When an English graduate research assistant named Fred Burton, stepped off a plane in Grand Cayman in 1979 looking for a bit of adventure, neither he nor the Island could have had an inkling of the significance the event would have.
Today, the former mosquito researcher has managed to help bring back Grand Cayman’s Blue Iguanas from the brink of extinction, been awarded an MBE for services in conservation of endangered species, and become the inaugural recipient of the Blue Turtle Award for nature conservation in the Overseas Territories and Crown Territories.
But his sojourn in Cayman started much less auspiciously. He was looking for somewhere interesting to complete his graduate work at the University of Cambridge, and was able to secure a position with the Mosquito Research and Control Unit.
“I came from a travelling family, so not surprisingly I wanted to do something other than stay in Cambridge and become an academic,” recalls Burton.
Cayman was certainly nothing like England.
And with only 12,000 people, in 1979 Grand Cayman looked a lot different. “If you were here then and you came back today and nobody told you where you were, you wouldn’t recognize it,” he says.
With his natural sciences background, he arrived with an appreciation for conservation and environmental issues, a view he says not widely popular at the time.
“In those days environmentalist were considered rather as lunatics,” he says.
Burton’s assignment with the MRCU was initially for two years.
“I ended up staying twelve,” he says. Burton rose to deputy director and even to acting director.
While he was studying water levels and mosquito hatching, what he was really interested in, as he puts it, was all the wild stuff around him.
“I always knew mosquito research was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he says.
The “wild stuff” was his inspiration. Burton’s work took him to the mangrove coastal wetlands, marking his first experience of mangroves, and in the dry forest he and his fellow researchers had to trek through to reach the mangroves.
“There was no literature available to tell me what plants were around me, no flora of Cayman,” he says.
“Even the books about Jamaica and Cuba could only help so much as every island in the region is very different.”
He was fascinated, and wanted to learn more.
But something else he noticed was less interesting than worrisome.
“It seemed that as fast as we set up study sites for our research, a bulldozer would come in to build another subdivision or another development,” he says.
“It dawned on me that unlike other places I had been to, I was witnessing acts of deforestation of primary forests right before my eyes, and I asked myself, why are there no protected areas?”
Formation of the National Trust
Burton was not alone in his concerns. He says he discovered a number of like-minded people coming from all walks of life, including the solicitor general at the time and Gina Ebanks, who is now the director of the Department of Environment.
“At the same time there were other people concerned about the destruction of Cayman’s historic heritage,” he says.
“There was no institution there to deal with those issues.”
The joining of forces by these two groups initiated the creation of the National Trust, which was formed in 1986.
“Up until that time I had been noting some special areas throughout the Cayman Islands.
I started to fantasize about how to protect them for future generations, and it really was a dreamworld until the Trust came along”.
Burton got involved early on while still working for the MRCU.
His first task involved some tough fieldwork, taking stock of land in the Eastern Districts the Trust was offered. The land is now the Salinas reserve, deeded to the people of the Cayman Islands.
“Charged with mapping that land, almost at the same time, I was asked to start up the captive breeding programme for the Blue Iguanas.”
Burton recalls his first encounter with the creatures.
Encountering a blue
Conducting a mosquito survey at the property of the late Ira Thompson, Burton walked around the back when a knock on the door elicited no response.
It was then that he literally came eye to eye with his first Blue.
“There was this red eye looking at me out of the darkness. I then realized it was in a cage, and as I peered in I saw this amazing blue creature.”
Burton didn’t even know Blue Iguanas existed.
“I started asking around about them, and started to look for them,” he says.
“In 1988 an English naturalist came over to do a survey of them and he found only two. His report stated the species was at risk of extinction..
Two years later the government tasked the Trust to bring the Blues back, and that’s how it came about that I took on that job, also as a volunteer.”
In the end, Burton left the MRCU for the National Trust. Formerly Environmental Programmes Director for the Trust, in 2000 he took on the role of Director of the Trust’s Blue Iguana Recovery Programme.
But Burton’s work with the Blues is only part of the story. He’s been working on a number of other conservation and environment-related projects as well, and they have him concerned.
He asks people to consider that Cayman’s human population rose from 12,000 in 1979 to above 60,000 today.
“In the early 1990s I ran some numbers. Here in Cayman the population has been doubling every few years,” he says.
“The numbers showed we are on an exponential path to growth. Half of Grand Cayman is already urban or suburban.”
At this rate, in 12 years Cayman’s population will be 120,000, and in 24 years, the population will be a quarter of a million.
“That means, the pressure on Cayman’s environment is not constant, but rather, it’s accelerating,” he observes.
From 1998 to 2000, he undertook a project where he analysed satellite imagery of the vegetation on the three islands to map out the remaining natural forest and shrublands.
The information that came out led to the creation of a red list of the threatened species of the Cayman Islands.
“What I found was that it was almost certain that by the end of the present century, there would be no natural environment left on any of the three islands unless protected areas were established,” he says.
The numbers are troubling. The study found that nearly half, 46 per cent of native plants were at risk of extinction.
“Some people say to me, does it really matter?” he says.
“Some people seem to think that it doesn’t matter at all if we lose our natural areas or if plants go extinct.”
But if an ethical or philosophical view can’t be seen to hold weight in Cayman as a counterpoint to development, Burton proposes another way of looking at the loss of Cayman’s natural heritage.
“We need to look at this possibility economically,” he says.
“For one, anyone the world over who bucks the destruction trend and saves something is creating an attraction.”
But he’s not just speaking in terms of traditional nature tourism, where visitors with binoculars and field guides travel to view exotic plants and animals.
“Some of our plants may be spectacular but the areas they inhabit and the environments they grow in are interesting as well,” he points out.
“And while it may not seem to be so now, but you only have to look at the overdeveloped parts of the world like much of Europe, to see the huge value natural areas have to people.”
“In the future, the value only will go up, and if you squander it now, you can’t ever get it back.”
Fred Burton’s top three environmental issues
“First off, protected areas are fundamental. The National Trust has done a lot but the Trust doesn’t own that land, it is merely looking after it for the Cayman people,” he says.
“Second, we are running an island on conservation laws written in the 1960s,” he observed.
“Just the amount of changes that have taken place since then should say enough.”
He points to the rules surrounding green iguanas, which are protected under Cayman law. But the law exists to protect the Blues, not the greens, an invasive species actually threatening the Blues.
“Are we just going to muddle along with quick fixes and reactionary measures or are we going to introduce some modern legislation?”
The last point applies to policy and legislation.
“I have long felt that Planning are labouring to try and do useful things. There are things they should and would like to attend to but can’t.”
He points to storm water issues.
“The only way we could have avoided the Savannah gully problem if we had the legislation to allow government to bar construction in the gully and let it flow naturally,” he said.
“Our development plan is nothing more than a zoning plan. There have been repeated attempts to revise the planning legislation that keep crashing. The planning process is not working in the favour of Cayman’s natural environment.”
Indeed, he points out that Cayman Brac and Little Cayman don’t even have a development plan.
The bottom line?
“We can’t advance without these three things sorted out.”
Global trends Cayman needs to pay attention to
“There are other things also going on that Cayman has no control over but has everything to worry about, the first being sea level rise,” he says.
The second issue is the island’s dependency on oil imports.
“This island survives on oil, and oil is going to become a limited resource in global development. The rate at which we are using oil and the rate at which we are producing it are not the same.”
Once a tipping point is reached, whether it’s one, five or twenty years down the road, there will be tremendous repercussions on Cayman.
“If we are ever to compete on the global market for our oil supply the island becomes unviable.”