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Why Move Best Commission Portfolio?

Thousands of words have been written and spoken about the circumstances surrounding the mysterious August 22, 2017, Gazette allegedly stripping Minister of Environment and Housing Romauld ‘Romi’ Ferreira of most of his responsibilities.

At first, Prime Minister Dr Hubert A Minnis, reportedly the only person who can cause such action to take place, called existence of the Gazette “fake news”. Later, faced with the actual document, the Prime Minister’s office quickly moved to amend what was gazetted, saying it was a “mistake” the document showed six of the seven areas of responsibility of the Environment Minister had been removed.

Whether stripping responsibilities from the minister was intentional or a blunder and whether or not the Prime Minister’s office knew about the Gazette or it was a legitimate oversight, the incident received so much attention it is clear the honeymoon period is over between the Minnis-led government and the public. And while the public has heard all it wants to hear about one Gazette and one Cabinet minister and is ready to move on, we say ‘Hold on, there’s something very important that continues to be missing from the discussion.’

The Tribune is surprised (alarmed) that while calling attention to the sloppy process by which Mr Ferreira was either intentionally or accidentally stripped of responsibilities before those responsibilities were reinstated all the attention has ignored a critical part of the Ferreira matter.

The real focus must be on the one responsibility that was not returned to the Ministry of Environment, the Bahamas Environment, Science and Technology Commission (BEST), the only semblance of a governmental environmental watchdog that has oversight over anchor projects and mega-developments. Putting BEST back into the Office of the Prime Minister where the technical staff has to answer to a politician who may not see the compatibility between economy and environment is like assigning security for the chicken coop to a pack of wolves.

If that sounds harsh, it is based on experience. One only has to look at Bimini and South Cat Cay, both permitted by the Office of the Prime Minister, to see how devastating anchor projects without adequate protection for fragile coral reefs, wetlands, mangroves and culture of a community can be.

Destruction is not restricted to a political party. Every prime minister since Independence has allowed a piece of the precious Bahamian environment to be eviscerated and destroyed in the supposed name of progress. As new projects are proposed, how will an already short-staffed, well-meaning BEST Commission carry out its full mission when there is pressure to gather the media for a Heads of Agreement photo op, get a project underway, and show an economy buzzing with activity? If BEST requests amendments to a site plan or wants changes to a master plan, and it must answer to the Prime Minister who wants the project to go forward as fast as possible, what happens to environmental protection?   

Thus, the question we must ask now – the question The Tribune puts directly to the Prime Minister – is why? Why was the BEST Commission plucked from the Ministry of Environment where it clearly belongs, and plopped back into the Office of the Prime Minister where it should not be?

That is where attention should be focused.

We want an answer to that question. Better yet, we want to see action. Give BEST the staffing and the autonomy it needs. As climate change becomes more of a national challenge and priority, BEST will assume an increasingly critical role. It must not be handicapped by the desire of any politician to do the economically expedient thing in lieu of having the courage to take the long-term environmentally prudent and protective action. We need to be doing more to protect the environment, not taking steps that could increase our risk of doing less. The Bahamas is a signatory to a number of conventions but does not have the legal legs to support its own well-meaning intentions. According to a 2005 report prepared for the BEST Commission: “There are only a few existing environmental laws and regulations in The Bahamas relevant to the implementation of its requirements under the international environmental Conventions.” 

For his part, throughout this ordeal Minister Ferreira has been a gentleman about incident. Last week, following the ‘reinstatement’ of most  of his responsibilities, he remained above the fray, saying it was “sorted out”. No matter how the question was put to him, he remained stoical. “The Office of the Prime Minister has spoken,” Mr Ferreira said under sustained questioning by reporters.

But now, if he is going to prove he deserves to stand up and be counted, he must speak up about environmental protection especially as it is related to development.

As we said, there has been so much coverage of this incident which was either a blunder or a change of heart that the public is probably tired of the whole episode. Let us not put it behind us until there is either a good explanation as to why the BEST Commission was returned to the Office of the Prime Minister or when a comprehensive environmental protection act will be introduced with the Minister of Environment taking responsibility for its carriage. An environmental protection act with real teeth is the only way to truly ensure the delicate environment of The Bahamas will be protected long-term for generations to come.

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