The age old argument of progress versus conservation has played out again and again in the decade-long efforts to establish national conservation legislation in Cayman.
The proposed National Conservation Bill is a long and detailed document. In its most recent publicly available form, drafted in 2010, the bill is 60 pages long.
While conservationists say the law is necessary to protect the environment, opponents of the legislation say they believe it will take away property owners’ rights, diminish property values and reduce or eliminate development potential, as well as give too much discretionary power to the Department of Environment.
The document contains an 11-page list of the animals and plants that would be protected if the bill ever comes to fruition. These list includes endangered species already protected under existing local or international laws and conventions, endemic species that are unique to the Cayman Islands. Some land and marine creatures are already protected under the Animals Law or the Marine Conservation Law.
There is currently no legal protection for any plants in the Cayman Islands, so Grand Cayman’s critically endangered Ghost Orchid, for example, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission named as one of the 100 most threatened species in the world last year, is not a protected species locally.
Since the existing animals and marine conservation legislation was first written in the 1970s, the United Kingdom has signed several international treaties relating to environmental conservation, of which the Cayman Islands has specifically requested that it, too, be a party, such as the Rio Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol (2007) and the Ramsar Convention on the Conservation of Wetlands (1975). However, until a conservation law is introduced, there are no legislative means of implementing those agreements locally.
The only legislation that offers legal environmental protection to land in Cayman is the 1976 Animals Law, which grants protection to less than 0.5 per cent of the Cayman Islands by preserving small areas in which endangered animal species live, and the National Trust Law, which protects 5 per cent of land purchased and managed by the National Trust*. The declassification of the Salt Water Pond on Cayman Brac last year as an animal sanctuary reduced even further the amount of land that is legally protected by government. The National Trust over the years has also purchased land, which it retains and manages as protected areas – this accounts for about 5 per cent of land.
Under the bill, a National Conservation Council would be set up – consisting of 11 voting members, including two from the Department of Environment – to specifically focus on conservation issues in the Cayman Islands.
The council’s tasks would include issuing permits to exempt specific individuals from certain sections of the law (for example, to capture and keep protected animals as part of a rescue programme); issuing licences to grant permission for qualified individuals to perform certain activities covered by the law (for example, to hunt with spear guns); recommending that Cabinet designate certain areas of Crown land as protected zones; and recommending Cabinet grant protected status to certain species.
Despite concerns to the contrary, the proposed legislation has no provision for compulsory acquisition of private land for conservation purposes. Money to buy private lands would come from a new Conservation Fund, which could only be used to purchase and manage protected areas. The law would allow private landowners to designate their properties as nature preservation areas. Only Crown land could be declared a protected area or a buffer zone under the proposed legislation.
The legislation would empower conservation officers from the Department of Environment to have the same power as constables when it comes to enforce the National Conservation Law. Currently, DoE officers have no powers of arrest and must enlist the help of the police to deal with anyone caught poaching or flouting the existing conservation laws.
The law would enable the Department of Environment director to issue cease-and-desist orders to stop unlawful activity, breaches of permits or licences, or halt work by people failing to submit or comply with the conditions of an environmental assessment.
The legislation also has a provision for environmental impact assessment to be done on certain types of developments. As the law stands at present, there is no legal requirement for such assessments. Instead, the DoE can submit recommendations regarding the environmental impact of development of a site to the Central Planning Authority, but the authority is under no obligation to take those recommendation into account when coming to a decision on whether to grant planning permission to a developer.
For the first time, the law would require the Department of Environment to be notified of certain planning proposals, and various local indigenous species would be given protection. Under the proposed bill, the National Conservation Council would have the authority to insist on an environmental assessment study being done to assist other government bodies – such as Cabinet, Central Planning Authority and Building Control Unit – in making decisions on whether or not to allow certain significant developments.
The project applicant would be required to pay for the assessment, which would be performed by a person or company approved by the council.
The need for national conservation legislation was highlighted recently by the international conservation organisation, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, following its analysis of British Overseas Territories’ environmental law. That analysis revealed that Cayman had the weakest laws among the 14 overseas territories in regard to protecting its natural environment.
In that report, the organisation assessed priority policy areas of biodiversity protection and development planning against widely accepted criteria of environmental governance. Cayman, along with the Pitcairn islands, ranked the lowest in terms of species and site protection, development control and accountability.