What will it take?
The recent news of the demise of Cayman’s parrot and the latest revelations that the ghost orchid has been added to a list of the top most endangered species in the world should have been a rude awakening for our environment minister but there is still no news on the national conservation law (NCL). For more than ten years now government has been toying with the need for a law to protect the environment but for ten years it has persistently caved in the face of objections from developers.
During the election campaign the current government promised to enact the law if they were elected, but since coming to office there have been several rounds of consultation but nothing of substance has been done to move what was already a weakened bill along.
Here we are facing the destruction of mangroves on what is now a regular basis, the possibility of dredging for canals from the North Sound to Seven Mile Beach, the constant clearing of land for subdivisions, few if any environmental impact assessments being undertaken even on major protects, and now one of the country’s national symbols is under threat of extinction. But there is still no sign of the law.
In just over six weeks the Bill of Rights which forms part of the Cayman Islands 2009 Constitution will come into effect, which formalises the right of environmental protection and requires government to “foster and protect the environment” and enact legislation to protect the heritage and wildlife as well as the biodiversity of the Cayman Islands, which could see people taking legal action against government in future in the face of any kind of environmental risk.
It now begs the question, what will it actually take to force government’s hand over the issue of the environment and the necessary legal protection?
The reluctance of each and every government to push this legislation through is illogical: their reasons for dallying are essentially economic, but the economic loss to the Cayman Islands in terms of tourism and investors could be far, far greater than the reduction in the currently unchecked development. As the environment diminishes, so will the level of visitors and those willing to come and work on the islands. While a few developers and construction firms make money out of the endless building of apartments, which mostly remain empty as well as unattractive, the entire economy slowly loses out as the beauty of the islands fades.
It must have been said by thousands of people, thousands of times that people chose to holiday or vacation here in Cayman because it is beautiful and different. They do not want a replica of the Florida coast but a Caribbean island; they want natural vistas not views of more condos; they want the sound of parrots not cement mixers, and to see ghost orchids not crotons.
Investors who chose to establish their firms here or the companies that serve them do so because this is an attractive place and some of the world’s best financial and legal minds are willing to come here to live and work because it is so beautiful.
Aside from the risks of losing our tourism product and reducing the islands' attractiveness to those we want to set up shop here because of the government’s failure to protect the islands natural beauty, Cayman is also particularly vulnerable to natural disasters and sea level rises. Not only should our government be going out of its way to pass meaningful and enforceable legislation to protect our own environment locally, our leaders should also be agitating on the world stage for greater environmental responsibility everywhere to halt the potential impact the major economies are having on the planet.
The melting of the arctic icecaps as a result of global warming, which will in turn increase sea levels, is a pressing and critical danger for Cayman and other small low lying islands. We will be among the first to return to the ocean as global warming takes effect, yet we cannot even protect our own mangroves.
The government has so far listened to developers because they have been both successful in spreading misinformation about the impact of the NCL on landowners and because they have applied pressure directly on successive administrations. In Cayman with no real environmental NGOs that are free to campaign and agitate, the needs of the environment are constantly undermined.
While the Department of Environment and the Cayman Islands National Trust have both pressed for the law, as a government agency in the case of the first and an organisation dependent on government funding in the case of the second, neither is in a position to place significant pressure in the way it is required.
Cayman desperately needs to establish a local chapter of either Greenpeace of Friends of the Earth that can fund raise and, more importantly, galvanise the silent majority that supports the law and that can compete effectively for the ear of government with local developers and have the law enacted.
It may already be too late for the ghost orchid and our national bird, and with almost 47% of local plants on the international endangered ‘red list’, time really is running out for many others. But there are some 415 native plants as well as bats, lizards and marine creatures in Cayman, some of which still have a chance at survival. However, that survival will depend on lawful protection, which is the hands of our politicians.
While we all understand that crime, budgets, cruise terminals or deals with the Dart Group may be occupying people’s minds and government’s legislative agenda, without environmental protection it won’t be long before there isn’t a George Town in which to place a cruise terminal or a West Bay road to move.
Cayman’s environment is in serious trouble and the government needs to act. When the election campaign begins next year, every voter should demand to know where potential candidates stand on the NCL and hold those who had the chance to address the issue, but failed, accountable.
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