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Roatan Sky High by Thomas Tomczyk

A Bird's Eye View on the Impact of the Island's Growth

Carnival Cruise ship terminal in Dixon Cove is the biggest construction site in Bay Islands history.

The best vantage point on Roatan's changing face is about 500 meters in the sky. On February 3, two BICA board members boarded a light aircraft to assess the environmental impact of changes to Roatan over the last year. "We [BICA] are a watchdog organization. We rely on complaints from regular citizens," explains Brady.
BICA has conducted flyover environmental monitoring in 1999, 2002 and this year. "The purpose of the flyovers is to promote sustainable development, not to name any one culprit or infraction," says Irma Brady, BICA president. She says that most times when property owners are approached directly, they refuse to cooperate and make changes to assure that damage to the environment is minimized. "If they know that we are only a local organization with no enforcement power, they often become abusive," says Brady.
The more powerful organization responsible for environmental enforcement and monitoring is the Honduran Ministry of Environment - SERNA. Their presence on the island is sporadic and limited to prolonged battles over building, or dredging permits. "They [SERNA] don't come for inspections as often as they should," says Brady. "They issue a permit and sometimes come for inspections three years later, for a project that was never started." While many on Roatan are preoccupied with SERNA permits, few understand that a project's subsequent construction methods impact the environment more seriously.
Much of the development on the Bay Islands goes practically unsupervised. In many cases SERNA gives permits and doesn't follow up with inspections to monitor the environmental impact of construction. Some developers take advantage of SERNA's lack of monitoring, with many projects removing vast quantities of mangroves without regard for potential impact on the reef which made the site so attractive to begin with.

Black Pearl golf course, an 18 hole golf coursed designed in Pete Dye.

The environment has been irreversibly changed: hundreds of acres of mangroves have been cut, improperly built roads spill red soil onto the reef, construction sites fail to provide minimum netting and maintain or even provide adequate catch basins. "On Roatan it's like a Pandora's box- everyone's guilty of something," says Brady.
Flying in a little Cessna above the island, two facts become clear. Roatan is in the middle of a construction boom that will enlarge Roatan's tourist and residential capacity three-fold. And while many projects are well underway, others lie half finished, spurned by bankrupt owners with faltering lines of credit. They are ready to sell to anyone with enough cash.
Erick Anderson and Mary Monterroso, two-long time Roatan residents and BICA board members, flew over the island in the four-passenger Cessna. "It almost looks pretty. We should be flying over right after the rain to see all the run off," says Monterroso. "Every creek on the island runs red except the one in Port Royal," says Brady, who monitors Roatan's gulleys during the rainy season. Red soil is full of sediment, which clogs up and suffocates coral heads. The soil's high nutrient level provides fertile territory for algae which also eventually kills the reef.
The disturbingly high rate of environmental damage becomes most evident at the West End of the island. As recently as 1995, West Bay was a pristine, undeveloped beach visited by divers from the island's premiere resorts. Since then the island's most beautiful beach has rapidly transformed into a concrete grid of condos and hotels. During the rainy season the water often smells of sewage, fish make for cleaner waters and coral heads die in increasing numbers.
Roatan's most important resource is its reef. Like money in the bank, the reef provides more income every year that the island is able to preserve it. A generation from now, a pristine reef will be worth tenfold the income that any hotel or housing development could ever bring. "The development of the island has caught us [islanders] with our pants down and we haven't caught up yet," says Brady.
Coral reefs are deeply interconnected and in many ways function as whole organisms. Current damage could spread to neighboring sections of reef - even without further development. This 'West Bay effect' has already weakened the reef in Sandy Bay, Flowers Bay, and Dixon Cove. Should the impact spread to the East side of the island's continuous reef, Roatan's once world-class reef will be in danger of becoming a world famous dead reef, such as those is Jamaica and Dominican Republic.
"The carrying capacity of the island has not been determined," says Brady. The island's capacity to sustain infrastructure and population is an unknown, but a bird's eye view of development raises an ominous possibility: that damage to the island's ecosystem through development is approaching a point of no return.

With 137 homes, Colonia Santa Maria in Dixon Cove is the biggest-to-date low income housing development in the Bay Islands.
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The Education Paradox by Thomas Tomczyk

Is it better to be Moral or Educated? I say: We Should be Both or Non at All

Some of the most corrupt officials in Honduras have university degrees, even law degrees. They use their education to further their ambitions at the cost to society. It has gotten to the point that many uneducated Hondurans associate education with financial success and immoral behavior. Educated public officials are almost expected to fend for themselves and use the system for their own benefit. If an educated public official didn't secure a financial gain from his time in office he is seen as gullible and dim-witted.
Where I come from, education is connected more with intellect then with competence. The world is full of pseudo intellectuals, educated and competent people that are unable to hold meaningful discussions about morality or question the direction of where they are heading. Education provide opportunities for people and it is the necessary, yet not sufficient element in the functioning of a civilization.
The entire idea that education is the principle and only solution to the ills of a Honduran, or any other society is false. I believe that education is not as important as individual's moral core. In fact, education without ethical core is dangerous to the foundations of society or group. For the good of itself and others, an immoral society should better remain uneducated.
One way to look at it is as a dilemma whether it is better to have competent, but corrupt officials running the country, or no competent officials at all. The choice is not easy. As a comfort I say that many societies lack education, but manage to lead productive and happy existences.
On a motorcycle trip in Bhutan, a little visited, extremely poor, Himalayan kingdom, I realized that this country has very low number of educated people, but it is one of the safest, friendliest countries you could find.
There is something that is more needed then education in Honduras and Bay Islands, societies that have been deeply traumatized. Majority of children here grow up without fathers, in abusive families; and they are surrounded by drugs, guns and violence at home and on the streets. Hondurans need psychologists and counselors more then they need teachers. They need healing and guidance, more then they need another unequipped classroom and unprepared teacher.

In his book "Collapse" Pulitzer-winning author Jared Diamond analyzes a history of societies that grew, educated themselves and then imploded, sometime vanished. One of the societies Diamond describes is Easter Islanders, who lived on a remote, once lush and forested island. As the islanders mastered new skills and educated themselves, they begun almost obsessively building statues as symbols of their own power. Different islander groups competed for best trees to be used to transport the sculptures around the island. In a span of just few generations Easter island became completely deforested. Islanders became stranded and unable to build boats to travel to other Polynesian islands for help. Their power dwindled and they had nothing left to do but stare at their lonely statues.
I hear a mantra being repeated over and over again: lets build school, put children in classrooms and education will solve all our problems. This mantra is told to the American public about Iraq, and in Honduras to the masses. Morality of individuals comes first from family, neighbors and churches. School is only a secondary place where moral values are instilled. Education and building schools should only be a first priority if the education system assures that it is also creating moral individuals.
While education provides opportunities for individuals and societies, it also provides a responsibility of acting in a moral way. An educated person in Honduras faces far more moral dilemmas and questions then an uneducated, often illiterate person. Competent, yet immoral individuals are destructive to the society around them, even more so in a country with few educated people.

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Housing for the Masses - But at What Cost?

Much Needed Colonia ‘Luz y Vida’ Development Could Provide Low Cost Housing With a High Cost to the Environment

But the 'cookie cutter' design of homes, which replicates designs used on the Honduran coast, raises serious questions about the suitability of the housing. The designs don't take into account surrounding island architecture, and may seem out of place. "We have decided to make the roof color green, to make the homes more like island homes," said Arguetta. However it will take more than a coat of paint to address a failure to amend coastal designs to reinforce against earthquakes which are far more likely in Roatan than on the coast.
Further problems may stem from the topography of the site. Much of the Colonia is located on a 45 degree slope, which makes building more expensive, access from main roads more difficult, and creates a soil runoff problem. "With such a number of homes on such extreme slopes... this is a blueprint for disaster," said Gary Chamer, a licensed architect, whose Palmetto Bay Plantation property is down the road from Luz y Vida project.
According to Irma Brady, president of Bay Islands Conservation Association, BICA has received three complaints about the project from neighbors. Several neighboring property owners worry about the negative affect of the colonia on their property values. "Beautiful old growth trees were indiscriminately cut and burned. Bulldozers cleared land of all vegetation. I do not understand how this project was allowed to proceed at this time of year," said Chamer.
Rumors that the development is funded by Punta Cana, a Dominican Republic competitor that lost a bid for RECO, could not be substantiated and were denied by Luz y Vida coordinators. "We had presented the project to Kelcy Warren [owner of RECO] and he said we could receive funds from the [Warren] foundation he set up," said Leuba. "Deputy Jerry Hynds said he will help us in getting the environmental permits."
The project broke ground in June 2007. Hundreds of Cohoon palms were cut, and mountain ridges were cleared for housing sites. In what is now a common practice throughout the Bay Islands, the project went ahead without the issue of environmental permits.
At a meeting with the foreign community Mayor Dale Jackson tried to distance himself from the Luz y Vida Project. "Municipality has nothing to do with that project. I guess they put the Municipal Corporation [on the signage] as a sign of our moral support," said Mayor Jackson. But Leuba and Arguetta said that Jackson was instrumental in securing the land and negotiating a low price. "Dale [Jackson] is a politician. He knows that with three people voting at each home, he can win an election with our support," explained Leuba.
"Thanks to assistance to Mayor Jackson, Mr. Albert Jackson sold us the land at half price," said Leuba, who coordinated the over $600,000 land transaction. According to Leuba the original site of the project was going to be close to Los Fuertes, but studies showed it to be situated directly over an aquifer. "We already paid money and Mr. Albert offered this other site," said Leuba.
The next step in the Luz y Vida development will be a lottery to decide the allocation of lots scheduled for early March.

The Luz y Vida sign in front of the project's site
The face of Roatan is changing. While growing urban centers house the majority of the population, low income housing developments are cropping up far from existing infrastructure. Gated community developments on prime real estate spring up for those who can afford it, and new government housing developments attempt to secure a piece of the Roatan dream for people on low incomes. But the choice of land for some new developments raises questions about cost and sustainability.
Cristobal Leuba, a minibus driver, heard about the PROVICESOL (Programa de Vivienda Ciudadana y Credito Social) program on the TV, then travelled to Tegucigalpa to train as the program coordinator. "Leuba gave us the idea and inspiration that we can achieve this," said Joel Arguetta, a Los Fuertes pastor who coordinates Luz y Vida with 14 other project board members.
The government program aims to construct 250,000 affordable homes across the country, 1,200 of them in the Bay Islands. Luz y Vida is the first of these projects, with another project for Oak Ridge in planning stages.
A Lps. 40,000 subsidy, drawn by the government from World Development Bank funds, will be paid to each qualifying homebuyer. "We have worked out a deal, so while mainland homes cost Lps. 208,000, Roatan homes worth Lps. 325,000 will still qualify for the subsidy," said Leuba.
For around $17,000 a family will be able to own a small home lot with magnificent views south towards the mountains of the Honduran coast. The one to twenty year housing loans will be paid at 9% interest in installments averaging Lps. 1,800 to Lps. 2,000. The entire project should cost around $4.7 million.
The project will contain 275 two bedroom, one bathroom homes. The concrete block structures will be at 42.5 square meters and placed on lots of 200 'barras' or 140 square meters. Luz y Vida will be the largest ever affordable housing community on the Bay Islands and almost twice the size of the nearby and recently opened Colonia Santa Maria that has 137 home sites.
The 24.3 acre site and its only access point is situated on a south facing slope on the Palmetto road by Tres Flores. At around 120 meters above sea level the development will have a towering view of the Honduran coast and sierra Gracias a Dios peaks.
The Garbage Dilemma
Santos Guardiola 'New Dump' newer opened

Despite a much vaunted grand opening on April 12, 2008, Santos Guardiola dump remains one of the cleanest places in Roatan's eastern municipality nearly a year later. The 20,000 square meter Punta Blanca facility is fenced in and safe from the illegal garbage dumping that Santos Guardiola residents may have resorted to. The dump's expensive membrane which covers the dump is exposed to the elements and may already be damaged.
The Punta Blanca project was funded by Inter American Development Bank (IDB) funds at a cost of $1.6 million. The equipment - two trucks, a tractor and a compactor - are yet to be delivered. The compactor and mover have been delivered, but sit in the sun gathering dust. The dump awaits delivery of the two dump trucks, but according to Governor Arlie Thompson, "this is not an excuse for the dump to remain unused."
The old SG dump trucks are being used to pick up and drop garbage in the temporary Diamond Rock dump, but have not been using the new purpose-built dump. Meanwhile the temporary dump is rapidly growing in size. Situated just 100 meters from main road in Diamond Rock Aggregates, the dump leaks toxic chemicals from car batteries into the aquifer while dogs scour the dump in search of food. The one ray of hope comes from the promise of Paola Bonilla, Vice Minister of Tourism, that two new dump trucks will arrive on the island in late March.
The opened, never used, Municipal dump in Punta Blanca.
Aerial view of the Diamond Rock dump.
Carnivals Foothold on Roatan
Island's Biggest Dredging Project Ever Turns Dixon Cove into the Archipelago's Biggest Commercial Harbour

With Royal Caribbean inaugurating its cruise ship dock in January, Carnival isn't far behind and plans to open its two-berth cruise ship facility in November. The biggest ever dredging operation in Roatan is underway at Dixon Cove, now the island's biggest commercial harbor. The dredging to a depth of 10.3 meters is planned to allow the harbor to accommodate Carnival's 'mega class', its biggest ships.
Dredging work has progressed 24/7 since beginning on December 9 of last year. In these 80 days of work, the Great Lakes Company has been contracted to remove 400,000 cubic meters of mostly alluvial material in a 16 acre area. Another company will now armor the slopes, stabilizing the dredged area against sliding soil.
Two 6,000 cubic meter scull barges and three buckets manned by 18 people have taken part in the operation. A turbidity curtain was used to prevent silt disturbed during the process from leaking out of the dredged area.
A one kilometer square area about two-and-a-half miles offshore was used to dump the spoils. An area was divided into a grid to more evenly distribute the spoils. sKarl Stanley's deepwater submarine was hired to scout a site where the sledge is dropped. It located a site 1,600 feet deep with apparently little life.
The Mahogany Bay Cruise Ship terminal project has been given coveted "project of national interest" status, as it should generate jobs and revenue across the entire country. According to BICA President Irma Brady, Ministry of the Environment (SERNA) holds a significant financial bond as guarantee against any environmental damage, the first such bond in SERNA's history.
According to Rick Elizondo, contract manager for Great Lakes, SERNA made several site visits to assure that dredging was in accordance with permits. "I think they've done a great job trying to protect the natural resources here," said Elizondo, who has experience dredging in restricted Florida costal areas, as well as the Persian Gulf.
A barge heads out from Carnival's two dock cruise ship terminal scheduled to open in fall of 2009.
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Till Bitter End

Both Candidates for Liberal Party's Congress Seats See Themselves as Winners

So far seven stores, two car rental companies and bank FICOHSA - which finances the project - occupy the 'Town Center.' Two of the biggest stores are Diamonds International and Duty Free America. The center has currently 11,500 square feet of retail space with seven stores and two restaurants, but operates at just 30% capacity. Once phase II of the project is completed, the site will encompass around 8.7 acres and include 33,000 square feet of retail, entertainment and service facilities.
In 2008 around $67 million was generated at the dock in local spending, with an additional $2.1 million in port and passenger fees and $10 million spent as direct infrastructure investment. In total Roatan saw around $79 million from cruise ship passengers in 2008, or $1,200 per Roatanian.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of the Royal Caribbean terminal is Honduran Tourism Ministry (IHT), receiving $494,000 in 2008 fees and due to receive $730,000 in 2009. In 2005 IHT received practically nothing from the Roatan cruise ship passengers, but with so much income now flowing, keeping Roatan growing directly affects Tegucigalpa.
The numbers of visitors at the Port of Roatan in 2009 are projected to be around 404,000. These numbers however don't reflect possible increases due to Carnival constructing its two berth facility in Dixon Cove in November.
Current studies show that disembarked tourists spend roughly $78 on excursions and purchases on the island, well below the $108 spent at an average Caribbean destination. Shore excursions and jewelry purchases make up 66% of the money spent by tourists. Molina sees a trend of passengers spending less, but this trend likely reflects the overall economic downturn in US rather than a problem with Roatan.
Roatan's vital cruise ship industry is set to flourish, but one factor may prove a great limitation: the island's capacity to contain its civil unrest. Roatan was hit by two strikes in 2008 and five cruise ships cancelled their Roatan visits. Royal Caribbean is concerned about Roatan's ability to consistently deliver a product to cruise ship passengers. 'The recent negative episodes of social unrest in the island have severely impacted the image of Roatan. Cancelling ship calls is a "Mortal Sin" for a destination!' read a Royal Caribbean presentation shown at the inauguration of the Port of Roatan.
But if recent civil unrest can be left in the past, Roatan can continue its growth trajectory in visiting cruise shippers. In 2008 Roatan captured 6% of the Caribbean cruise ship market, or as many passengers as Guatemala and Costa Rica combined. Roatan is approaching the 700,000 cruise ship passengers that Belize receives, and could surpass Belize as soon as 2011.

Tourists walk thru a parking area of the 'Roatan Town Center.'
The numbers are big. Municipality of Roatan expects to receive $609,000, Honduran Ministry of Tourism $730,000, and income from passengers and crew should surpass $103 million. These are the projected financial impact of cruise ship passengers in 2009, and 2010 looks even better. Indeed the cruise ship industry might be the savior that pulls Roatan through the global recession.
The 'Town Center at Port of Roatan' inaugurated in January has become a landmark to the investment in the island by Royal Caribbean and Carnival. "This is the best designed dock in Honduras, it's a natural, deep water harbor," said Jairo Molina, Port of Roatan General Manager. HTH Architects based in California designed 'Town Center' to be reminiscent of a Caribbean town feel, with large window shutters, zinc roofing, and wood arcades. Only one thing remains: finish the project.
Phase I of the Royal Caribbean's foothold on Roatan has cost $10 million. An 11,500 square foot facility has been opened and Royal Caribbean estimates that 125 jobs have been generated, mostly for Roatan residents.
Phase II will cost around $30 million, but still awaits Ministry of Environment (SERNA) inspection and permits. Completion of the project is scheduled for 2010, with more Royal Caribbean ships being sent to Roatan.
But construction has been halted as planners face destroying or moving coral heads living in an area needed to be filled in to create the marina and retail areas. The favored plan involves moving the coral to a nearby location, an operation with a price tag of around $600,000 and no guarantee of the coral surviving.
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