Environmental campaigners are used to battling to save endangered plants and animals. Now they are being told they must fight to save Cayman’s National Conservation Law.
The legislation, passed in 2013, is already under threat, according to National Trust director Nadia Hardie.
Hardie, who is on the committee tasked with reviewing the law, urged supporters to speak up when public consultation takes place over possible amendments.
“If you miss this opportunity, I think this law is in very big trouble,” she told a crowd of around 60 people at an information session for members at the Family Life Centre in George Town on Wednesday evening.
Former Environment Minister Wayne Panton, who brought the landmark law to the Legislative Assembly in the first place, echoed the call to arms.
Speaking from the audience during a question and answer session, Panton said it was important that decision makers heard from environmentalists as well as developers.
“If you support the law, go out to every one of your MLAs and tell them …. There are many people that will be expressing views to the contrary and we do not want those folks just to have the sway. Express your views,” he said.
The law provides protection for sharks and other endangered species, allows for the creation of protected areas, and ensures environmental concerns are considered in planning decisions.
Developers and government leaders have raised concerns since its inception about its potential impact on infrastructure and development.
Hardie said the level of misinformation surrounding the law was “almost farcical”.
Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Department of Environment, gave a presentation on the law at Wednesday’s meeting in an effort to clear up some of the most common misunderstandings.
She said the conservation council’s powers were actually quite limited.
Ebanks-Petrie accepted it could mandate that environmental impact assessments be carried out for certain major developments, but said this power was used sparingly – in less than 1% of cases. She added that those assessments are advisory and their findings are not binding on government.
Asked about a recent coastal works application to remove sea grass to develop a tourist-friendly swimming beach on Dart-owned land in the Barkers peninsula, she said this was an example of the limited powers of the council and the Department of Environment.
Though the DoE has advised that the plan is unworkable, would have multiple adverse effects and should be rejected, she said Cabinet has unfettered discretion to make its own decision about the application.
Ebanks-Petrie said the review of the National Conservation Law “works both ways” and insisted it was open to people to recommend strengthening the legislation.
She said it was an “imperfect law” that was the result of compromise over many decades that had ultimately required multiple amendments to get through the house.
“Do we think it could be enhanced?” she asked. “Absolutely. It is what it is because that is what our legislators were prepared to accept.”
Amid concerns from the audience that government did not appear to share the concerns expressed in the room for the environment, Hardie encouraged people to lobby their legislators and to hold them accountable for representing their concerns.
“Your MLA is answerable to his constituents first and foremost in a democracy – he or she is answerable to you,” she said. “If not, people have to start voting at the next election for those who do represent their views.”