A heated debate took place at the Bodden Town Civic Centre Tuesday night over the proposed National Conservation Bill.
The second in a series of district meetings on the controversial bill drew a crowd of close to 50 residents who turned out to hear Environment Minster Wayne Panton and Director of the Department of Environment Gina Petrie-Ebanks explain the bill and answer questions.
For many of the attendees, the most contentious issue was the potential impact the bill may have on land ownership. Residents said they were concerned the proposed bill might be used to seize private property for the purpose of environmental protection.
The discussion sparked raised voices at times, with some residents wanting answers right away about whether land they owned would be affected by this new bill, should it become law. One resident said the audience was willing to keep Mr. Panton and Ms Petrie-Ebanks all night if that was how long it took for them to get answers.
Tuesday’s turnout was in stark contrast to the small audience at the first meeting, held in West Bay, which attracted fewer than 20 people. And while most of those at the West Bay meeting supported the bill, a vocal majority at Bodden Town were opposed to it due to concerns about the impact they believed it would have on land ownership rights.
After discussing the bill and taking questions for more than two-and-a-half hours Tuesday night, Mr. Panton said he would be happy to meet local residents at a later date – or else they would be there all night.
Some individual land owners were concerned that privately owned wetlands would end up in the hands of government and the National Trust for the Cayman Islands. One resident said he was not against the conservation bill but was concerned that the bill would lead to compulsory acquisition of private land.
Section 41 of the conservation bill also came under heavy fire by the residents, with most saying it should be taken out.
That section of the bill states that in relation to a protected area or a critical habitat of a protected species, “the [National Conservation] Council may, having regard to all the material considerations in this Law and regulations made under this Law (a) agree to the proposed action subject to such conditions as it considers reasonable, in which case the originating authority shall ensure that the proposed action is made subject to such conditions; or (b) if the Council considers that the adverse impact of the proposed action cannot be satisfactorily mitigated by conditions, the Council shall so direct the originating authority and that authority shall refuse to agree to or refuse to proceed with the proposed action.” The section also stipulates that anyone aggrieved by a decision of the Council under that section may appeal against it to the Cabinet.
“I hope the bill will not infringe on the rights of the Cayman Islands people,” said resident Emile Levy. “Government should not force people to sell. I understand we need to preserve many species for future generation, but at the rate it is going, most of it is already being sold.”
He also suggested making the much talked about proposed Bodden Town dump site in Midland Acres into a protected property.
Residents also wanted clarification on the Caymanian species being protected and questioned the scientific names of the protected species listed in the bill, saying there were many they had not heard of.
“As we know every plant in the Cayman Islands has a Caymanian name that we could actually refer to as that,” said Bernadette Bodden. “I cannot even pronounce the names that are listed here … can anyone enlighten me, please?”
“They are plants,” said Ms Petrie-Ebanks, before she was interrupted.
“Those Caymanian names do not exist, so what are they?” enquired Ms Bodden. “I know of Caymanian names listed like the ‘black sage’ and ‘mastic.’ We don’t know what these are,” she said, indicating the names on the list.
Christine Rose-Smith, a volunteer with the National Trust, attempted to clarify the listed species by explaining the scientific spelling, with the plants having recently been discovered as being endemic to the Cayman Islands.
This provoked another volley of questions and answers as residents asked why pictures were not displayed and who was to say that these species did not already exist on their property.
Mr. Panton sought to clarify the issue of private land ownership and the impact the bill would have on that. “Your land is not protected land unless you sell it to the Crown and the Crown then decides through the recommendation of Cabinet and public consultation. That is the only way it becomes protected property,” he said.
But Ms Bodden said it was her understanding that land could either be purchased or gained through compulsory acquisition by government.
“It is rather unfair for a council to put in place or tell us what we can do or can’t do with property that has been inherited or purchased,” said Ms Bodden.
She said the point was to let people be more aware of what is happening. “Right now, you are withholding information, and we should have the option of seeing where these areas are.”
Ms Petrie-Ebanks insisted they were not withholding information and gave answers according to what the bill says.
Mr. Panton added, “The National Conservation Council can identify areas that may be worthy of being made protective areas.
In addition, the people can equally make recommendations to the council, and once the National Conservation Council thinks that a piece of Crown land should be protected, that recommendation then goes to Cabinet.”