There needs to be a Public Hearing on the Port of Belize Cargo Expansion and Construction of Cruise Terminal & Cruise Tourism Village project in Port Loyola, YaYa Marin Coleman, the chairperson of the UBAD Education Foundation (UEF), maintains.
According to Marin Coleman, there is a significant difference between public consultations and public hearings. She explained that the public consultation is only a part of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process outlined under the law. One such session was recently conducted in Belize City on Thursday, September 1.
Public hearings, Marin Coleman underscores, are very different. “The public hearing is what the Department of the Environment (DOE) is to do independently, with the objective of talking about the entire project and not just the EIA component.”
Marin Coleman reminded that the public hearing is essential but, unfortunately, has not been executed by the DOE. Consequently, the residents of Port Loyola are only informed about a fraction of the project due to the public consultation that involves the developer being engaged in a two-way flow of information with the general public.
“With the public hearings,” Marin Coleman shared, “the government has a responsibility—unlike the narrower scope provided at the developer during the public consultations—to discuss every aspect of the initiative.” According to the regulations, the public hearings must be guided by an “impartial moderator.”
Pre-Amendment Language of The Environmental Impact Regulations
Regulation 24 of the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations (hereafter “The Regulations”) does make provision for the public hearing. The original, pre-amendment language of The Regulations read:
“The Department, on the recommendation of the National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC), may require a public hearing in respect of any undertaking, project or activity in respect of which an environmental impact assessment is required pursuant to these regulations.”
The Regulations would go on to outline the conditions under which NEAC should recommend the public hearing. The rules state:
“In order to determine whether an undertaking, project or activity requires a public hearing, the Department shall take into account the following factors:
“(a) the magnitude and type of the environmental impact, the amount of investment, the nature of the geographical area, and the commitment of the natural resources involved in the proposed undertaking, project or activity;
“(b) the degree of interest in the proposed undertaking, project, or activity by the public, the Department, and other government agencies, as evidenced by the public participation in the proposed undertaking, project, or activity;
“(c) the complexity of the problem and the possibility that information presented at a public hearing may assist the developer to comply with its responsibilities regarding the proposed undertaking, project or activity.”
The Amended Language
The language of the regulations has been amended several times over the years, with a 2020 amendment adding, inter alia, the words “or public consultations after the word ‘hearing’ wherever it occurs.
Consequently, The Regulations now appear to provide a choice between the two mechanisms. The rules now would read:
“The Department, on the recommendation of the National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC), may require a public hearing or public consultation in respect of any undertaking, project, or activity in respect of which an environmental impact assessment is required pursuant to these regulations.”
Interest from the Public
Marin Coleman explained that from UEF’s vantage point, Rule 24(2)(b), which highlights that the level of public interest is a factor in helping NEAC decide whether a hearing is necessary, is satisfied.
She pointed to the example of the September 1st public consultation’s turnout. “It had a wide cross-section of Belizeans of all ages, class, members of the Diaspora, and gender participating in the process,” said Marin, adding that “people actually wanted more time, a fact that is a testament to the need for NEAC and DOE to call for the public hearings.”
Additionally, the initiative is a $400 million investment. In a small economy with a pre-COVID Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of about $4.7 billion (as revised Statistical Institute of Belize's data shows), Marin Coleman views the Waterloo project as a sizable investment. That fact alone, says Marin, should satisfy the condition of Rule 24(2)(a) as it pertains to the “amount of the investment.”
The Project Itself
The project—more commonly referred to as the “Waterloo” project, given the port's relationship with Waterloo Investment Holdings Limited—is designed to expand the current cargo port located on Caesar Ridge Road in Belize City. It is also aimed at developing a cruise terminal, one of three competing cruise-port projects.
In terms of the cruise port development, the Port of Belize’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) justifies the project as follows:
“As cruise ships become larger, tendering becomes increasingly difficult. Indeed, a cruise ship with capacity larger than approximately 3,500 passengers is considered a shore-side berth only vessel, as tendering becomes impossible within a normal call window. Currently, Cruise ships calling at Belize City are limited to tendering to the mainland from the deep-water anchorage."
“The major cruise lines have expressed their intention to cease tender operations by 2024. To avoid port call interruptions, Belize City must have a cruise-capable, shore-side berthing option available within that timeframe. To that end, the dredging and expansion of the Port of Belize channel and construction of fixed piers will ensure the long-term survival of Belize City cruise tourism which has become mainstay revenue for the Southside of Belize.”
The dredging for both the cargo and cruise ports has environmental implications that have led to objections from the environmental community. Additionally, some concerns have been raised about whether the increased flow of cruise passengers would exceed the carrying capacity of the country’s tourism sites.