Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Environment Minister Earl Deveaux Free Ride in the Aga Khan's Helicopter Sparks Public Outcry

Free helicopter ride sparks public outcry
Tribune Staff Reporter
tribune242 Insight:

Environment Minister Earl Deveaux emerged from the Aga Khan's helicopter in Marsh Harbour, Abaco, to attend a Friends of the Environment event with the exhilarated grin of an excited schoolboy.

Having taken up Karim Aga Khan IV's offer to travel in the 12-seater AB-139 instead of chartering a flight, Dr Deveaux, his wife, and two friends, were able to ride in the lap of luxury at their convenience, and the Minister would not be late for a land assessment of Bell Island in Exuma the next day.

But as the Aga Khan is the owner of Bell Island who put the development plans in Dr Deveaux's lap, the childlike excitement on the Minister's face, and the front page of The Tribune last week, masked a darker reality.

The extension of such generosity by this enigmatic Persian prince exposed both himself and the Minister to ridicule and speculation over the process of planning applications and approvals.

And when the development is in an area as sensitive area as the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, it is bound to stir the kind of public debate that hit the airwaves last week.

The 176 square mile park is a jewel of the Bahamas and the world as the oldest protected area of its kind, established in 1958, and a flourishing no-take marine reserve guarded by the Bahamas National Trust (BNT).

The Aga Khan bought the island north of Conch Cut and 17 miles north of Black Point last year and has plans to dredge 8.8 acres of sand from the seabed so he can pull into a newly carved marina on his 150ft yacht.

He also wants the supply barge to be accommodated at a 100ft dock, and have slips for 20 vessels in a 67-acre yacht basin excavated in the existing salt pond, as well as roads across the island.

An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on the project was completed by Turrell, Hall and Associates Inc in March, and passed on to the BNT for further input.

But until The Tribune published details of the plans last week, not a word had been mentioned in the public domain.

The developer had paid for the EIA, the Ministry selected the marine and environmental consultants to do it, and the Trust to contribute to the discussion.

All of the correct protocols were in place and the procedures were duly followed, so processes could tick along smoothly, and the developers could quietly move in.

The public were not asked for their opinion because frankly what they think is irrelevant when Bell Island belongs to the Aga Khan, and it is his right to "renovate" it, just as other owners of private islands also have the right to enhance their personal pieces of the country -- including those in the area of the park.

Even the BNT has little say in the matter, according to a statement released by the board last week.

However, it is precisely this top-down approach that raises questions about the possibility for corruption in our planning and development process.

Especially when a billionaire such as the Aga Khan is in a position to woo a Minister in his AB139, and donate $1 million to the BNT. No one is suggesting that this is what happened in this case, but still the perception is there.

Dr Deveaux said: "I do not think a helicopter ride could buy me and I don't think it could alter my opinion."

But his defence asserts one of two things: either it would take more than one helicopter ride to buy him, or he cannot be corrupted.

I am inclined to believe the latter, which is why I think he was dignified in tendering his resignation, which the Prime Minister refused.

But a less noble man in his position surely would not have done the same.

As the Minister himself asserted, he is quite accustomed to travelling in the planes, boats and automobiles of wealthy developers, and being wined and dined at their expense, but he does not let this affect his judgment of planning applications.

He asserted he had travelled to Ginn Sur Mer's Old Bahama Bay development on the Ginn's boat, and saw Baker's Bay from the developer's jet, as I noted how all of the developments he listed in his argument have been approved.

Whether or not he is corruptible, he is vulnerable to speculation of corruption, and that is reason enough for a major change to be introduced and introduced now.

PLP MP Fred Mitchell suggested Cabinet ministers and government departments are provided with their own fleet of air and watercraft to transport them to far-flung sites across the islands on time, avoiding safety issues, or perceived cosiness with developers.

However, Freeport attorney Fred Smith, QC, advocates a change of the law.

He has been pushing for an Environmental Protection Act, and a Freedom of Information Act, to establish an independent Environmental Protection Agency that would facilitate EIAs, provide access to planning applications, and ensure there is full and proper public consultation over all plans submitted to the Ministry.

Such a system would protect everyone's best interests as residents, businesses, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and all other interested parties would be involved in the debate long before the diggers break ground.

As the lawyer representing Responsible Development for Abaco (RDA) in the request for a Judicial Review seeking to stop work at the $105 million Wilson City power plant, Mr Smith showed how BEC had gone ahead with clearing land, paving roads and building the power plant before they even had all the necessary building permits in place.

Although Supreme Court Justice Hartman Longley dismissed the Abaconian's request on Thursday, he at least acknowledged they had genuine reason for complaint.

The public was not aware of the power plant plans until work started, and when BEC finally agreed to hold a public meeting on the matter it served little purpose other than a place for hundreds of angry Abaconians to vent their anger over being so left out of the critical development of their island.

In that case, as with almost every other, communities were disregarded in the planning process from the beginning, as plans received or conceived of by government departments are assessed and approved from the top down, leaving the people demoralised and devoid of power.

A modified Local Government Act and Environmental Protection Act would allow communities to plan developments five, 10 or 20 years in the future, and create a sustainable model that benefits everyone.

Town councils would have more power to draw up bye-laws for their unique communities, impose local taxes to fund local projects and represent the community in national discussions about the development of their island.

"That's what's called decentralisation and democracy," Mr Smith said.

"And in our geographically fractured nation devolution of power is so necessary.

"It will help the Bahamas develop its marine and land resources in a sustainable manner.

"Because it may be that the people in Exuma have some idea about whether the Aga Khan should be able to proceed."

But when it comes to development in the Bahamas, "the rule of the people" defined by democracy is far from the process of granting planning approval.

We leave such matters in the hands of Ministers and wealthy developers, and when projects are approved, we are only left to speculate over what really happened.

"The current construct lends itself to conflicts, not necessarily intentional or intended, but it just does," said Mr Smith.

"And that's why I have been promoting a more transparent and accountable process, an objective process, which protects the Trust, protects the Minister, and protects the government agencies from the kind of criticism that can be made against them in this case."

Sharing the power of choice in a transparent planning process, which welcomes public consultation, would eradicate that speculation not only in principle, but also in practice.

Planning meetings were the bread and butter of the local newspaper I worked at in East London, England, as development plans ricocheted through the communities causing a stir for all who live and work nearby.

Residents and business owners were invited to view plans for around six weeks before they came to the local government council planning committee where they were debated in a lively public meeting that often continued until the early hours of the morning as everyone was invited to have their say.

Each interested person was invited to speak for three minutes about why a Victorian family home should not be converted into flats, why there should not be another generic block of flats built on what little green land they had left, or why the next door neighbour should not be allowed to extend their home into their own back garden or onto a third floor.

And as the plans were considered from all angles, when they were finally rejected or approved, those in protest at least felt they had been heard.

Development affects everybody, and it is a contentious issue in any community, but even more so in land-starved areas such as London, or ecologically precious areas in the sought after islands of the Bahamas.

Some areas need to be preserved for their environmental benefits, as in the national parks, and some need to be developed to create jobs and keep the economy afloat.

But there is only so much land to share; and in a democratic society, the people should really at least appear to have a say in what gets done.

"If we had an Environmental Protection Act and a Freedom of Information Act, we would at least have a measure of comfort that people can't sneak in the back door and start depleting our resources," Mr Smith said.

"I remain sceptical of private developers approaching the government quietly and the government and Cabinet quietly approving in principle or signing Heads of Agreement or making other non-disclosed arrangements with private developers before the public becomes aware of it.

"This is a continued recipe for disaster.

"This is what caused all of the controversy in Baker's Bay, Bimini and all other places in the Bahamas, including the Ginn project in Grand Bahama.

"I am also told there are several projects planned for East End that lies deep within the bosoms of the Cabinet and none of the citizens of Grand Bahama have any idea of what is being planned for our island communities

"If the Environmental Protection Agency could be isolated from political influence by the Cabinet or ruling party, you would have some kind of check and balance from the kind of incestuous inflection which exists when private developers make their clandestine approaches to government for approval in principle, because once approved in principle, then every government agency simply has to rubber stamp whatever is made.

"You don't just do an EIA to rubber stamp a project.

"Because the developers, like a cancer, are going to eat up every pleasant and unique environment that we have unless we manage it.

"And the only way to manage it is for all vested interests to be a part of considering what's happening."

The change would mean it is not just the Minister and his staff deciding whether the Aga Khan can put a development in the national park, and the issue of him flying around in his helicopter would not arise, because he would not be in that position.

There would instead be independent environmental and planning agencies, not beholden to the executive, making the decisions.

And if such agencies are not established in a new legislative framework soon, the Bahama islands and the resources we all share will gradually disappear in a method that is beyond our control, as those who can afford it break off pieces of our finite islands for themselves and leave the Bahamian people with fractured fragments of their country and no explanation about what happened, and where it all went.

September 20, 2010

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