, at this point it is only at concept stage that has been initially given to government”.
Even if it ever gets there, Singh himself is rather skeptical of the grand scope of the project which, if it was allowed, would cause significant changes to things he personally holds dear.
CEO Michael Singh: “If you look at the aggregate of everything that it’s there, when you think about things like waste disposal, increased traffic, the idea of putting a runway on top of the reef is preposterous. I have been a diver all my life and I don’t claim that that is something that is wise for the environment. Particularly, since that is the attraction that is bringing people in. So, I can’t go into much details, since it is not our job to downscale the whole project; they have to do that. When it comes to the environmental screening, it will go through the process that all projects go through which means that it has to go through hearing and it has to go to the level where environmentally,it is acceptable to the country. Economically, it has to be acceptable to the country; we need to make sure that the opportunities are given to Belizeans so that they have meaningful jobs, etc., before the project is given the green light“.
So then, why were two Ministers of Government, both members of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Investment and one of them, minister Erwin Contreras, Singh’s own boss, seen hobnobbing with the rich and powerful in Cannes, France two weeks ago? The CEO, who says he was not on that trip, insisted that there is no correlation between the high-profile appearances and the Cabinet’s ultimate decision.
CEO Michael Singh: “There are 16 ministers in Cabinet. The fact that two ministers took the time to attend an event where the project is being unveiled does not necessarily indicate that they have signed off. Those two ministers support development; Minister Contreras is pro-development; Minister Heredia is pro tourism. This is a tourism project. The fact that two ministers went to go visit at the launch of the project is to me neither a sign of government support nor indication of any kind of sign off.
To underline Cabinet’s caution, Singh told PLUS News that the Government continues to review its policy with regard to mega-development investments such as this one.
CEO Michael Singh: “There are larger environmental impacts on these projects unlike a small project. So, we have to rethink the way we deal with it; we have to be there on the spot and be able to investigate what these things are doing. So, we understand how to deal with them. The wrong thing for us to do is to decide that we will take a potential project that is large and has potential for large scale development and large scale employment, and throw it out to public decision making too early, because at that point, you send them away and you change the business climate. So, there has to be an internal investigation that happens before it gets public hearing. What we have done is that we have developed for the very first time, what is called an investment subcommittee of cabinet, which is comprises of five ministers from Environment, Economic Development, from Labour…all the people within government that will have the kind of impact on a project. We analyze these projects with using all the technical people we need within government. All this happens before we take these projects to Cabinet even before we look at it to say if they will decide on them. Along that process, there is always public consultation that will take place. So, I think it is a matter of the size of projects and the methodology that we have to change”.
The project must get environmental approval before construction of any kind can start.