The proposed National Conservation Law includes a provision to establish a conservation fund that would be used to protect lands on which endangered and endemic species exist.
Section 40 of the draft bill relates to a conservation fund “to be used for acquisition and purchase of managed areas and for measures to protect and conserve protected species and their critical habitat”.
The money in that fund would be managed by a government-appointed National Conservation Council, which would also be set up under the proposed law.
The fund would hold money paid as fees, fines, compensation and costs imposed for offences under the proposed law, as well as grants or contributions from individuals or organisations. It may also incorporate another fund, called the Environmental Protection Fund, which was set up 16 years ago to purchase and protect land for conservation efforts, but has rarely been used for that purpose.
The existing Environmental Protection Fund has more than $43 million in its coffers – money raised from fees levied on the more than 1 million tourists who come to Cayman via the airport or cruise port every year.
The fund was established in December 1997, with the intention to protect lands, such as mangrove wetlands, by buying them from landowners at market prices.
Although a small amount of the cash in the fund has been used to buy land in Barkers in West Bay and for the Cayman Brac Parrot Reserve, the vast majority of it remains untouched in government coffers. It is counted in the government’s overall reserve in its annual budget and its annual interest goes into the government’s general reserve. Its money has been spent on infrastructure projects, Hurricane Ivan recovery works, roads and operational costs for the Department of Environment and the Department of Environmental Health.
The original intent, when the Environmental Protection Fund was set up, was that it would be managed by independent trustees, but instead it remains under the control of government.
Either fund could be used to expand the tiny proportion of land that is legally protected in the Cayman Islands. Although the Marine Conservation Law offers protection to certain marine sites, the only legislation that protects terrestrial land in Cayman is afforded by the outdated Animals Law and legally protects just 0.5 per cent of the Cayman Islands in which endangered animal species exist and the National Trust Law which protects 5 per cent of Cayman’s land owned and managed by the National Trust*.
The failure to use the Environmental Protection Fund, which receives between $4 million and $5 million annually, for the purpose for which it was established has raised concerns by the Auditor General’s Office over the years.
One of the first transfers from the fund came in its first year of operation when 18 government capital projects were funded by $1.7 million from the environmental fund, but only three related to environmental protection.
Meanwhile, as the fund continues to grow, the Department of Environment and the National Trust rely on overseas grants and donations for many of their conservation projects.
The absence of a national conservation law in the Cayman Islands has had a knock-on effect on the granting of overseas funds for local projects. For example, the UK’s Overseas Territories Environment Programme turned down a request for funds from the Cayman Islands Department of Environment to help protect the endangered Cayman Parrot, citing the lack of a comprehensive conservation law as the reason. In a response to the request for a grant, the Overseas Territories Environment Programme stated: “The panel liked this strong proposal, but felt that without a conservation law being in place, it would not be worthwhile to fund the work.”
The National Trust also reports that in some instances, when applying for grants, it is asked why it needs funds when Cayman already has a rich Environmental Protection Fund of its own.
Following a recent survey by the National Trust, which showed that the vast majority of respondents – 97 per cent – did not think Cayman’s environment was adequately protected, the Trust again urged government officials to release funds to the Trust from the Environmental Protection Fund.
“We hope the next government will take heed. Those funds would go a long way toward supporting our efforts to establish a system of protected areas that will ensure the long-term survival of Cayman’s unique plants, animals and habitats, some of which are not found anywhere else on earth,” said Christina McTaggart, the Trust’s executive director.
The proposed National Conservation Law does not contain any provision that could force the compulsory acquisition of private land for conservation purposes. Landowners who do not wish to sell their land to the government but would like to see it protected can enter into a conservation agreement directly with Cabinet. The conservation agreement would essentially be a government-financed lease agreement that could be permanent or for a specified period of time.