Conservation law still up in the air

The state of conservation in the Cayman Islands has been in flux in recent years, as government after government has made promises to enact a comprehensive conservation law that would protect Cayman’s natural areas.

In the most recent development, MLA Ellio Solomon announced on January 14 that the minister responsible for the Environment portfolio, Mark Scotland, hoped to revive the law and get it passed as soon as possible.

The Minister explained that he hopes to set in motion a process that will allow him to table a new version of the bill in the June session of the Legislative Assembly.

“Right now, we intend to start a public consultation process with key stakeholders like the tourism association, real estate association, and the National Trust, then move on to coordinating meetings with the general public.”

Scotland said the previous strategy of tabling what’s known as a green paper did not prove to be effective, as members of the public were expected to peruse the bill on their own and then submit comments.

“That just wasn’t working, it will be better for us to have public meetings on it,” he says.

He says the version of the bill tabled in 2007 will be used as the starting point for comment, which will then be amended as needed before it is tabled.

A major step
If a new conservation is passed into law this time around, it will mark a formidable step in Cayman’s conservation history.

The legislation will replace the Marine Conservation Law (1995 Revision) and sections 66-79 of the Animals Law (1998 Revision), legislation which dates back to the late 1970s.

A white paper on the National Conservation legislation was tabled in the Legislative Assembly in 2002 by then-Minister of Environment McKeeva Bush.

Apparently, no feedback was received from the public.

The current version of the bill was tabled in March 2007 by then-Environment Minister Charles Clifford, at which time it was set to have a period of 60 days for public feedback and discussion before debate began in September.

At the time, Minister Clifford commented that the legislation was long overdue and was “absolutely necessary if we are to introduce some measure of sustainability to our future growth and development.”

Controversy and opposition
However a proposed   Conservation law has not been without controversy. In June, 2007,  a group calling itself the Committee for the Protection of Property Owners Rights and the Continued Prosperity of the Cayman Islands took out full page advertisements in the Compass claiming the proposed legislation will take away property owners rights, diminish property values and reduce – if not eliminate – development potential.

It was reported in our sister publication The Caymanian Compass that the group  claimed the legislation would increase the cost of land development, making home ownership further out of reach for many Caymanians.

It also listed species that will be protected under the proposed law, and said property owners would have to obtain a permit to do anything with property containing any of these protected species.

Department of Environment Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie disputed that claim, explaining a permit will only be required where a development proposes to do something that exceeds what is allowed under a conservation plan developed for the species by the new National Conservation Council.

“The legislation is not about preventing development,” she said at the time.

“What it tries to do is ensure there is a net benefit to projects when everything is considered.”

Ebanks-Petrie said the legislation would have minimal impact on the ability of home owners and potential home owners to develop their property.

She also disputed the claim – made in the advertisement – that government would be able to obtain private property for conservation without providing compensation to the owner, so government could only obtain such land by buying it under regular commercial conditions, she said.

She said the legislation formalises much of the existing development application processes, bringing transparency, accountability and equality to the process.

She said the proposed legislation gives the public more opportunities to contribute to the decision making process.

“This legislation is more consultative than any other legislation I am aware of in Cayman,” she claimed.

The man behind the ads, Justin Woods, a quarry owner, entrepreneur and farmer dismissed Ebanks-Petrie’s comments, saying the proposed law will also increase the cost of land development, driving up the cost of home ownership in Cayman, and go against the Planning Law.

“Which investor would want to buy property that cannot be fully utilised or that is so costly to develop that it is no longer economically feasible to develop?” he asked.

“I don’t think anybody wants more restrictions placed on property. Lots of things are already covered by planning laws,” he said.

Woods also expressed his concern that conservation plans will usher in a brand of DoE driven “environmental extremism”, that provides a backdoor way of taking property for protection, without providing compensation to the owner.

“I am not saying any impediment to development is unwarranted,” he said.

“What I am saying is that there are already restrictions on development; the environment is already taken into consideration and the DoE already get input into plans that are with the planning department.”

What’s next?
After a period of inactivity, in December 2008 Minister Clifford announced during a debate in the Legislative Assembly on Friday that the National Conservation Bill was on the cusp of being tabled to the House, saying he would take the bill to the political caucus early in the new year, and then to Cabinet before tabling it in the Assembly as a Green Paper for debate.

However, nothing was done. With an election looming and other priorities including financial concerns facing government, all was quiet on the Conservation Law front.

With the new Environment Minister now in office for over half a year, the public has been impatiently awaiting news of what’s to come.

The only hope is that this time, things will change. Only time will tell.

Key elements Of the new law:
A National Conservation Council, which will be responsible for the proper administration of the law.

The council will be made up of representatives from the Department of Environment, the Ministry responsible for the Environment, the Agriculture Department, the Planning Department, the National Trust, as well as five people appointed by Cabinet. Two of the cabinet appointees must be from Cayman Brac or Little Cayman, and two must have scientific or other relevant experience.

*The Department of Environment will be responsible for research and monitoring natural resources and identifying and managing protected areas and species.

*DoE enforcement officers will be referred to as conservation officers.

*Mechanisms for the nomination, designation and management of protected areas and species

*Regulatory procedures for the introduction of non-indigenous or genetically altered species of plants and animals.

*Requiring environmental impact assessments under certain conditions.

*A Conservation Fund for acquisition and management of protected areas and species supplemented by fees or fines in respect of licences or penalties under the law. Anyone committing an offence under the law can be fined up to $500,000 or imprisoned for up to four years, or both.

Environmental protection fees, collected through the departure tax and cruise ship arrival taxes would continue and be paid into the Environmental Protection Fund, or the Conservation Fund when necessary.

*Helping ensure Cayman complies with its treaty obligations under international conservation agreements.

The Environmental Charter between the UK and its overseas territories also commits the Cayman Islands to conservation actions, which will require legislative change.