By Frederick Smith, QC
Bahamians need a “come to Jesus moment” on national development. Those who advocate employment opportunities at more risk of destroying thousands in the future, amounts to a deal with the devil At the same time, environmentalists must understand that people have to live, and they can’t eat sand.
A decade ago, the unemployment rate was under eight percent. Today it’s around 10, although in GB its nearly 31. Every year 6,000 young Bahamians enter the job market. Simply put, constant, continuous and renewable development has to happen somewhere if we are ever going to fulfil our aspirations for a democratic, healthy and prosperous society.
Foreign investment remains the key engine for opportunities. The Bahamas is a small, underpopulated developing country that has never succeed as a producer of material goods or otherwise generate sufficient domestic value to survive and prosper.
Unfortunately, there are a number of drawbacks to an economy reliant on periodic injections of big money from outside in exchange for choice tracts of coastal real estate. The natural beauty of this country and its attraction for Europeans and North Americans is what brings investment. Though often vilified for seeking to impede the march of progress, environmentalists rightly point out our current development model is a ticking time bomb which sacrifices prime ecological assets and risks long term environmental, social and cultural damage. Ecological wonders are a finite resource and once they are all gone, the game is over and we are the losers.
Investors invariably have deep pockets and diverse business interests around the globe. A failed development in The Bahamas will not make or break them at the end of the day; they will simply move on to greener pastures. Not so with us.
If we continue on our current course, the bad will eventually come to outweigh the good and a country once renowned for its pristine beauty will become known instead for the wreckage of outsiders’ failed dreams, a place synonymous with ruined potential. Sadly, the length and breadth of our archipelago is scarred with the rotting carcasses of dozens of poorly planned, failed developments.
Bahamians who advocate for “jobs first” are not consciously doing so at the expense of the next generation. Few realise that in trying to free ourselves from economic difficulties, we are actually creating the conditions for long-term decline.
The current development policy raises serious questions for our democracy, sovereignty and autonomy as a nation. Bahamians give up far more control than is necessary, in our delusion that the moneyed outsider is somehow doing us a favour.
In reality, investors do not come here, invest and create jobs out of the goodness of their hearts. They do so because our environments provide them with the ideal conditions to make a considerable return on their investment.
Bahamians are thus in a position of substantial strength in these transactions. We have what these wealthy people want. We are the gatekeepers to a Promised Land of financial possibilities and business opportunity.
Generally, our politicians fail to appreciate this; rather, they treat the foreign investor like visiting royalty, in whose presence we natives must bow and scrape, offering up our patrimony – our most beautiful and precious tracts of land and sea, along with treasure in the form of excessive tax concessions and Crown land, in gratitude for their kindness in gracing us with their presence. Baubles for our Gold!
It does not have to be this way. Taking control of local and national development means first and foremost taking control, as far as possible, of what kind of development is allowed to take place and where.
We should prioritise eco-tourism projects over the often more destructive - and from an employment perspective, comparatively lower paying – mega-resort and or exclusive gated community models.
There are many advantages to this approach. High net worth individuals are moving towards travel which focuses on “light footprint” vacations in harmony with nature, with low impact on social, cultural, land and marine environments and with a greater per visitor spend, thereby preserving environments while attracting wealthy guests and creating more opportunities for Bahamians.
Because this model is more modest in scale than mega-resorts, imagine how it would open up the tourism economy to Bahamians. Instead of being dominated by a single foreign-owned mammoth resort, our famed beaches could be dotted with dozens of small, high end, high paying eco-resorts owned fully or in part by exclusive Bahamian and or joint ventures with foreigners.
Sadly, in the short term, eco-tourism is unlikely to generate sufficient business to float our economy.. At least for the foreseeable future, we need large-scale development, mega-resorts, second home communities, and cruise ports.
It would be unwise to rely solely on tourism when other development options present themselves. There are many opportunities in emerging technologies. The key is to strike a balance and protect our environments , even as we remain open to development.
The Bahamas enjoys an advantage over the Caribbean We have an opportunity to centralise virtually all of the environmental risk associated with large-scale development, whether industrial or touristic, in a single location.
Freeport was designed as the industrial and innovation hub of The Bahamas. Its infrastructural is ideal for developments of all kinds. The island abounds in natural beauty –forests, beaches, coral reefs, stretches of canals, abundant mangroves, fisheries and bird populations. It could be the playground for the ever growing Florida economy.
Sadly, the potential of Grand Bahama has been wasted because of pointless political grudges and imbecilic immigration and investment restrictions. It has lain dormant; stagnating, crumbling, rotting and plagued with chronic unemployment - despite the promises of politicians.
Large-scale development must happen, but let it happen NOW! on Grand Bahama. If the environment must be risked, let the mitigated risk be concentrated in one place rather than dotted all about.
The benefits for a struggling population will follow in droves with The Magic City like a phoenix, flourishing again.
Freeport was an economic experiment; it was a cradle of ideas and inspiration. With a little vision, it could become home to the most daring and audacious tourism spectacles imaginable, attracting visitors from around the world. With a little courage - and a more liberal immigration policy - it could become home to a host of cutting-edge technologies – the Silicon Valley of the Antilles.
Freeport could earn its title as “the Magic City”, but the negative - environmental impacts would be manageable if we adapt a Green Economy to modern best practices. Why allow destruction of our pristine environments throughout the Bahamas, chosen by foreign investors, while Freeport has already been developed on a vast scale and designed to receive development of every kind.
The Bahamas would be a country of two national hubs, one political the other industrial; two centres of employment and opportunity, two paths to success and empowerment for each and every Bahamian to choose from.
Best of all, the rest of The Bahamas, from Abaco to Inagua would be unshackled from reliance on environmentally and economically risky development, free to concentrate on developing new, unique, organic, socially and culturally sensitive and exciting tourism models that respect the environment and bring a whole new high-end demographic traveller to our shores.
We could prioritise environmental protection for the islands like never before, finally liberated of the fear that doing so must involve sacrificing much-needed economic opportunity.
Not every development would be permissible in Grand Bahama. An Oban or Cruise Port in East GB would never be acceptable. They would be too environmentally damaging. But Freeport has the potential for such projects. But we would need to enact, as required under the 1993 Freeport Act, the Freeport Environmental Bye-Laws (still awaiting cabinet approval after 21 years), and an Environmental Protection Act for the rest of The Bahamas.
We need not worry that foreign investors will refuse to play ball. They only feel empowered to choose and refuse locations for development now, because we allow them this freedom. Our mantra should be “Grand Bahama or Nothing”.
Such a development policy would have enormous symbolic importance and represent a freeing control over our future from the grasp of outsiders and an end to the days of bowing, scraping and submitting to their every desire.
It takes nothing but political will and a measure of intelligence to make such visions a reality. Cabinet must focusing on Freeport and letting the HCA Magic happen.