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Date: Sun, 24 Aug 1997 13:38:23 -0800
From: (SAIIC)
Subject: Belize Urgent Action

Inter-American Development Bank's Pending Financing of Belize Southern Highway Project

From South and Meso American Indian Rights Center (SAIIC)
24 August, 1997

The following urgent request for letters of support comes from a regional association of community organizations in Belize Southern Alliance for Grassroots Empowerment (SAGE) that is concerned about the negative social and environmental impacts of the proposed paving of the Belize Southern Highway Project. SAGE is comprised of the Toledo Maya Cultural Council, the Ke'kchi Council of Belize, the Toledo Alcades Association, the National Garifuna Council, the Toledo Maya Women's Council, the Society for the Promotion of Education and Research and the Belize Audobon Society.

Background: The Southern Highway IDB loan would finance the paving of a 167 km dirt road which stretches along the eastern foothills and central and southern coastal plains, between the Maya Mountains and the Caribbean sea. In March of 1997, the IDB approved financing for a $2.6 million complementary environmental and social technical assistance project (ESTAP) which the Bank maintains will address many of the negative environmental and social impacts that are anticipated as a result of the paving of the road. The loan document stipulates that bids for the construction of the highway can not begin until the eight accomplishments outlined in the ESTAP are fully implemented. (For a copy of the list, please see IDB's Environmental summary located on the IDB web page ( The affected Mayan communities do not consider the meeting of these eight accomplishments as a sufficient condition for approving the loan since none of the accomplishments explicitly protect or secure the Mayan lands for their people. In any case, at this time SAGE does not consider that the government of Belize has adequately met even these eight accomplishments.

As of two weeks ago, the loan was scheduled to go the Board for approval on September 17th. Since then, an IDB mission went to Belize for final negotiations with the government. It appears that the Bank has now decided to postpone the approval date, though it is likely to go to the Board in the near future. The British Overseas Development Agency (ODA), a cofinancer, is said to be waiting for IDB approval before concluding their agreement with the government of Belize. The Bank's position remains that the loan should move forward once the eight accomplishments are met. It should be noted that the initial decision to condition the highway loan on meeting these accomplishments was not made in consultation with the affected communities and therefore needs to be reexamined. These eight accomplishments provide no guarantee that land issues or environmental mitigation measures will be carried out to the satisfaction of the affected communities.


Of greatest concern to the indigenous communities is the potential for huge losses of Mayan lands that are located near the highway and planned secondary roads that they contend will be sold by the government to large-scale economic interests. Since 1993, the Government of Belize has granted 16 long-term concessions, mostly to foreign companies; in all, 544,989 acres of land have been opened up to logging in southern Belize. Most of this land is within the Maya ancestral land use area. Claiming ownership of this land by aboriginal right, the Maya people currently have a law suit against the government.

In addition to the outstanding land rights issues, there are numerous other negative social and environmental impacts that ESTAP will not and can not address (please see following section on detailed social and environmental impacts). This loan is a Category IV (greatest environmental danger) in the IDB's environmental classification, thus requiring that full environmental studies be completed before the loan is approved. The initial environmental impact assessment was mandated to study the impacts on forests, coastal areas, and the coral reef (which is the second largest in the world) and to make recommendations for mitigation plans. The final EIA failed to address these issues in depth in the report, but did call for further studies in light of the many indirect environmental impacts of the project. These studies, as required by IDB procedural rules, were never undertaken. Of 28 possible areas for impact, twenty one were cited to be negative; only three were positive. The current Environment summary also calls for further studies in these areas. These studies are necessary in order to determine the best possible mitigation plans and should be carried out prior to, rather than after the loan has been approved.

Following are detailed social and environmental impacts of this project taken directly from the Bank's own Environmental Summary (bl-0001). The plethora of unanswered questions in the summary with regard to environmental impacts and its projection of heightened social tensions and impoverishment of Mayan people if their lands are not secured should be sufficient grounds for rejecting this project until the Mayan lands are secured and the necessary environmental studies and mitigation plans are in place. While the ESTAP project is a potentially good start, as stated above, it does not provide the necessary binding assurances that the key social and environmental concerns will be adequately addressed. Given the communities' disappointment with the ESTAP's progress to date, and a general lack of faith in the government's commitment to addressing their concerns and involving communities in the decision making process, the communities are becoming increasingly skeptical that ESTAP will address their long term needs and produce an equitable development plan for the Southern region of Belize.


  1. Mayan lands are protected;
  2. the necessary environmental studies are carried out as required by IDB procedures;
  3. the anticipated indirect negative environmental impacts are significantly reduced; and
  4. there is equitable access to the economic and social benefits envisioned as a result of the paving of the road

We urge you to send letters or emails (if that's easier) to Nancy Birdsall, Executive Vice President and your executive director expressing support for SAGE's position and urging the Bank to:

  1. postpone consideration for financing Rehabilitation of the Southern Highway until all outstanding social and environmental problems, especially land rights, have been resolved to the satisfaction of the affected communities.
  2. Ensure that the loan agreement with the government includes binding environmental and social mitigation measures to a) protect Mayan lands; b) carry out environmental studies required by IDB procedures; c) significantly reduce the anticipated indirect environmental damages, and d) promote equitable access to the economic and social benefits envisioned as a result of the paving of the road.
  3. Use the Bank's influence to urge the government of Belize to legally recognize the Mayan lands.
  4. Ensure true community participation in decision making around this loan by respecting the views of the majority of the affected population and local NGOs involved with SAGE, who are currently opposing approval of this loan until land rights and environmental mitigation measures are secured.

Please feel free to copy any portion of the background information provided here in your letter

FAX for Nancy Birdsall: 202-623-3615 email: FAX for Executive Directors; (if needed, please contact BIC at and we will give you the fax number for your director)

Please copy your letters to the following Bank officials:

Miguel Martinez, Manager, Regional Operations Department 2; fax:202-623-2346;

Dick Archie, Division Chief, Country Division 4; fax: 202-623-1502

Ed Costello, Task manager; fax: 202-623-1502; Waldemar Wirsig, Manager, Social Programs and Sustainable Development fax: 202-623-1708;

Walter Arensberg, Division Chief, Environment fax:202-623-1708; waltera@iadb .org

BIC would also appreciate a copy which we will forward to SAGE; FAX: 202-466 -8189

(For organizations outside of the US, if you would like to reduce faxing costs, BIC will be happy to forward copies of your letters to the appropriate Bank offices. Please direct your cover sheets to Paul Lewin and indicate who you would like it sent to) Our fax number is 202-466-8189 I will be out of the office until September 8th. If you would like to get more information, please contact Deborah Schaaf at the Indian Law Resource Center; tel: 406-449-2006 ( or James Bass at 703-525-7032 (email : SAGE Chairperson Pio Coc can be reached directly at the Toledo Mayan Cultural Council tel/fax 501-722-774



"These studies (commission for the Bank) concluded that rapid land use changes resulting from agro-industrial expansion, tourism development along the coast and population growth from migration would exert pressure on the southern region's traditional patterns of life and natural resources potentially leading to: (I) increased social problems; (ii) erosion, sedimentation and losses in biodiversity due to increased deforestation; and (iii) protected areas encroachment. The areas of greatest concern are: (a) the impact of change on the indigenous Maya, especially with respect to security of rights to land, livelihood, social organization, and cultural integrity; (b) the impact of change on fragile natural environments and habitats resulting from natural resource exploitation and the development of tourism; (c) the potential loss of biodiversity; and (d) the implications for future availability of government funds for additional social services associated with more rapid development."

"The upgrading of the road is likely to accelerate development and exacerbate some of these issues if mitigating measures are not in place." "Through a process of community participation, ESTAP will formulate and implement a regional development plan indicating both the main paths for economic advancement, and necessary measures to mitigate the impact of rapid social and environmental changes.

Without the mitigation measures incorporated in the project, the accelerated developments will most likely lead much sooner to irreversible losses of forest habitat, severe degradation of coral reefs and associated coastal ecosystems, increased land use conflicts, and cultural tensions."

"Even with the preventive and mitigating measures of ESTAP, the project will still have a significant impact on the southern region -- bringing about land use, environmental and social changes which, under some circumstances, could lead to heightened conflicts."

"In summary, it is important to acknowledge that the Southern Region is likely to experience an accelerated process of change following rehabilitation of the highway. These changes introduce some risks which cannot be entirely eliminated with the implementation of ESTAP. The main risks relate to escalating land tenure conflicts, other types of land use conflicts, accelerating deforestation and associated degradation of significant forest resources and coastal habitats. Vulnerable groups such as the Maya could be at an increased risk of impoverishment unless significant progress is made towards resolving land tenure issues. "


"Based on information provided by the Ministry of Natural Resources, forest concessions agreements in Toledo District are in effect for approximately 544,989 acres (220,500 ha) or 50% of the district area. A total of 16 licenses have been issued, 8 of which were issued in 1996. There are reports of increasing conflicts between logging and traditional uses of forest resources, damages caused by timber access roads, excessive logging close to streams and other sensitive areas and insufficient consultation with forest fringe villages (Marcus et al., 1995; King et al, 1995)."

"The Maya Indians are vulnerable to the pressures that accelerated development in the area will bring with the highway rehabilitation. Given the lack of security of tenure of current reservation lands, the Maya fear that the increased pressures on the communally held lands inside as well as outside the reservations will threaten the survival of milpa-based subsistence agriculture and the social organization and cultural identity on which it depends."

"However, they also seek solutions to the land tenure issues, which they see as a condition for both their sustainable economic development as well as their socio-cultural survival." "Under these circumstances, the proposed upgrade of the southern highway will not only increase demand for land suitable for commercial agriculture but also heighten land tenure conflicts."

"The relationship between the road rehabilitation project and land security for the Maya has been discussed in a variety of fora in Belize and within the Bank. The Bank has sought assurances that the current reservation system of the Maya would not be altered until a mutually agreeable solution was found to the problem. The Bank has received confirmation from the government of its commitment not to de-reserve or alter the present status of the Toledo land reservations for a period of two years (Letter from the Ministry of Natural Resources, November 3, 1995)."

"Blackstone Corporation (1996) underscored the widespread lack of knowledge among villagers of the land tenure options and their implications for the Mayan people."


"there is considerable uncertainty with regard to the magnitude of indirect impacts associated with the rehabilitation of the southern highway. " "Nonetheless, substantial indirect effects are expected given the growth projected in sectors such as tourism, agriculture, timber production and coastal aquaculture. The proposed improvements to the southern highway will contribute to accelerated expansion of these operations along with a variety of other land use changes which will bring on indirect environmental costs associated with increased rates of deforestation, increased sedimentation in coastal areas and other types of biophysical changes. In the absence of reliable projections on potential land use changes in the southern region, uncertainty is leading to highly differing opinions with respect to the geographic scope and magnitude of such potential negative impacts." "Although the policy of the Ministry is to shift towards a sustainable forestry regime, only select concessions in a few forest reserves such as the Columbia River Forest Reserve are subject to sustained yield practices. Data for estimating illegal logging activities are not available although recent reviews have indicated that these may be substantial (Plumptree, 1993; World Bank, 1996). Contributing factors include illegal exports of valuable hardwood species such as mahogany as well as felling for fuelwood."

"These laborers will settle around the plantations and very likely will start cultivating their own crops, in some cases on marginal, highly unstable soils. This will in turn push the agricultural frontier further into the interior, thus causing more natural habitat transformation, biodiversity losses and increased rates of erosion/sedimentation, including the degradation of coastal and marine habitats (see below)."

The fundamental question in this case is the extent to which rehabilitation of the southern highway could result in increased rates of deforestation int he area of influence. Accelerated deforestation is linked to a variety of changes such as: net losses in wildlife habitat; consequent decreases in wildlife and plant species abundance and diversity; accelerated erosion and downstream sedimentation; and degradation of coral reefs and associated coastal ecosystems. Together, these changes can amount to irreversible losses in biodiversity, both terrestrial and marine."

"The available information clearly indicates that deforestation rates will increase as a result of road rehabilitation -- but there are no reliable projections for how much the rates will increase. "

"The indirect effects of highway rehabilitation on logging activities are also unclear. Improvement of the highway and feeder roads will improve access for the transportation of timber out of the southern region. This could well represent an incentive for operators holding timber concessions in the region to improve or expand their activities. Other factors such as timber prices, labor availability are also likely to come into play, thus making it difficult to foresee the most likely scenario. Several comments were received by the Bank concerning existing forest concession policy in southern Belize, the need for greater transparency with regard to conditions in concessions agreements and enforcement of measures for sustainable timber harvesting"

South and Meso American Indian Rights Center (SAIIC)
P.O. Box 28703
Oakland CA, 94604
Phone: (510)834-4263 Fax: (510)834-4264
Office: 1714 Franklin Street, 3rd Floor, Oakland
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