Thursday, October 24, 2013

Why the hell would Eli Fuller want cruise ships coming to Barbuda?

As many of you may know or would know just from reading through the years of blog posts below this one, I am very concerned about ecology and conservation. You would also know that I have spent huge amounts of time in Barbuda enjoying the most natural side of our country that anyone can find. Some of my first steps were taken on Barbuda's beaches and some of the my first sights underwater were seen on Barbuda's reefs. I have camped countless nights in the most remote places around Barbuda's coastline since I was a child and still do to this day. Like many others, I would selfishly like Barbuda to remain an undisturbed ecological gem but while we have been holding on to that unrealistic pipe dream, change has come to Barbuda and huge changes are on the horizon.

When I was a little primary school kid my father and his brother would take me and my cousins and brother to Codrington to stay in small rented houses often without running water or electricity. We would walk to one of the wonderful bakeries in the morning for bread and would go to Carter Nedd or Burton for other supplies. In those days there were very few vehicles and no paved roads there. We would go by "Bully" to get gasoline for whatever vehicle we managed to rent or get over to the island. I used to love the smell of the syphoned gasoline. Bully would sell by the container full and would syphon fuel from the metal oil drums which were stored outside his home.
Half of the time we would have flown in to hunt for migratory duck and the other times we would be there to snorkel and fish off the beaches.

I'll never forget how strange it was to be walking though Antigua's airport with shotguns on our way to the plane. Of course, in Barbuda we would have to make sure that the animals were chased off the grass air strip before we landed. There was never any officials at the airport that I can remember.

From the age of about ten we started going to Barbuda by boat for a week at a time during any public holidays. My family never did any other vacation other than going to Barbuda. Spanish Point, Welches, Two Foot Bay, Cedar Tree Point, Hog Hole, and Fishing Creek were our Disney World.

Morris Nedd, known to me as "Tumoch", would always accompany us on our adventures. Vernon Joseph was often with us too. We would often spend a week there without seeing any other Antiguan or Barbudan people. It was simply that remote and that natural teaming with wildlife above and below the waterline. A secret undisturbed paradise is what Barbuda was to me growing up, and that is how I imagined it would stay forever.

I don't have to go into all the changes that have taken place since my first visits there in the seventies but you can imagine for yourself. 230 acres of land was leased to build a small hotel called the K-Club. Palmetto Point hotel was built on 164 acres. Then the Lighthouse Bay hotel was built on 140 acres. Lighthouse has plans to develop along an area which may have the highest concentration of Hawksbill Turtle nests in the Caribbean. Here is an example of what they plan to build in the near future.
As you can see, they have already cleared plenty of the natural vegetation in the image below:
You can read more about their plans on this link.

Some of the other proposals are way bigger and would have much more of an impact on the ecology of the island and everything else that some of us have loved about Barbuda since we were kids. I was told of one proposal recently by a member of the Barbuda Council which would have had the entire east coast leased indefinitely to an entity supposedly connected to the Qatari Fund. There have been two groups of separate Chinese investors visiting Barbuda in recent months who were looking at areas of possible investment in connection with the Citizen By Investment Program (CIP) and I strongly believe that Barbuda is on the verge of a huge change. This change may be good for some and not so good at all for others. Those of us that want Barbuda to remain natural have to understand that the people that live there are tired of being the "forgotten" sister who begs for handouts from Antigua in order to sustain herself. Things are rough in the island's only village and most people there are without work. Unemployment and poverty have started to take their toll in every aspect of life there on the island, and anyone who thinks that things will remain the way they were in the seventies is fooling him/herself. 

Up until now, I haven't said anything about sand mining in Barbuda either, which to be quite honest is how I became involved in trying to bring cruise ships to Barbuda. This article from IPS kind of explains how I got involved. Click here for more
Here is a quote from that article: 

"Calling large-scale sand mining a “destructive and irrational practice”, Eli Fuller, a marine environmentalist, offered alternatives means of income for Barbudans, including light tackle and deep-sea sport fishing. Fuller added that cruise tourism could also be a source of income. “Many of the ships visiting some of the Caribbean’s most celebrated destinations anchor offshore and tender their guests to little docks on the mainland,” he said. “Without any significant investment, this could happen in Barbuda almost immediately. One or two small ships a week could provide significantly more employment than the entire mining industry does in Barbuda,” Fuller added."

According to the Antigua Observer 28/6/12, "Sand mining, which began in 1976, generated around $5 million in revenue annually for the council."
Thousands of barge loads of the most perfect white sand have left Barbuda since I was a kid despite every warning and every bit of expert advice from scientists and engineers saying that this was a bad idea. There have even been legal decisions which supposedly would have ended sand mining in Barbuda and those have been ignored. The local government has even made decisions time and time again to stop mining, but despite all of this barge load after barge load filled with 200+ 20 tonne truck loads of sand leave Barbuda each week. Check this report from 2006 where they made another decision to stop. 

The little money that Barbuda receives doesn't equate to the huge damage that is being done to the island, but they just don't yet have an alternative means of getting income for the council's bills. 

Everyone is entitled to his/her own opinions, and I for one think that building concrete hotels and luxury villas all over Barbuda is the wrong path to walk. It's my opinion that Barbuda's value is today and will always be highest if most of the island remains undeveloped. Think of St. John, USVI for example. If the goal is to help the economy and to get rid of sand mining and other very destructive economic practises (unregulated fishing comes to mind) then it needs to be something sustainable, something that doesn't rely on huge capital investments, something that doesn't leave a mark when it's time has come and gone. Remember that Sustainable Development which is something that we are all supposed to be striving to adhere to refers to (wikipeia quote) a mode of human development in which resource use aims to meet human needs while ensuring the sustainability of natural systems and the environment, so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come.

This is why I suggested cruise tourism as a alternative. There are islands up and down the Caribbean that are smaller than Barbuda and have smaller populations than Barbuda has, that receive regular scheduled cruise stops. I went to one of them recently in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Mayreau is 1.5 square miles and has been receiving cruise ships for twenty years. They use a little wooden dock to receive guests via tenders lowered from the cruise ships moored off shore. The very simple and profitable operation can be seen better through the Wind and Sea website here. You need to click through to the cruise ship section and the island of Mayreau. Have a look to see how simple it is. This tiny tiny island takes a maximum of 2000 guests to their very basic facility on Saline Bay. From there excursions are staged to one of the Caribbean's best Marine Protected Areas, The Tobago Cays. One day, if we are lucky, we here in Antigua and Barbuda will have a marine park as well managed and as rich in sealife as the Tobago Cays!

Of course, this is just one of many ecologically sensitive places that ships visit. The perception that ships are destructive monsters that blaze a trail of environmental catastrophe in their wake is not accurate in 2013. Things have changed and more and more eco sensitive areas are receiving ships in order to provide alternative means of income to their residents. There has to be a balance and after seeing how Antigua's hotels and tourism developments have damaged the environment over the years and as recently as this month, I am more convinced than ever that carefully managed cruise tourism can have a lower environmental impact that traditional hotel developments.

I met with the cruise agents responsible for managing the cruise ships stops on Mayreau and it was interesting to note that the only thing that is left on the island is cash and footprints in the sand. Everything else is taken back to the ship. Compare that to a hotel... I know we need both forms of tourism, but dismissing cruise tourism as bad for the environment is misguided. The list of eco sensitive areas and islands that cruise ships visit around the world is huge.

Another interesting cruise ship list is the list of tiny islands in the West Indies that receive cruise ships. Almost all without cruise ship docks too. Here is a list of 6 "private islands" which are owned by cruise lines. Click here.  There are quite a few more that are not private.

I think that another thing that got me interested in being part of this idea was that if people who are interested in nature, ecology, conservation and ultimately sustainable development are not interested in getting involved, then the inevitable impacts of future developments will be worse as a result. Those of us who care about this stuff have a responsibility to get involved more than just talking and writing. We have attempt to influence the way our small islands are developed. I really don't need the extra work or headache that is involved as you have seen from my last blog, but at the moment I am still prepared to try. 

As a side note, since getting involved in this thing, I have come to find out that designs for a large Barbuda cruise ship dock were paid for recently, and within the past few months there has been some back room lobbying by certain interests to try to make this a reality. One of these dock design representatives tried to get Barbuda Council permission to go and look for financing for the construction of a large cruise ship dock. These are things that I will fight tooth and nail to stop from happening.

The Denco Management website is in the very early stages of development as we explore this initiative on behalf of the Barbuda Council and I will have more info on there in the near future. I just wanted to give some personal perspective on the whole thing because so many of my friends were puzzled.