Spending a few days as the guest of Ali down at her lodge, El Pescador Lodge (you can follow them on Facebook too), on Ambergris Caye in Belize, you have to admire the beauty of the surroundings. You also get the sense that it all is very precarious. El Pescador, years ago, was not book-ended by other condos/resorts, but now it is. Now, the string of docks and buildings continues about 5 miles beyond EP. Until the US economy took a header, the area around Ambergris was seeing more and more plans to develop fringe “land” that would need to be bulldozed, dredged and filled… ya know… the kinds of places bonefish feed… the kinds of places bait lives. Now, there is a pause in that development and there is a chance to get things back to more sanity… more sustainability. One of the strongest voices for this re-visioning of future of Ambergris is none other than Ali from El Pescador. I wanted to give Ali a chance to get some of her thoughts out there about the future of Ambergris.
You’ve been on Ambergris for a while now, what are some of the changes you’ve seen for better and worse?
Sustainable development is a delicate balancing act. As a foreigner investor in Belize, I believe that our relationship must be mutually beneficial. My business must benefit the community through a variety of means – jobs, taxes, support and activism in exchange for giving me the opportunity to operate my business in this paradise. Over the years I have seen many benefits from development including higher quality of life for San Pedranos, access to better education, access to better medical care as well as more (but not yet sufficient) infrastructure such as electricity, water, sewage, cell phones, cable, internet, trash collection and fire trucks. As foreigners we come to Belize for a better and simpler quality of life. But for Belizeans, they have the same American dream our parents and grandparents had – a better life for their children with access to what we consider “basic services.” But, those “basic services” are very hard to attain in a 3rd world country.
I have also seen more of a community environmental consciousness with the advent of development. For a long time, we assumed investors would “do the right thing.” Now, we are learning that laws need to be put in place to protect the very thing that attracts the investors – but for some reason they are intent upon destroying. It seems painfully obvious to me that the only reason a hotel, condominium or real estate project would be successful in Belize is because of our natural beauty (the reef, the fishery, the jungle, etc). Yet – large scale developments that are only interested in short term profits are willing to ruin the environment through dredging the sea grass beds and cutting of mangroves which will in turn kill the reef. They are willing to destroy the very thing that is making them money – because they are only interested in the short term profit.
We need a way to make all developers have a long term stake in their project and we need politicians with a long term plan and goal for the country. One way to make a developer have a vested interest in the future of the country is to only allow them to sell 49% of the development. If they have to maintain 51% ownership then it will be in their best interest to conserve the environment, build with quality materials, provide on-going maintenance and put a marketing plan in effect, among other things.
In the booming days of the US economy it seems development was running at a break-neck pace in Ambergris. What has the US recession meant for Ambergris and what do you see happening in the next couple of years?
The silver lining to the world wide economic break down has been that development has all but stopped for 2 years on Ambergris. Some projects have gone out of business. Others will continue once access to money starts to flow again. This has given us additional time to work on developing a master plan for both the island as well as a tourism master plan. Both of these will guide the future of development on the island and in the country. Then we will not have to fight individual properties like South Beach; instead we should have a master plan that says it is illegal to build it because it is on 100% mangroves and not on real “land” which is a no build zone (for example).
As more and more of the actual “land” gets bought up, more and more fringe land is getting sold and developed. Talk about that?
It is a significant problem that mimics every beach community in the USA. Once all the beach front is gone then they fill in the bay side as the next “water front” property. I am hopeful that the master plan will address this and it will not be allowed to be developed for commercial purposes. One little private beach shack with some solar panels for electricity is not a problem – but someone who fills in the property by dredging our fishery and then builds 100 condos is a problem.
While there is a no-kill law on the books in Belize for bonefish, permit and tarpon, I noticed a large number of fish traps on the west side of Ambergris that seem like just about the perfect bonefish/permit killers around. Is anything being done to address the by-catch in those traps?
The stick fish traps you are talking about are illegal – the ones you saw are grandfathered in. When the owner dies, the trap will be removed. Every year there are less and less.
Can you talk a little about the work that Green Reef is doing there?
Not nearly as well as Mito Paz, who is the head of Green Reef.
One thing they are currently working on is a sport fish conservation plan for Belize. They, along with key stakeholders (such as lodges, guides, commercial fishermen, NGOs) are developing recommendations that will be presented to policy makers for the further development of appropriate conservation and management measures for the protection of critical sport fish habitat.
Thanks Ali. Keep up the good work.
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