Monday, October 10, 2011

The Free National Movement (FNM) government and the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) have turned a blind eye to what is going on at Bell Island - in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park - and turned their backs on the Bahamian people ...all for a few helicopter rides, $1m, and who knows what else...


Tribune Staff Reporter

DREDGING around Bell Island must be monitored with urgency to limit the destruction it is causing in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, Senator Jerome Fitzgerald said in a press conference yesterday.

The PLP candidate for Marathon, the seat currently held by Environment Minister Earl Deveaux, cried shame on the FNM government for approving the development in the world's oldest land and sea park.

He also criticised the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) for failing to prevent the development from going ahead.

Dredging is now well underway, and Mr Fitzgerald said 13 acres, or 600,000 sq ft, of sea bed have been excavated from Conch Cut south of Bell Island, to make way for the inland marina, and destroyed the habitat of hundreds of conch.

Measures taken to limit the environmental impact, such as silt curtains, are inadequate, he said, and should be monitored.

"Silt can be seen spilling onto the nearby coral and vegetation lining the sea bed," the senator said. "And there appears not to be a full-time on-site environmental manager. Yet neither the government, nor the National Trust, is taking any action to correct it."

Mr Fitzgerald called on the government to ensure the dredging and excavation is done in accordance with requirements set out by the BNT and the Bahamas Environmental, Science and Technology (BEST) Commission.

An application from Islands of Discovery Ltd, the Aga Khan, to excavate over 12 acres of land and sea bed at the 349 acre island was approved in September last year.

Environmental Minister Earl Deveaux was ridiculed for accepting a free ride in the Aga Khan's helicopter from Nassau to Abaco, and then to Exuma, to do a survey of Bell Island while the planning application was before his ministry.

Conservationists criticised the Bahamas National Trust for allowing the development in the park, and Tribune sources alleged the BNT accepted a $1m donation from the Aga Khan.

"The FNM government and the BNT have turned a blind eye to what is going on at Bell Island and turned their backs on the Bahamian people, all for a few helicopter rides, $1m, and who knows what else," Mr Fitzgerald said before a group of reporters and party supporters at the PLP headquarters in Farrington Road yesterday.

"The FNM has talked about the importance of eco-tourism but instead of preserving treasures like Bell Island for Bahamians, they are allowing foreigners to destroy it."

Images of the 30ft cliff from the inland excavation, and of silt spreading from the dredging of a 14ft channel leading into the yacht basin being excavated from a natural salt pond were shown in a short video featuring interviews with local tour guide Wayde Nixon and activist Terry Bain.

Mr Bain, spokesman for the Save the Exuma Park (STEP) Committee, said the endangered Bahama Duck frequented the salt pond, and that photographs of the birds at the site had been ignored by authorities.

The 176 square mile park established in 1958 has been guarded by the BNT since 1964 and is a strictly no-take zone.

"We believe it is a criminal action for a minister to approve development in a national park in the same way that it is a criminal act to take anything from the park," said Mr Bain.

By putting the environment under threat, Mr Fitzgerald said the development also threatened the livelihood of locals who rely on the park to maintain healthy stocks of fish and conch.

"Bahamians are working on the Bell Island project, but whatever work they are doing is short-term," Mr Fitzgerald said.

However, former PLP MP for Exuma George Smith told The Tribune Prince Karim Aga Khan has been a great benefactor to the local community in Black Point by creating jobs for people of all ages and abilities, and leaving the dredged sand landfill for them to collect. He also pledged to fund the development of a health clinic in Black Point and a new hospital in George Town, Mr Smith said.

"Although some people might not like the dredging, we have to look at the bigger picture," Mr Smith said. "The Aga Khan is not a villain, he's a great benefactor. He has employed a reasonable workforce and he's endeavouring to employ people from Black Point."

But whatever his good deeds may be, they cannot erase the environmental damage, said Mr Fitzgerald. "I don't care how much he spends, or what he donates; no amount of millions of dollars can mitigate the destruction," he said. "There is no way the government should have considered approving this."

Environmental activist Sam Duncombe agreed the damage cannot be undone. She said: "The National Trust should have put rules and regulations in place a long time ago, to warn anybody who owns land in the park what they can and cannot do, and I think the fact that they have failed to do that in 50 years is disgusting. If we can't protect the world's oldest national marine park, then we have failed miserably."

Calls to Gail Lockhart Charles and Co, representing the Aga Khan, were not returned before press time.

October 07, 2011