A new United Nations report highlighting the devastating impact of humans on the natural world should serve as an urgent ‘wake-up call’ to policymakers in the Cayman Islands and across the globe, according to a host of environmental officials, researchers and non-profits.
The UN report warned that up to 1 million species are on the brink of extinction as a direct result of human impacts. It highlighted the loss of natural habitats to development, as well as over-exploitation of wildlife from an ever-growing global population as among the key culprits.
The report called for “transformative change” in the way people interact with nature, and recommended governments look beyond economic growth as a measure of national progress.
Officials and activists in Cayman warn the report has particular significance for these islands.
A number of iconic species found in the Cayman Islands, including hawksbill turtles, Nassau grouper and blue iguanas, are among the most threatened animals on the planet.
But officials say there are hundreds of lesser known species that are also on the brink of extinction. Almost half of Cayman’s 415 endemic plant species are critically endangered, according to the Department of Environment.
Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the DoE, said development represented the biggest threat to Cayman’s natural flora and fauna.
“We can’t fixate on what the most threatened species are because the fact of the matter is that at the rate we are converting natural ecosystems [into urban environments], all our endemic species are at risk,” she added.
She said it was vital that Cayman’s National Conservation Law, currently under review by government, was not diluted.
Fred Burton, head of the DoE’s terrestrial resources unit, said Cayman’s natural world is literally “disappearing before our eyes”.
He said it was essential to act now or risk losing the variety of plants, animals and ecosystems that make Cayman unique.
“If we don’t preserve these areas, they are not going to be there in a heartbeat,” he said.
Guy Harvey, the artist and fisherman whose ocean foundation works worldwide to research and protect sharks and other endangered species, called for urgent action. He said the Cayman Islands needed to slow down its development to preserve its natural beauty.
“The urgency with which we need to act is becoming more and more apparent,” he said.
The UN report, a comprehensive global assessment of the natural world, draws on 15,000 reference sources and was compiled by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
Its release this week comes as the Cayman Islands government begins a review of the National Conservation Law.
Premier Alden McLaughlin has previously highlighted concerns over the law’s potential to delay or derail national infrastructure projects.
Ebanks-Petrie said the environmental impact assessment element of the law – which currently allows the National Conservation Council to compel developers, including government, to fully assess the potential impact of any major project on the environment – was essential.She said environmental impact assessments, a controversial element of the law since it was passed in 2013, were used sparingly – in less than 1% of cases reviewed by the council.
“The National Conservation Law is the only mechanism we have in this country that allows environmental considerations to be integrated into decision-making,” she said. “It is critical that we don’t lose that.”
Despite the bleak global forecasts in the report and local concerns over the conservation law, there is room for optimism.
Projects to revive blue iguanas, sea turtles and Nassau grouper in Cayman have received international recognition.
Cayman Islands Environment Minister Dwayne Seymour said in a statement to the Cayman Compass that government has already acted to increase the size of the islands’ marine parks. He said further policies on plastics and sargassum were being considered.
DoE officials say the marine parks expansion, once implemented, will increase no-fishing zones around the islands to 44% – in line with the targets outlined in the UN report.
This blanket protection of large swathes of ocean is considered crucial to protecting a variety of species.
On land, the picture is less rosy. Around 11% of the Cayman Islands – a combination of land designated for protection by the council and lands held by the National Trust – is currently protected from development.
Burton said the hope was to increase the size and diversity of those protected areas in the coming years. He said protecting a range of environments and ecosystems was the best way to protect the widest number of species.
Burton said the enthusiasm and activism of young people in Cayman and worldwide gave him hope that the changes required to avert the mass extinctions forecast in the report are possible.
He said Cayman was a good place to start.
“We have a relatively small population, a relatively educated population, no wars or serious poverty issues,” he said. “We have got everything going for us to make it happen.”