Activism grows in Cayman

It has been a busy year for petitioners, protesters and politickers in Cayman.

Protests have taken vocal and written form – in petitions, on the radio, in blogs and in letters pages of newspapers – and have manifested themselves in the physical form of public meetings, marches and motorcades.

The issues are diverse and complex and affect a variety of districts and people. They have one common denominator – sustained objections from some quarters of the public.

In Bodden Town, the people are fighting against proposals to create a public dump and waste management facility in their district. The objectors argue that Cayman’s waste issues can be dealt with at the existing George Town Landfill.

The ForCayman Investment Alliance – an entity consisting of the government and the developer Dart Group of Companies – say the George Town facility will be mediated and capped and the Midland Acres site in Bodden Town is a better location for Grand Cayman’s dump.

On another part of Grand Cayman, residents have organised public meetings, a march and a petition to close off a section of West Bay Road and block roadside views of the Seven Mile Beach to make way for a new hotel.

This project is also part of the ForCayman Investment Alliance construction and development plan, which includes the extension of the Esterley Tibbetts Highway into West Bay.

The Bodden Town dump opponents and the West Bay Road closure protestors held a joint motorcade rally through Grand Cayman in March. Eighty vehicles drove through the streets of the Island, beeping their horns and displaying posters advocating their opposition to both projects.

Late last year, the Concerned Citizens Group in conjunction with the Save Cayman Group and the West Bay Action Committee circulated a petition that demanded the governor “preserve the existing West Bay Road in its entirety in perpetuity as public vehicular roadway for the people of the Cayman Islands”.

After the organisers handed the petition to Governor Duncan Taylor, he passed it to Premier McKeeva Bush, stating that the policy on business development was a matter for local government.

Organisers of that petition, which was signed by voters and non-voters, said they had not intended it to be used to call for a referendum on the issue, but to show the large opposition to the project among locals, expats, visitors and tourists.

The 2009 Constitution introduced a mechanism by which members of the voting public can press the government to hold people-initiated referendums.

Using this mechanism, citizens launched a petition calling for a referendum to decide on whether a one-man, one-vote election system should be implemented in Cayman.

The petition called for a November 2012 referendum to vote on switching Cayman’s current multi-member voting districts to single-member constituencies, so the current voting districts would change from six to 18, allowing electors only one ballot apiece.

Before the petition was completed and presented to government, Premier Bush announced that due to the “deepening divide” the issue was causing, a referendum would be held on 18 July. Opposition politicians and organisers accused Mr. Bush, who opposes single-member constituencies, of “hi-jacking” the people-initiated referendum.

Another development that drew the ire and a show of public resistance from residents was a proposed development at Emerald Sound in South Sound. A group of concerned residents, called Protect South Sound, held public meetings, organised a petition and erected roadside signs to object to a proposal, which involves moving a part of South Sound Road further inland, creating a canal system and cutting an access channel through the road.

Not all the battles have been on land or even against government or development plans. At sea, another fight is going on–against an invasion of lionfish. With few public funds so far being pumped into efforts to combat lionfish, which can quickly clear a reef of juvenile fish and pose a threat to Cayman’s dive tourism industry, recreational and professional divers are taking matters into their own hands – with the permission and cooperation of the Department of Environment and the Marine Conservation Board – to hunt and kill lionfish in organised culls and tournaments.

A petition is under way to ban the poisonous herbicide paraquat in Cayman in a bid to protect dogs, which are being poisoned in growing numbers. There has been a history of paraquat poisonings in Cayman for decades and previous efforts by members of the public and vets to stop the sale of the herbicide have failed. The organisers of the latest petition say they will not stop putting pressure on the government to ban the importation and sale of the herbicide.

There is evidence that people power can and has won out. Opponents to at least two major projects in the past year have seen those proposals abandoned in the face of their objections.

An outcry by local sea captains and other members of the public, who formed a group called Save Cayman and organised a petition, over proposed dredging of the North Sound to create a channel for deep draft vessels, such as mega-yachts, led Premier Bush to scrap the dredging plans.

Developer Joseph Imparato also dropped his plans to have a sea port at his property in East End because it had “increasingly [become] the target of considerable political and popular opposition”. Opponents had described the proposal as an excuse to dig a quarry. The site is now slated to be the home of the proposed Shetty medical tourism hospital.

Billy Adam, a seasoned political reform advocate, says the existing system of government leaves little room for the people of Cayman to have a voice, hence the perceived need for public demonstrations, marches and petitions.

“Our system of governance has been one in which you elect people every four years and the only participation the public was afforded was to cast their vote. That spirit still prevails right throughout government. There have been some attempts to chip away at it, but every step of the way, it is a fight to get any participation in governance,” says Adam.

Adam does not describe the reactions of the public to certain projects or proposals as opposition. Instead, he calls it “participation”.

While the provision for people-initiated referendums is enshrined in the constitution, Adam says that it is not an ultimate tool, as the United Kingdom can override decisions made in referendums. “Referendums are not a revolutionary tool, they are a participatory tool,” said Adam.

He says he is seeing more people willing to participate in public discourse and to get involved in public issues. “There is more education, more self confidence, and I see the age of those participating getting younger – they will get more restless.”

He adds: “If shouting and demonstrating… is the only way to bring about change, the only voices that will be heard will be the loudest shouters. I am not saying the loudest shouters are bad people, but there is a chance that the loudest shouters will be the ones that will come to power…

That happens when you don’t have an organised way of participating in governance.”

However, he does not discount the impact of protests and petitions. After all, he says, “The longest journey begins with a thought.”