September 27, 2016
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio has become embroiled in a controversy surrounding a proposed eco-resort in Belize that he is involved in developing. DiCaprio, a Hollywood A-list star and globally recognized environmental activist, is apparently at least partly responsible for the vision that will potentially become the Blackadore Caye Restorative Island Project near Ambergris Caye, just offshore of central Belize.
However, strong opposition to the project on the grounds of unacceptable environmental impacts is being voiced by a highly regarded nonprofit conservancy organization, the Bonefish Tarpon Trust. BTT's Communication Director, Alex Woodsum, articulated the problem.
"The proposed project would construct extensive piers on the flats with over-water houses and hotels on them. Not only would this fragment the flats habitat, but it is also in violation of the rules governing the Hol Chan Marine Reserve where Blackadore is located."
According to a recent press release from the BTT, the development poses the following threats to the area surrounding Ambergris:
"BTT has strongly opposed the project since its inception, particularly the overwater structures.The proposed structures that would be part of the development would replace flats habitats with habitats that are not used by the flats species. Instead of having large, continuous flats around Blackadore, the flats habitat would be broken up by the new structures. This type of habitat change is called 'fragmentation', which has been shown by many legitimate scientific studies to have extensive negative impacts on many fish species. Further, the developers are proposing dredging the flats to provide sand to create beaches, which would also be detrimental to the flats. Since BTT research has shown that bonefish have small home ranges, the loss and destruction of flats habitats around Blackadore Caye will certainly impact the local bonefish population. Allowing this to occur inside a protected marine reserve would also set a dangerous precedent for the rest of Belize."
What is perhaps most surprising about the controversy is that both Mr.DiCaprio and his development partner, Delos Living, LLC, both have made public commitments to responsibility and sustainability. Relatively early in his career, DiCaprio himself founded a nonprofit in support of environmental causes that has to date raised $59.6m and distributed over 65 grants. Leonardodicaprio.org makes the following statement regarding it's mission:
"The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation is dedicated to the long-term health and well-being of all Earth's inhabitants. Through collaborative partnerships, we support innovative projects that protect vulnerable wildlife from extinction, while restoring balance to threatened ecosystems and communities. LDF's grantmaking program encompasses six focus areas:
Wildland Conservation, Climate Change, Indigenous Rights, Marine Conservation,Innovative Solutions, and Public Advocacy."
Delos is apparently qualified to engage in a responsible effort of this nature as well, offering the following:
"Delos is transforming homes, offices, schools and other indoor environments by placing health and wellness at the center of design, construction, facilities and operations decisions. "
So how exactly did what appears to be a fundamental design flaw in a world class eco-tourism resort get past the conceptual stage? In that basic rules governing development in a national preserve are being referenced as being violated by the proposed design, it would appear that the Hol Chan Marine Preserve was not consulted during the planning stage. This is not a matter of simply aesthetics or even the biological concern being cited, but also one of economics -- the sport fisheries that makes use of the shallow water "Flats" of Belize represent over $100m in annual revenue to the country. To have the resource put at risk in the interest of a developer that has demonstrated a lack of awareness before a first shovel has even hit the sand would be irresponsible management on the part of the Belizean government. It will be interesting to see how Leonardo DiCaprio himself will respond to increased public scrutiny of this issue.