Sunday, June 21, 2020

Have You Heard about the North Andros Green Free Trade Zone - Proposed by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong?


By: Professor Gilbert Morris
Bahamas National Development Plan
I argued - earlier in a FACEBOOK post by local historian Mr. Ca Newry that before speaking of developing Andros, some regard should be had for our routine of previous project-policy failures across Bahamian administrations. In those projects, we compromised the birthrights of our citizens and future generations.

I argued that Andros should not be an experimental playground, given its strategic and environmental significance, together with its iconic status in this country, constituting nearly 45% of the total land mass of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. I suggested that Andros’ delicate ecology, if mismanaged, could wreck havoc on the interior islands of the Bahamas, whilst I assert in like manner that any potential development must represent an opportunity for the Bahamas to gain a foothold in the global conversations on climatology; from which we’ve been shamefully absent.

The issue of Andros’ development has been as heralded as it has been difficult to execute; as well it should be. Andros, its seems, is the place where projects go to die; for which there is a simple reason: they’ve been the wrong projects, presented in the wrong manner.

The current discussion of Andros arose when it emerged that Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong - a respected international investor and philanthropist - “submitted” a proposal to the government of the Bahamas for a project called: “North Andros Green Free Trade Zone” for the strategically prominent area of Morgan’s Bluff. It is proposed that the project would produce 10,000 jobs, so doubling the population of Andros; not a light consideration.

The Hon. Peter Turnquest MP - Minister of Finance - is reported to have said the proposal had not yet come before Cabinet; which raises questions as to why or how it has become public?

Essentially, the proposal - such as its understood - whilst rumoured to be a port development, is actually a completely new city, (along the lines called for routinely by Mr. Lester R Cox), which includes a port, cruse ship berths, limestone processing, medical facilities, alternative power generation and housing and all the corollary amenities of a cityscape. Therefore, this proposal seeks to transform the face of Andros considerably beyond what has been imagined previously.

Let me make a few final preliminary points:

It is well nigh impossible to discuss these matters in the Bahamas: 40% of persons belong to one political tribe and 45% to the other. 10% don’t care at all and the 5% who care are never heard.

We Bahamians - sadly - in the larger percentages accept any proposals coming from the government they support, utterly blindly. Moreover, when an investment is proposed, all we Bahamians seem to care for is who is close enough to politicians to get a piece of the contracts.

We seem willing to break our islands in half, no matter the consequence, so long as we hear contracts for the politically connected, and jobs for the man in the street.

Finally, those to whom I am known, know well, I DO NOT support or speak for ANY political party. My interest here is not to oppose development in Andros. Rather it is to ensure that any approach to developing Andros is transparent, inclusive and sensitive to Andros’ unique, delicate ecology.

As an economist, former chairman of the Turks and Caicos National Investment Agency and having completed in 2003 the largest ever study on “Shipping and Multi-modal Distribution Centres” commissioned by global investor/project developer Mr. Jim Zenga of StarCapital, the Chinese International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC) and the office of Madam Wu, then the Vice Premier of China, I surmise that such experience provides me solid standing to speak with some insight on this question.

As part of the FACEBOOK exchanges mentioned previously, Miss Myra Farquharson provided a link to a study VISION 2040.  Here I want to link and merge the VISION 2040 with the prospects of Dr. Soon-Shiong’s proposed project.

I reviewed this plan twice now, since having been introduced to its Andros section. The plan is described as: “Vision2040 is an initiative of the Government of The Bahamas, developed in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank and in close cooperation with the College of The Bahamas and The Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation”:

Here are my preliminary observations:

The VISION2040 plan is an excellent piece of descriptive work. It is refreshingly comprehensive in its descriptive scope and is an instructive starting point for any framing of options for development in these islands. It would be wise to have conducted such heuristic treatments of every island of the Bahamas; framing and emphasising the ecology, carrying capacities, preferable densities and infrastructural needs of each island zone, premised upon assumptions of their highest and best land uses for developments, as social theatres capable of enhancing the quality of the lives of Bahamians and our guests.

I focused attention on a special eBook section of the plan, called: “Masterplan for Andros Island”

1. The document - for all its excellent work, is NOT a masterplan and NOT a strategy
document: In the sense that it contains NOT a single point of strategy. It is a work for a pre-VISION. No development could be premised on such a document. Rather, VISION2040 is a perfect tool for setting a national development vision, followed by a master strategic document

2. In fact in several places, in the Andros eBook alone, the document calls for further studies and the cultivation of the very strategies I mentioned above.

3. The document contains some misconceptions (I must confess here that our own distinguished Bahamian Mr. Felix Stubbs - who oversaw VISION2040 - did ask me to meet with him to discuss the plan before its release. Unfortunately, I was in Central Asia for that time and and did not arrive at Nassau before the plan’s promulgation. Had we been able to rendezvous, I am certain these observations would have been made and accommodated. I render them now not to criticise, but to show that the plan is a Vision document and not a strategy).

I emphasise these distinctions so we are clear on what must occur in and for Andros:

The document refers to Andros as an “island”. It is not. Andros is an archipelago within an archipelago. This is crucial for understanding why its development must be approached thoughtfully; avoiding the catastrophic mistakes made in Grand Bahama, which exacerbated the flooding from hurricane Dorian.

The document calls for the establishment of a UOB campus at Andros, once BAMSI gains research funding. As a vision, a UOB presence at Andros is an excellent proposition. But a strategy document would have laid out the roadmap to attain funding, premised on cultivating a value-chain between BAMSI-UOB and the development of Agro-tech. We cannot possibly envision in the 21st century a physical campus, when universities with endowments larger than the Bahamas’ GDP are selling campus buildings.

The document recognises Andros’ delicate ecology, yet calls for an enlargement of conventional farming. A strategy document would have emphasised Hydroponics, as both labour-saving (given the plan’s notation of the small population), and as a cutting edge proposition that limits carbon footprint, whilst maintaining low density development with potentially greater productivity.

The document identifies what we all know, which is that Andros can supply 40% of the fresh water needs in the Bahamas. However, the entire document should have been premised on two points:

That Andros is potentially a “rescue destination”. That is, the land mass of Andros and its geographical positioning, protected by Cuba on one side and the Atlantic Bahama Islands on the other, makes Andros a safe “rescue destination” for a significant share of the Bahamas population in conditions of a national catastrophe where other islands become uninhabitable.

Andros’ fresh water resources are a national treasure, at a time when wars are already being fought (Egypt and Ethiopia for instance) over fresh water. This means, the mangroves, marshes and wetlands of the Andros archipelago are crucial to maintain, and cannot be sacrificed for any development and potential risks cannot be explained away in a few pages of a proposal.

To emphasise the points above: I am certain any competent strategist - beyond what coastal engineers or environmental scientists or geologists would recommend; all of whom I worked with in previous capacities - the strategist working from worse-case assumptions, would advise BANNING all pesticides in farming in Andros, all cesspits or conventional sewerage and all landfills, treating the fresh water as a strategic national asset.

5. Consideration in any strategy must be given since Andros sits on the world’s most politically advantageous and sensitive reef systems (and so is an important fish nursery), which is another leverage-point for participation above-our-weight in the global conversation on climatology. Between this fact, Andros’ foothold in the Gulf Stream and the two points above, Andros’ development must be the most refined, discrete, transformatively sensitive anywhere in the world.

6. A stealth strategic aspect of Andros is the AUTEC Base, and certain undersea exercises that make the potential presence of volume ocean traffic a considerable concern. The base makes the Bahamas part of an American coastal national security network - the most important outside the US on its Eastern seaboard.

7. Clearly the Soon-Shiong team did their research and modelled the concept of their proposal on the Hawksbill Creek Agreement (HCA). Here I speak with an even surer expertise in saying the following:

Constitutionally, it is unlikely that a port competitive with Freeport could be developed without  compromising the Hawksbill Creek Agreement. The Port Authority is a trust capable of binding a sovereign government and not merely a contract or agreement for development as is commonly and erroneously supposed.

The assets held by the Port Authority are not their own according to the agreement. Rather, they are to be returned to a municipality - as Maurice O. Glinton QC has emphases these many years - so that the exclusivities are part of the value which must be returned to the sovereign.

As a commercial matter, announcing the intention to develop a port, means that other port operators take defensive action to offset the prospects of such a possibility. Therefore unless there is an unrestricted book of business, its hard to advance such a notion as a “green-field” strategy. It is notable also that discussions around this idea of such a port for Andros mentioned the possibility of an “entrepôt”.

This is mistaken. Entrepôts are natural port centres between larger trading posts, with significant trade demand in the entrepôt itself: Singapore is ensconced in proximity to Indonesia and Malaysia with its major trade destination as China.

Singapore itself represents a significant demand for its own trade. Therefore, consideration must be given for the triangulation of trade between a potential port at Andros (possibly a break-bulk installation) and the US Eastern seaboard ports like New Jersey, where business volume would be impacted.

8. The VISION2040 plan does make mention of elements of eco-tourism, but does not outline what linkages, or leverage options could generate or contribute to an aggressive development of Andros away from our plantation tourism model or which Dr. Ian Strachan warned in his 2003 book “Paradise and Planation”. Additionally, there at least three endangered bird species whose natural habitats are in the proposed development zone; particularly at Joulters’ Cay.

9. The plan does not address investment models, which leaves us with the old model that has failed so often:

1. Foreign investor, who is friend of a Minister arrives
2. Links up with local oligarchy
3. Ministers  and Prime Minister gives assurances...hangs out at house or on Yacht
4. The usual law firms are retained
5. Minsters’ children, spouse or sweethearts’ family are engaged
6. Political lackeys are promised contracts
7. Investment is approved and yet another plantation emerges in which Bahamians have no equity, gaining mere jobs, subject to the same vicissitudes, the ebb and flow of which is outside our control or influence.

I think Bahamians may agree that this model must be rejected, a new model adopted and that model must  permit development ONLY within the constraints laid out by the VISION2040 document above, subject to a comprehensive strategy that deepens and enriches the intrinsic value and wealth of Bahamian citizenship.

These must include:

a. A comprehensive strategic plan for Andros
b. A Sovereign Wealth Fund, so that there is no direct investment in Andros - given its significance - which excludes the Bahamian people as equity stakeholders.
c. That the water resources of Andros be declared an unimpeachable “National Treasure” and NO DEVELOPMENT - for whatever purpose - should be allowed unless and until it satisfies an independent review that that development does NOT impeach the fresh water resources.
d. All aspects of ANY investment must be fully transparent, rendering ANY development on Andros must be the most “green” sustainable and developed against a 50 year horizon, so ensuring that future generations of Bahamians enjoy this birthright.

The objective shouldn’t be to prevent or ignore Dr. Soon-Shiong’s proposal, but to show ourselves capable of rational deliberation of such proposals against and within terms of our own strategic vision for our country.

Andros is a line in the sand, as its development alters the balance of the Bahamas: either toward a new sustainable model in which Bahamians share in the prosperity, or the old model of plantationism that leaves the many outside looking in on the few, who’ve compromised our resources for a half bowl of stale porridge.