Roatan Sky High
A Bird’s Eye View on the Impact of the Island’s Growth

March 1st, 2009
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private]When Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA) embarked on their third flyover to document the
environmental condition on Roatan, Bay Islands Voice went along. The scale and breadth of Roatan’s development is infinitely more visible by air than by land.
The photographs speak for themselves.

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

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.

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.

With 137 homes, Colonia Santa Maria in Dixon Cove is the biggest-to-date low income housing development in the Bay Islands.

With 137 homes, Colonia Santa Maria in Dixon Cove is the biggest-to-date low income housing development in the Bay Islands.

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. [/private]

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