Nearly $50 million collected from tourists in environmental taxes will finally be available for conservation projects under provisions in the new National Conservation Bill.
The law establishes a mechanism for the Environmental Protection Fund, which was established in 1997 but has barely been used, to be made available to the new National Conservation Council.
John Bothwell, the Department of Environment’s senior research officer, said it could be used to purchase land and to help conserve protected species and critical habitats. He said the council could also enter into agreements in which landowners are paid not to develop – with the council essentially renting the land to conserve it.
It has previously been suggested that the fund was being frozen to enable government to meet is obligation to the U.K. to have a certain amount of cash in reserve. But Finance Minister Marco Archer insisted earlier this month that the fund cannot legitimately be used for this purpose.
The projected balance of the fund by the end of the 2013/2014 fiscal year is $47 million.
The money, collected in the form of a departure tax on users of the Cayman Islands airports and cruise ship terminal, is ring-fenced for conservation projects under its originating legislation.
It has been used in the past for projects including a parrot reserve in the Brac and to purchase land in Barker’s Bay, but also, controversially, for infrastructure projects and hurricane recovery efforts. The vast majority of the money, however, remains untouched in government coffers.
Mr. Bothwell said the new law establishes a clear and accountable process for utilizing the fund.
The National Conservation Council will be charged with producing a list of potential projects, in consultation with the public and environmental groups. They will then have to apply to Finance Committee to sign off on the release of funds.
He said, “For example, if a piece of private land is proposed as a protected area, and accepted after consultation, the landowner is willing to sell and a price agreed, the council would propose that the money is budgeted from the Environmental Protection Fund to buy the land.”
The council would have to demonstrate good value for money and that the land would be used for conservation purposes before the cash was released.
Under current legislation – the 1976 Animals Law and the National Trust Law – less than 6 percent of land in the Cayman Islands, including mangroves and wetlands that are home to endangered and endemic species, is protected. The new law, and the fund, would empower government to broaden that protection.
The 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 with the council. Mr. Bothwell said this would allow conservation officers to use their expertise and their cash to assist the landowner.
“If, for example, someone owns a piece of land with a nice pond on it that they haven’t developed because they like looking at the birds that use it, they could enter into a conservation agreement with the council that it becomes a protected area…
“The council doesn’t need to pay them anything but takes over the maintenance costs, such as fences and clearing garbage from the roadside.”
He said there were low costs and low restrictions on both sides. In some instances, he said, landowners could be paid not to develop.
“In the case of people who just have land they haven’t developed yet, we expect, from a practical perspective, that we’ll have to pay them some money under the conservation agreement for them to not develop their land.”
The National Trust could also enter into conservation agreements with the council to add an extra layer of protection to their land, said Mr. Bothwell.
“The conservation agreement is perfect for them, and anyone else, who wants to keep ownership while having their land be preserved for conservation purposes as a protected area.”