Big push on conservation law

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The
Department of Environment has begun a concerted campaign to convince the people
of the Cayman Islands to support the long-awaited National Conservation Law.

A
series of district meetings will be held over the coming weeks in which the
Director of the Department of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie and her team will
go through the provisions of the law, addressing objections to it and
highlighting why it is necessary, she said at a press briefing on Thursday
morning.

She
said passing the law did not necessarily guarantee that Cayman’s natural
resources would “survive the onslaught” of development and growing population
but it was a chance to provide Cayman with the “relevant and modern tools” to
protect and conserve the environment.

The
law is entering a second round of public consultation. It had been slated to be
put before the Legislative Assembly last year, but did not get tabled before
the May election.

Mrs.
Ebanks-Petrie said the minister for the environment, Mark Scotland, had said he
hoped to put the law, which was first drafted in 2002 and has undergone a
number of redrafts since then, before lawmakers in September.

The
environmental director said the meetings and the consultations with the public,
developers, quarry owners, land owners and other interested parties were being
held to get feedback and to help refute some of the misinterpretations and misunderstandings
that some people had about the law.

Currently,
Cayman has no laws to protect its lands. Just 0.5 per cent of the Cayman
Islands is legally protected under the Animals Law of 1976 which protects small
areas in which endangered animal species exist. There is also no law to protect
any of the islands’ native plant species. The only other law that protects the
environment in Cayman is the Marine Conservation Law.

Three
areas the Department of Environment is particularly concerned about protecting
is Barker’s, the central mangrove wetlands and the Mastic Trail – none of which
are officially protected areas.

Under
the Animals Law, only endemic birds and iguanas are protected. The National
Conservation Law would give added protections to other creatures such as bats,
lizards and butterflies.

Mrs.
Ebanks-Petrie cited a case from more than a decade ago when German reptile
hunters came to Cayman to hunt and capture local lizards to sell overseas as
pets. “They were not doing anything illegal… it is perfectly legal for
somebody to come here and take the very last green anole [lizard] and sell it
to the pet trade… That is the situation as it stands.” The Germans were eventually
stopped and prosecuted by Customs for attempting to remove the animals.

“If
we don’t protect them, we are relegating them to fossils,” she said of the many
endemic creatures in Cayman.

To
demonstrate the need for the protection of Cayman’s natural habitat, Mrs.
Ebanks-Petrie displayed an image of the western part of Grand Cayman from 1976
which showed 5,330 acres of wetland habitat existed. By 2008, that had been reduced
to 1,826 acres – with more being lost due to the removal of mangrove buffers in
West Bay peninsula since then.

The
Planning Department has what Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie described as a “gentlemen’s
agreement” in which the Department of Environment is consulted on certain
applications, but this is an discretionary arrangement and the Central Planning
Authority is not legally obliged to give information on applications to the DoE
or take its recommendations into consideration.

Under
the National Conservation Law, government agencies and statutory bodies will
have to consult with the Department of Environment.

The
law provides for the establishment of a National Conservation Council to which
applications for development in environmentally sensitive areas must be sent.
If the council deems that an environmental impact assessment is necessary, one
will be carried out in consultation with the public, and the planning
department must take the assessment findings into account. The final decision
on whether a development would go ahead would be in the hands of Cabinet which
is also obliged under the proposed law to take the National Conservation
Council and any impact assessment it carries out into account.

In
the last round of consultations on the law, developers and landowners raised
concerns that the National Conservation Law would prevent or delay construction
and development and prevent the sale or development of private land.

Mrs.
Ebanks-Petrie pointed out that the only land the proposed law covers is Crown
Land and, unlike under the Roads Law, there is no power of compulsory purchases
under the new conservation legislation. Under the law, no private land can be declared
a protected area or buffer zone.

Previously,
some DoE enforcement officers were also special police constables, but over the
years successive police commissioners have taken away the badges and identifications
allowing those enforcement offices to act as special constables. The proposed
law would give back to enforcement officers the right to make arrests and have
the same powers as constables.

It
would also allow the DoE to have fuller access to an Environment Protection
Fund, set up in 1997 by adding an additional fee to Cayman’s departure tax.
That fund, which contains just over $26 million, is part of the government’s
surplus reserve. An additional $4.75 million is forecast to be collected for
the fund in the coming financial year.

A
Conservation Trust Fund would be established under the proposed law, which
would be managed by a board of directors and which would establish criteria to
use the funds, Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie said.

She
urged the public to get involved and let the Ministry of Environment know if
they supported or objected to the law and to attend the upcoming meetings, the
dates and locations of which will be published soon.

The
Department of Environment has published a booklet to explain the law in simple
terms and to answer frequently asked questions. A copy of the law and the
booklet can be found on the Department of Environment website at www.doe.ky.

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Director of the Department of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie gives a presentation on the proposed National Conservation Law.
Photo: Norma Connolly