The property is composed of seven protected areas, mostly consisting of marine areas with many small mangrove islands. Its Outstanding Universal Value is closely associated with intact marine and littoral forest ecosystems, including mangroves and related marine and terrestrial wildlife communities. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN learned of extensive mangrove cutting and infilling in early 2008 in Pelican Caye from NGOs in the region, within one of the protected areas, triggering a reactive monitoring mission in March 2009. In October 2008, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN were further informed of the impending sale of 3,000 hectares of land within the property, to private developers. The sale was cancelled after major public protest. The mission visited five and carried out an overflight of the remaining two components of the property. The World Heritage Centre received the state of conservation report from the State Party on 18 February 2009.
Based on information gathered during the mission, the State Party report, and from other sources, the main observations can be summarized as follows:
a) Sale, lease and development of mangrove islands
Of the seven protected areas comprising the property, four are marine reserves which include many small mangrove islands. The mission observed a significant amount of commercial development on these islands (boutique resorts, sports fishing camps), some of which had existed prior to inscription, but others that had been allowed to proceed subsequent to inscription. The State Party continues to sell and lease public lands within the property for on-going hotel development, and there may be concern that some existing developments are expanding without clear authorization. The State Party manages marine reserves with the understanding that mangrove islands (known locally as Cayes) within the reserves are not considered protected areas. Under these circumstances, requests for outright sale or lease of mangrove islands are regularly entertained. The mission visited Pelican Caye (also known as Cat’s Caye or Big Cat Caye), within the South Water Cayes component of the property. Approximately 60% of this caye has been deforested and filled with sand and coral dredged within a few metres of the islands. Approximately 5% of the disturbed area has been replanted with mangrove seedlings, with the support of the Smithsonian Institution and the World Wildlife Fund.
This same Caye is the subject of active on-line marketing campaigns by different agents (see http://www.belizereal-estate.com/island_props/big_cat_caye/index.html;
or http://www.yumbalisi.com/pages/belize.html). The Belizean Department of the Environment website currently posts a development proposal on Pelican Caye for review. http://www.doe.gov.bz/documents/LLES/Yum%20Balisi/Cover.pdf.
The mission learned that several dozen such transfers of public lands for development purposes had occurred since inscription. As a result, the Outstanding Universal Value of the property has been substantially affected by the on-going development on the Cayes. A letter from the World Heritage Centre addressing the urgency in addressing this issue was sent to the State Party immediately following the mission. No response had been received at the writing of this report.
The property’s Outstanding Universal Value is strongly linked to terrestrial ecosystems and to their interaction with their marine counterparts. Because terrestrial ecosystems represent a proportionately tiny surface of the property, it is crucial that no further development be permitted inside the property boundaries and that any management or visitation infrastructure should be kept to a strict minimum. The moratorium on mangrove cutting, announced to the World Heritage Centre in early 2008, has now expired and has not been re-instated. The mission was informed of a draft law under preparation to regulate future mangrove cutting in the country. Existing private or leased lands within the property should be strictly managed to ensure minimal impacts, with the long term objective of reducing their presence and restoring previously disturbed lands.
b) Absence of overall policy and regulatory framework for the management of the property
There is poor coordination between the various governmental agencies responsible for the overall management of the property, resulting in the absence of any one body taking the lead on the application of the World Heritage Convention. The management of the property is technically carried out by the Department of Fisheries or the Department of Forestry, depending on the type of protected area in question. The Department of Mines gives dredging permits within the property in the absence of formal consultation process with the former two departments. The GEF (Global Environment Facility) funded Coastal Zone Management Authority (CZMA) was mothballed when GEF funds were exhausted in 2007, but recently revived, though in a much reduced capacity, with the support of national funds. Though its mandate is one of coordination, it remains critically under-resourced and is not in a position to carry out this mandate. The CZMA’s World Heritage Coordination Committee has remained active throughout this period and has played an important role in raising World Heritage related concerns at the national level. A National Protected Areas System Plan was adopted in 2005, but ignores the management implications of the World Heritage status of the property.
Management is mostly done by a variety of NGOs. These also raise most of the necessary funds. Though this co-management approach has proven to be quite successful in many regards (fund-raising, monitoring, visitation management), important weaknesses exist in this arrangement, showing signs of undermining the integrity of the property. In particular, there is no national legal framework providing policy or regulatory direction for co-management agreements (though one is said to be in development). In the absence of such a framework, NGOs have little guidance and few constraints regarding the nature and extent of their responsibilities, nor do they benefit from clear guarantees on the part of the State Party in regards to national level responsibilities. Without a co-management framework, the State Party is poorly equipped to set out clear expectations on management objectives and to evaluate performance in a harmonized fashion.
In their efforts to cover management costs, some NGOs are turning to questionable fund-raising strategies with an undue focus on expanding tourism infrastructure and visitation rates within the property. The terrestrial surface of nearly 40% of Half Moon Caye Natural Monument, and almost all that of Laughing Bird Caye National Park are completely disturbed by NGO operated tourism and management infrastructure. Tourism infrastructure proposals with very significant development budgets for Bacalar Chico have been prepared in the name of fund-raising for conservation. Though the NGOs managing these sites are to be commended for their dedication to conservation and results oriented work carried out to date and, the lack of overall guiding principles is leading to situations which threaten the property’s integrity. The accountability of NGOs needs to be clarified and improved.
c) Illegal Fishing
The marine reserves are zoned into different categories, including no-take zones, allowing for various fishing activities to take place. The mission was consistently informed of the difficulties in monitoring and controlling fishing activities within these zones. The widely dispersed nature of the property and the expense involved in carrying out systematic marine patrol activities in remote waters will pose on-going challenges in management. No-take zones were relatively few and small, reducing their effectiveness as protection and replenishment areas for heavily exploited fin fish, conch and lobster.
d) Introduced species
Though the Outstanding Universal Value of the property is tied in large part to the intact littoral forest ecosystems, the mission observed alien tree species such as Casuarina equisetifolia in many locations. Though these are formally identified in “The Revised Bacalar Chico National Park & Marine Reserve management plan”, along with other species found in the Park, they are not singled out as alien species. Rats were reported as abundant on Half Moon Caye – though these could be easily eradicated given the relatively small size of the island. Similarly, the Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans) a venomous coral reef fish from the Indian and western Pacific Oceans, has recently been observed for the first time in Belizean waters. Its impact on native fish communities (or on snorkelers and scuba divers) is yet to be determined, and control is likely to be a major challenge. A systematic consideration of alien species in management planning throughout the property is strongly recommended.
The mission team participated in the preparation of a possible draft Statement of Outstanding Universal Value for the property while on site. Though the statement was formally submitted the World Heritage Centre, it was received too late in the year to be formally considered at the 33rd session of the World Heritage Committee. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN will work with the State Party in the coming months in the review and finalization of the draft for examination by the World Heritage Committee.
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN note with concern the lack of protection of the property. The ongoing damaging activities, particularly in the terrestrial areas of the property, and the absence of overall policy and regulatory framework for the management of the property has facilitated the erosion of its integrity. Furthermore, the threats from illegal fishing, sale and development of land, and invasive species threaten the ecosystem and biodiversity values of the property. This ascertained danger observed during the mission, and identified by concerned stakeholders, provides sufficient evidence for to the inscription of the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger. The State Party is encouraged to develop a Desired state of conservation for the removal of the property from the List of World Heritage in Danger, which together with a Statement of Outstanding Universal Value should help the State Party to implement the recommendations of the joint 2009 World Heritage Centre / IUCN reactive monitoring mission. The State Party is further encouraged to communicate these recommendations and the reason for addition to the List of World Heritage in Danger with relevant stakeholders, in particular, engagement with government agencies involved in patrolling, law enforcement, and issuing tourism permits. The addition of the property onto the List of World Heritage in Danger could assist the State Party to communicate the severity of the threats to the property to the public and help to promote improved management and protection.