Conserving the real Cayman

| 08/06/2008

By Wendy Ledger – Posted Monday, 8 June 2008

It may come as something of a surprise to many but there are currently
no legal protections in place at all for any of Cayman’s endemic
trees, shrubs or orchids. Not even our national tree, the Silver
Thatch Palm, or the national flower, the Banana Orchid, are protected
legally, and many of the country’s endemic animals, such as our unique
lizards, snakes, butterflies and bats, also have no legal protection.
 

It was against this background and the desperate need for a more
comprehensive framework for the protection and conservation of our
precious eco-systems that work began on a National Conservation Law
(NCL). On coming to office, the People’s Progressive Movement (PPM)
promised they would enact such a bill to protect the environment.
Three years later, the legislation is due to come before the House at
the end of this summer after what has been described as considerable
consultation.

Cayman’s environment is unique. Formed under a tropical sea some 10 to
30 million years ago, the islands are part of a reefal platform that
has submerged and emerged from the sea throughout geological time.
Emerging for the last time around 3 million years ago, the local flora
and fauna has evolved in relative isolation on unusual rock
formations, giving the islands an impressive number of endemic
species, many of which are now seriously endangered.

Gina Ebanks-Petrie, the Director of the Department of the Environment
(DoE), explained that some 46% of Cayman’s native flora is currently
threatened with local extinction. “Despite there being numerous
endemic species and sub-species of animals, only iguanas and non-
domestic birds have any protection locally,” she said.

“Every major decision point introduces the requirement for
notification and public consultation and there is an appeals
procedure,” she added.  “Section 38 provides for judicial review
of any act or omission of the Council, Director or any other persons
involved in administration of the law. There is no provision for
compulsory acquisition of land that is recommended for protection, and
the law provides mechanisms where land can be protected and managed as
protected areas, while still in private ownership. Alternatively, the
law provides means by which landowners may be fairly compensated for
voluntary sale or lease of areas recommended for protection. I see
this as transparent, equitable and forward thinking.”

Some activists have even suggested that the proposed NCL does not go
far enough and would not bring Cayman up to the standards established
by the United Kingdom in Cayman Islands Environmental Charter, signed
in 2001. Well-known local environmentalist, Billy Adam, suggests that
there are too many examples where our natural resources are used
unsustainably, and he raises concerns that even under the law some
exploitation of the environment will still take place in secret. He
also accuses the government of being the country’s worst polluter.

“The government is the largest polluter in the Cayman Islands. The
George Town dump, nutrient laden discharges from the water treatment
facilities and the Cayman Turtle Farm continue to be the largest
sources of land based sources of marine pollution,” said Adam. “These
polluting effluent discharges continue to take a toll on our
economically important natural marine environment. The Law must ensure
that government authorities and departments are in full compliance
with the law or suffer consequences.  If this is not done then
the law will be in violation to the letter and spirit of the
Environmental Charter.”

However, by far the most opposition to the NCL comes not from those
who suggest the law may not be effective enough, but from those who
say it goes too far and will herald in an era of compulsory purchase
in the name of nature and a clamp down on development. One area of
opposition has focused on the requirement under the new law for
Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA).

“As the idea that environmental concerns need to be factored into all
decision making processes is one of the main tenets of sustainable
development, it is difficult to see how it will be possible for Cayman
to achieve sustainable development without the application of such
basic tools as EIA,” said Ebanks-Petrie. “There has been some concern
from individual members of the public that an EIA will be required any
time any animal or plant on any of the schedules is affected by any
proposed development. This is simply not the case. Such a law would
clearly be unenforceable, and would make EIA impossibly onerous for
both compliance and policing.”

She explained that the bill was not about stopping development but
ensuring the environment was factored into future development
decisions. The need to protect everyone’s rights to a healthy,
functioning environment, the retention of unique natural capital and
essential ecosystems, along with the concept of sustainable
development are all accepted considerations in most developed nations.
Moreover, Ebanks-Petrie added, protecting the environment means
protecting the economy.

“Desirable investors like to know that there is a level playing field
and that decision-makers are taking the long-term view. The NCL will
encourage and be good for genuine and beneficial investment. The
general trend worldwide is for property near protected areas or green
spaces to increase in value due to aesthetic and recreational factors.
Current thinking points to a failure to take adequate precautions to
safeguard the environment as one of the main factors likely to
negatively influence the global economy. Under current legislation,
landowners in Cayman have no inherent right to develop their land as
they wish.  If this were the case, a residential neighbour might
reasonably establish a quarry or industrial operation in their own
yard.”

To critics of the NCL who say it will retard development, Ebanks-
Petrie says not only is there more to Cayman than development, but
also that not passing the bill would undermine the economy because
tourism, which is dependent on a healthy natural environment, would
suffer, signs of which, she says, are already apparent.

With so little protection for our unique and beautiful endemic
species, the law cannot arrive too soon for many people, and Ebanks-
Petrie believes that the recent increase in attention that
environmental issues are receiving is a reaction to the sudden
realisation that so much of the environment is so seriously
threatened.

“I think that locally people are starting to make the connection
between the loss of environmental resources and the erosion of the
Caymanian way of life and are becoming more acutely aware of the
pitfalls of not protecting the environment,” she explained, adding
that many were beginning to suffer the direct consequences of
environmental deterioration. However, her major concern is that this
is a reactionary movement rather than a genuine shift towards actively
promoting environmental protection.

“It is not until something is threatened, critically endangered or
lost that it becomes a concern,” Ebanks-Petrie said.” The virtues and
benefits of maintaining a ‘pristine’ environment or common beneficial
resource are rarely considered. For example, it makes more
environmental, social and economic sense to impose a modest limit on a
fishery when that fishery is abundant than a tough measure after the
fishery has collapsed.”

People are becoming aware that their quality of life is directly
linked to a healthy and functioning natural environment because of
triggers such as dust, noise pollution, seasonal flooding and traffic
congestion, but Ebanks-Petrie suggests people are still not embracing
a proactive approach by planning for a better future. “Perhaps there
is a false sense of security in Cayman, due to the early successes of
the Marine Parks Regulations, now some 22 years old, because many
people do not realize that marine protected areas are only one type of
management tool and we need more and better tools to meet today’s
challenges,” she said. “Twenty-two years later, Marine Parks are no
longer a novel measure. The sad fact of the matter is that Cayman has
slipped from being a world-leader, and has allowed other countries and
destinations to capitalize on more innovative and effective measures
to protect and conserve their natural environment, measures from which
they are now reaping the benefits and will continue to do so.”

The tantalizing promise of the NCL also sits alongside another recent
government initiative to include some environmental protections in the
forthcoming Bill of Rights, which will form part of Cayman’s future
constitution. Ebanks-Petrie pointed to some interesting examples
around the world, such as in the British Virgin Islands and South
Africa, where the right to environmental protection has been enshrined
in constitutions. She said the DoE has asked Cayman’s Constitutional
Secretariat to consider whether there is any scope to include
reference to the “precautionary principle”.

“Where there is a threat of serious or irreversible environmental
damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a
reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation,”
she explained. She also noted that the Secretariat needed to look at
whether the concept of participatory and procedural rights is captured
elsewhere in the “rights” expressed, or whether there is a specific
need to include some words about individuals having the right to
meaningful public participation in the decision-making processes as
far as they relate to environmental matters.

The issue of Cayman’s unique environment has gone under exposed for
some time. The recent campaign to save the Ironwood Forest in George
Town did a good job of raising awareness about some of the incredible
species that are found in these islands and their precarious position.
Anyone who has taken the time to explore that tiny piece of natural
environment in the very heart of George Town, which made its way into
the news recently, could not have failed to grasp what it is that
Cayman has already lost.

The forest is home to some 70 native species, many of which are
endemic and some of which are unique to that particular forest. The
beautiful Ghost Orchid, which totters on the brink of extinction,
flourishes only in that piece of woodland and in a small area off the
Mastic Trail. Found nowhere else in the world, experts admit that
little of its life cycle is fully understood, and the future of this
incredible flower hangs in the balance, offering a perfect example of
how easily our bio-diversity is undermined without proper
environmental legislation.

Cayman has for more than three decades worshipped at the alter of
rampant development, and while Ebanks-Petrie and other supporters of
this bill maintain that the law does not mean the end of economic
growth, future development must consider the environment before
everything that is the essence of Cayman, is lost forever.

 

Category: Special Reports

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