Environment Minister Wayne Panton and the Progressives-led government pushed ahead with environmental protection legislation Wednesday, over the objections of some local business organizations and opposition lawmakers.
Mr. Panton said he had heard different calls for delay or even outright denial of the legislation, which has been the subject of public debate, in one form or another, for more than a debate in the Cayman Islands.
“It is pointless from our perspective to take that approach,” Mr. Panton said. “I do not think that it is possible to amend this legislation further without rendering it absolutely useless.
“They’re all in favor of conservation, they support conservation entirely…and then comes the but, but they’re not happy with certain aspects of the bill. For some people, they would cut down an ironwood tree so they can sit on the stump and issue proclamations and speeches about what kind of conservationists they are.”
Debate on the National Conservation Bill, 2013, continued past press deadline Wednesday and it was expected that some further changes to the legislation would be made at the committee stage of the proceedings before the Legislative Assembly.
Among the key provisions of the bill are requirements that the environmental impacts of all national plans, polices, projects and development proposals be considered before any decisions are taken. A 13-member National Conservation Council will be established to oversee the bill and carry out a range of functions, including establishing and maintaining protected areas.
The bill would also give power of arrest to Department of Environment enforcement officers and provides scope for government to draw up protection plans for endangered or endemic species and their habitats.
There are a wide range of species found only on the Cayman Islands, from rare varieties of snakes and iguanas to plants like the critically endangered ghost orchid, currently not protected by law. There is also nothing in current legislation to protect large swaths of environmentally important land, including mangroves.
Mr. Panton was heckled during portions of his debate introducing the bill to Legislative Assembly members by lawmakers on the other side of the aisle when he discussed the proposal as a product of “three separate governments” and that independent members of the assembly had influenced “if not had their comments directly inserted into the bill.”
“That’s not true,” East End MLA Arden McLean stated, interrupting Mr. Panton’s introduction of the bill. “You didn’t, at least not my [comments].”
Prior to the assembly meeting getting under way, North Side MLA Ezzard Miller was privately debating a list of amendments he wished to make to the bill, which were later distributed to the press. Many of the changes proposed by Mr. Miller appeared to seek the dilution of the powers granted to the National Conservation Council in the bill, giving them instead to Cabinet.
Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush has said that, while the debate has been ongoing – and was started under his former administration during 2001-2005 – this particular version of the bill has only been available for review since mid-November. Mr. Bush had previously questioned how the bill would help unemployed Caymanians get jobs.
“Some people in Cayman [are] starving,” Mr. Bush said from across the aisle during a section of Mr. Panton’s debate. “You not starving, but they are.”
Mr. Panton said environmental conservation was vital to Cayman’s economy.
“The conservation of our environment is integral to a successful economy,” the minister said.
“We have moral and ethical obligations….to ensure we leave the best of Cayman, and not just what’s left of Cayman, to our children.”