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Development, Belize-Style

"People are building $500,000 houses on $5,000 roads!" This is the sentiment of many who watch in amazement as huge condos and luxury houses sprout up along narrow, muddy golf-cart trails. In some areas huge 4,000- to 6,000-square-foot homes are being built where there is no municipal water or sewage system, and in more remote parts of the country no electricity or telephone. One stretch of road on the Placencia peninsula is now sprinkled with massive McMansions, gated communities, and condo projects, built on filled land next to the lagoon.

Belize's lack of infrastructure is nothing new. As late as the 1980s open sewers were common all over Belize City. Even today, in some rural villages, especially in Toledo District, telephone service is a rare commodity, and drinking water comes from a community well. With the unemployment rate in Belize in the low double digits, and with good, high-paying jobs scarce, many hope that the new housing boom will provide a needed economic boost and sustainable job growth. But environmentalists are taking a darker view.

In the Hopkins area, near Sittee Point, environmentalists worry that some of the tallest mangroves in the Western Hemisphere will fall prey to developers. It is illegal to remove endangered mangroves in Belize without a government permit, but this rule, like many other environmental protections, is often ignored. It isn't unusual for homeowners and developers with waterfront property to simply tear out these precious trees and deal with possible fines later.

Belize effectively has no zoning or comprehensive land-use planning, though there is now a country-wide building code that applies to individual buildings and houses. Environmental regulations, while strict in theory—every development is required to have a formal Environmental Impact Plan approved by the national government—often fail in practice. Protective regulations and permit procedures are circumvented, flouted, or just plain ignored. Government officials, whose resources are stretched thin, often can't provide oversight on development projects. According to environmentalists, some government officials are corrupt; they believe that developers can do what they like, if the price is right.

Economic growth, the environment, and the housing boom in Belize are complex, with parties facing off on a multitude of issues. Who knows if everyone will ever see eye to eye?

Updated: 2013-12-03

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