Constitutional debate neglects environment

| 20/05/2008

By Wendy Ledger

As the officially scheduled public meetings drew to a close last week,
the secretariat representative said that while the balance of power
between the governor and the elected officials and single member
constituencies were often raised at meetings, it was human rights that
was by far the most debated topic throughout the process.

Anyone who has attended the meetings will know that issues regarding
rights of same sex marriage and the freedom to worship have caused the
most consternation.  Although a Bill of Rights is designed to
protect the people from the powers of the state being misused, the
debate here in Cayman has more often than not focused on the idea of
avoiding giving too many rights to the people.

Another interesting element of the debate around human rights has been
the idea of “Caymanising” the Bill of Rights. This has manifest itself
in trying to find a way of limiting religious freedoms for non
Christian faiths and avoiding a situation that would extend any kind
of rights to people that would erode what are considered the tenets of
Caymanian society. The suggestion in the proposed document about
environmental rights, which would be unique to Cayman, has very rarely
come up.

At the second to last meeting held in Bodden Town, Charles Clifford,
Minister for Tourism was asked what ideas the government had
considered for environmental rights and what had come up in the
meetings regarding that subject. Offering an ambiguous response he
said that there were numerous things that could be considered, such as
the right to clean air, and although nothing had been defined he was
certain that environmental issues are much higher on people’s agenda
than they used to be.

The issue of the Ironwood Forest in George Town and the proposed road
development was also offered as an example at a number of meetings of
how the people could instigate a referendum about environmental
issues. The idea has been proposed by government that if petitioner
could get 20% of the electorate to sign up for a people’s referendum,
the government would be forced to put the question to the vote.

However, in light of the support that the campaign to save the forest
has received, the outpouring of shock and grief over the slaughter of
seven critically endangered Blue Iguanas and growing collective
awareness throughout the community about environmental issues, it is a
shame that the forum has neglected the specifics of what shape
environmental rights could take in Cayman’s new Bill of Rights and
lost the opportunity to discuss this crucial issue.

Perhaps, for example, if environmental rights were enshrined, the
Minister would have known from the very start that he could not
propose to build a road through a endangered habitat. Perhaps the
Turtle Farm would be shut down until it found a way to address the
affluent it is pumping in the ocean, not only saving government
several million dollars but also forcing the company to find a
solution instead of carrying on regardless. Perhaps environmental
rights would also have forced the owners of the Dolphinariums to
submit an anti-degradation report before they open the doors of their
facility. And perhaps if we had defined rights to protect the natural
world around us, no one could mow down the protective mangroves no
matter how much they paid or who they paid to do it.

Protecting the people’s right to clean air, non polluted oceans,
preserving the mangroves and endangered flora and fauna in an
enshrined Bill of Rights would ensure that these types of issues would
not be up for debate. While we all continue to wait on the much
discussed, but still not enacted National Conservation bill, and while
the Department of the Environment has been silenced regarding their
feelings about the Ironwood Forest, we can surmise that the
environment does not appear to be as much as a priority for many in
government as we may hope.

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