Landmark environmental legislation under review

Former minister Wayne Panton and developer Gene Thompson on panel

Members of the National Conservation Law Review Committee held their first meeting last week.

A broad committee including developers, environment and tourism officials, legal experts and government leaders has been assembled to review the island’s National Conservation Law.

The landmark law was the first significant piece of legislation passed by Premier Alden McLaughlin’s Progressives government in 2013.

It provides legal protection for endangered species, allows for the creation of protected areas and ensures the environment is factored into planning decisions.

But developers and government have raised concerns since its inception about certain aspects of the law and its potential impact on infrastructure and development.

In a speech to the Legislative Assembly in 2017, McLaughlin announced plans to review the legislation.

He described the Environmental Impact Assessment process, particularly in relation to government road development as “ridiculous”, and said his government would move swiftly to “remove these sort of impediments to the proper development of these islands”.

That process began last week with the first meeting of the NCL Review Committee.

Department of Environment director Gina Ebanks-Petrie, who is on the panel, 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.

Speaking at a separate press briefing last week, she said environmental impact assessments 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.”

The review committee includes a broad swathe of the community and a healthy proportion of environmental officials or groups, including representatives of the National Conservation Council, the National Trust and the DoE, as well as former Environment Minister Wayne Panton, who was a champion of the original legislation.

Also on the panel are representatives of the tourism and sport fishing communities. Gene Thompson, the developer behind Health City, and Christine Maltman, on behalf of Dart Real Estate, are also on the panel.

The DoE provided a presentation on the law to the review committee last week. McLaughlin, in a press statement, reiterated government’s concerns about some aspects of the law and said the committee would be inviting public input.

The committee will meet every two weeks and must submit a report of its findings to Cabinet within a month of the review process ending.

In response to questions from the Cayman Compass, environmental non-profit Sustainable Cayman issued a statement urging that any changes to the law should be to make it stronger.

In the light of alarming new reports on climate change, plastic pollution and biodiversity loss, the group said there was no room for complacency.

“Any review of the law at this time should be aimed at enhancing the law to ensure the best mitigating and adaptive measures are taken to protect Cayman’s future. Small low-lying islands like Cayman are most at risk from the impacts of climate change, coastal erosion, rising sea level, and impending species extinction.”

The statement added that the review could seek to embed the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the recommendations of the recent reports into the legislation.

“The opportunity for sustainable development has passed and with the global emphasis now on habitat recovery and restoration, a national priority should be to update and enact the draft Climate Change policy,” the statement added.

The Compass also reached out to several developers, who either declined to comment at this time or did not respond.

James Whittaker, chairman of the Cayman Islands Renewable Energy Association, said in an email, “There always has to be a balance between development and conserving the natural environment; ensuring Cayman has very robust environmental laws is critical to that. A wise man once said that a society prospers when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit. My hope is that all involved understand that, and we find the right balance.”