By PACO NUNEZ
Tribune News Editor
ERNEST Hemingway opened his Caribbean novel Islands in the Stream with the description of a house “built on a narrow tongue of land between harbour and open sea”.
This house overlooked the Gulf Stream, where walking into the shallows on a calm day, all you could see around you was “the green light of the water over that floury white sand”, the deep blue of the mighty ocean current in the distance.
The story takes place in the 1930s; had it been set today, this scene would be dominated by an imposing agglomeration of metal pylons, wooden beams, towering cranes, hefty cargo trucks.
This is because the spot Hemingway describes is on the western coast of North Bimini, probably no more than a stone’s throw from where an international developer is preparing to thrust a massive, 4.5 acre cruise ship pier 1,000 feet into the heart of the Gulf Stream.
The view from this iconic stretch of beach will forever be transformed, dissected by concrete and steel structures, systematically interrupted by a huge red ferry boat transporting thousands of clamorous, eager tourists to the glitzy casino under construction just inland.
“The overall significance of the potential impact on views and the seascape associated with the project is expected to be high, negative, and long-term in duration,” admits a report commissioned by the developer, Malaysian conglomerate Genting.
Even so, the attraction of Bimini is more than just its views, more than its spectacular big game fishing or even its easy proximity to the United States.
Over the years, notable figures like Hemingway and Martin Luther King Jr – to name just two of dozens – have also been drawn to this tiny island by its subtle, elemental charm and a relaxed yet lively atmosphere that has managed to remain authentic and unique. A rare thing in the age of the garish mega resort.
Fine, many say, but we can’t afford to be romantic about such things. Bimini does not exist to be preserved for the pleasure of foreign fishermen, frozen in time according to an American writer’s personal conception of paradise.
No, it must be developed to the benefit of the 1,700 living, working Bahamians who populate it.
Trouble is, according to the developer’s own study, almost two-thirds of Biminites surveyed are actually opposed to the project as it stands.
Recognising that its “existing character” has led to international renown and made this tiny island the third most visited Family Island in the country, Biminites don’t want to see their heritage destroyed.
“Residents were asked about their preference for future tourist development,” the recently released Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) said.
“When asked whether Bimini should try to decrease or increase the volume of tourism, 64 per cent of the sample indicated tourist numbers should remain ‘about the same’, 28 per cent indicated tourist numbers should increase, and 8 per cent indicated tourist numbers should decrease.”
“It’s like me trying to fit into my son’s pants, bursting at the seams,” was how Bailey Town resident Todd Rolle described it. “While I do welcome the economic boost, it all could be scaled down a bit. I don’t want anything to take away from the nature, beauty of the island.”
The experts conducting the study themselves believe the projected increase from 52,000 visitors a year to more than half a million, would be “greater than appropriate” for the island’s size, ecology and socio-economy, and will probably drive up the cost of living for Biminites.
A unique ecology
The question of ecological impact is particularly alarming. Scientists and ecologists have long regarded Bimini as unique in terms of variety and abundance of marine species and fish habitats.
Bimini’s pristine waters are described as being of “unequalled ecological importance”, by the Bimini Biological Field Station Foundation, a facility renowned for its groundbreaking work with several shark species for which Bimini is a vital habitat.
The Bahamas National Trust has warned that the cruise ship pier would “cause irreparable and continuing damage” to this marine environment.
The pier site is within 1.5 miles of 70 per cent of the island’s prime dive sites, and marine biologist Gail Woon called the plan a “complete abomination” that would destroy endangered coral reefs.
World-renowned dive guru Neil Watson said he was personally “devastated” by the potential damage to the diving and fishing industries, which generate 90 per cent of Bimini’s current hotel occupancies and “millions” for its economy.
The EIA agrees. It found that potential impacts on commercially important species “are expected to be high” through the disturbance of habitats for spiny lobster, conch, grouper and other marine species. Water quality is expected to take a major hit, which would also considerably hurt the marine ecosystem.
“The dredging and the construction of the new island will result in irreversible loss of the existing macro algae and sponges mainly, as well as a small number of corals living on the seabed where dredging is to take place and land is to be reclaimed,” the EIA states.
Yet all this concern – local and foreign, expert and layman – has failed to make the slightest impact on the approval process.
In fact, the government issued the necessary approvals before even consulting with stakeholders. Before the EIA was even made public. Considering the date the company began mobilising, maybe even before official eyes ever saw the study.
Attorney and environmental activist Fred Smith, QC, called it “perverse” that the government decided without consultation, “effectively bulldozing their way through before engaging the public on the issues contained in an EIA.”
Mr Smith says this contravened the Planning and Subdivisions Act, which states that environmental impact studies must be circulated to “relevant referral agencies for review and comment” and that their comments must be considered by government before approval.
But the identity of these “referral agencies” is not defined; they are effectively whoever the government wants them to be. Typical of so many laws drafted by our parliament, this provision amounts to a blank cheque masquerading as a safeguard.
There are, however, international standards. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, those consulted should be: “the people – individuals, groups and communities – who are affected by the proposal; the proponent and other project beneficiaries; government agencies; NGOs and interest groups; and others, such as donors, the private sector, academics et cetera.”
The document adds: “Public involvement is a fundamental principle of EIA. The inclusion of the views of the affected and interested public helps to ensure the decision making process is equitable and fair and leads to more informed choice and better environmental outcomes.”
A ‘unique’ country
All well and good for the rest of the world, but not the Bahamas.
Here, with no Environmental Protection Act, it is entirely up to government to decide how much ecological damage is too much. Without laws mandating surveys of demand levels, they are free to take a developer’s word that a project won’t flop, leaving the community in ruins. And with no Freedom of Information Act, there is no way to illuminate the mirky process by which this is all achieved.
According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), approval of investment projects in this country is “on an ad-hoc basis, and has tended to be vulnerable to short-term political pressures and individual agendas by line ministries.”
And despite the Christie administration paying lip service to the need for a long-term development plan, both in its 2012 general election manifesto and since, their handling of the Bimini proposal is proof that nothing has changed.
And with unemployment actually increasing despite the PLP’s election bluster, the promise of thousands of jobs is just too good to overlook. No matter what is at stake.
Consider a document inadvertently sent to The Tribune, in which the developers were advised that the government’s pledge to create 10,000 new jobs means it is “unlikely to interrupt” their investments despite pressure from environmental activists.
A public relations and marketing firm hired by Genting also told the company it should try to position itself as “a saviour of the Bimini economy” to counter all the negative publicity.
No sure thing
But the EIA researchers are themselves unsure about the reality behind this public relations spin.
One of their recommendations was that the developer “commission a study to better determine the likely demand for the ferry service” – preferably prior to construction.
With the approval of destination resort casinos in South Florida currently under consideration, the lack of research on this point is particularly frightening.
In the world of tourism development nothing is too big to fail, and similar projects have fallen flat in the past – not before they altered the surrounding community forever.
As environmental attorney Romi Ferriera warned, the project could end up “impacting the natural environment and putting Bimini’s tourism product at risk for nothing.”
“If, at the end of the day, it collapses, it’s unsustainable, all this will have been for nothing,” he said. “You’d have destroyed a viable tourist industry.”
Loss and regret – these are actually the themes of Hemingway’s Bimini story.
With the process seemingly too far along to halt at this point, we can only hope the ghost of the great writer doesn’t end up haunting the ruins of a failed pipe dream.
Certainly, the destruction by fire of Hemingway’s Bimini home and museum site a few years ago now seems quite symbolic.
Literary connections aside, the Compleat Angler Hotel epitomised an approach to tourism and a way of life that is likely set to disappear forever – whether or not the mega casino ferry plan succeeds.
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