Panton: No more time on conservation bill

‘What is the rush?’ McKeeva Bush asks

Environment minister Wayne Panton politely said “no” Tuesday night when East End residents asked him to give people more time to study the proposed legislation for a National Conservation Law. 

“We’ve been talking about this for 10 years,” he pointed out. “We’ll talk about it for another 10 years if we don’t do something.” 

Mr. Panton said other countries have conservation laws with real teeth, but in Cayman, as a result of compromises to get support, the bill had gone “from 10 claws to half a claw.” 

The request for more time was made at least three times from different areas of the 50-member audience at the William Allen McLaughlin Civic Center. 

Meanwhile, at a public meeting in West Bay the same night hosted by McKeeva Bush, the opposition leader echoed those sentiments, saying the proposal had seen a number of iterations in the past decade and, while the debate over environmental protection has generally lasted for quite some time, it was disingenuous to pretend that the current proposal has been out for public review longer than a few weeks.  

“There is room for conservation. We support that,” Mr. Bush said. “But [the bill] is being rushed.”  

“[The Progressives-led government] has been there six months. What is the rush? At this time of year, they need to be out looking [for] Santa Claus.”  

At the West Bay meeting, attended by 50 to 60 residents at John Cumber Primary School hall, Mr. Bush reviewed the history of the National Conservation Bill. The first proposal failed to come before the Legislative Assembly in the UDP government’s first term between 2001-2005. A second draft bill produced by the People’s Progressive Movement in 2005-2009 never made it to the LA. A third review process, started by the second UDP government between 2009 and 2012, “never went anywhere.” 

By rushing the latest proposal through, Mr. Bush said, the Progressives government has a piece of legislation that is “lacking in good protection and far too restrictive in other areas.”  

“The current bill will inhibit economic growth, and this will only be … exacerbated by the main powers being vested in persons who were not elected to office,” Mr. Bush said. “Rather than clearing the red tape to allow local entrepreneurs to succeed, this will simply create more obstacles and cost to everyone.”  

Mr. Bush spent a good deal of time Monday night denouncing the bill’s proposed creation of a National Conservation Council, which has a central mandate of creating an environmental review process for development projects and advising the Central Planning Authority on those plans. Mr. Bush said the council would be “an all powerful board” and that five of the 12 voting members would be civil servants.  

The broad powers granted to the board are “very subjectively defined,” according to the opposition leader, who intimated that one of his major difficulties with the proposed legislation is not what it says, but what it doesn’t say.  

“The power of the law is in the interpretation of various sections,” Mr. Bush said. “The interpretation of the law is what will make possible … severe impacts on people’s property.”  

Back in East End, community worker Delmira Bodden reminded the audience that East Enders had cooperated in discussing marine park designations with members of the Department of Environment. She drew the first applause of the evening when she said, “People do not understand the laws that are governing them … The people of this country deserve respect … Can you give us more time with this document, because we are not really in tune with it.”  

Mr. Panton explained that marine parks could be specific to the different districts, but the laws are general principles, so there could not be one law for East End and another for the rest of Cayman. 

Bernadette Bodden identified herself as an owner of hundreds of acres of land and noted other several people present who also own large parcels in Bodden Town, East End and North Side. “We are good protectors; we are natural conservationists,” she said.  

“The only endemic species not protected is Caymanians,” she asserted, endorsing the request for more time. “What’s another six or eight months?”  

Tourism-related businessman Steve Broadbelt, referring to the fact that the need for a national conservation law was identified in 1997, said, “If I took 15 years to get a job done, I’d be fired or out of business.” He pointed out that there had been public discussion, and legislators would be debating the bill shortly. “Please continue and pass this law,” he urged Mr. Panton. 

East End MLA Arden McLean emphasized that he was not trying to stop a conservation bill, but “It must be done the right way.” 

Attorney Sammy Jackson said he was interested in not passing legislation that is fatally flawed. “If you think this can withstand judicial scrutiny, go ahead and pass it,” he commented. 

Mr. Jackson said the bill requires serious amendment, especially Section 9 about acquiring private land and Section 41 about obligations. 

Mr. Panton said land would not be taken through the land acquisition process. 

Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Department of Environment, restated what Mr. Panton had said earlier in the evening, when he announced a change he would make in the bill: When a land owner will not agree for the land to be acquired and will not enter into an agreement for its conservation, the proposed National Council shall not make a recommendation to Cabinet regarding it. 

Mr. Panton also agreed to discuss with the attorney general – again – two aspects of the enforcement section that concerned members of the audience. One is the phrase “hot pursuit” in the context of a conservation officer being able to enter and search a premises when the officer reasonably suspects that a person has entered it after committing an offense. 

The other situation has to do with a person passing through a protected area while in possession of a specimen; he “shall be deemed, unless he proves otherwise, to have taken it within that area.” 

The minister said no legislation is perfect, but he was not going to accept that the present bill represented the worst possible drafting and that the whole bill needed to be condemned. 

The bill is expected to be brought before the Legislative Assembly Wednesday.