By Malcolm Strachan
BAHAMIAN people have been expressing outrage at the revelations of Carnival’s illegal dumping of 500,000 gallons of black water, or treated wastewater, in our seas. It wasn’t long ago that the government was expressing its excitement for the role Carnival would be playing in the revitalisation of Grand Bahama’s economy.
Now, the question looms if it is worth it.
Carnival certainly seems to be a bad actor in this instance and its claims of the reports of dumping being unintentional and a result of human error aren’t being bought by the Bahamian people. The fact they were on probation after pleading guilty to an eight-year long ‘conspiracy’ of illegal dumping and cover-up on five of its ships shows this being much more of a business practice than a mistake.
The government, which has been focused on reinvigorating Grand Bahama’s economy, is caught between a rock and a hard place.
Typically, governments never want to have to relinquish any victories and, certainly, Carnival brought hope to Grand Bahamians. Minister Kwasi Thompson, just a few months ago heralded Carnival’s training of Bahamian people - signalling the billion-dollar cruise company’s goal to ingratiate itself with the Bahamian people.
The narrative is quite different now, as there is perhaps nothing Carnival can do to regain the trust of the Bahamian people. No amount of training, donations to charity or kissing of babies may get the company back in the good graces of a populace that largely doesn’t see the national economic benefit of cruises coming to The Bahamas.
Historically, the numbers don’t lie – up until 2015, of the 75 percent of tourists that come to the Bahamas via cruise ships, tourism statistics confirm they only account for 11 percent of the money spent by visitors. More recent findings by the Bahamas Research and Economic Advisors’ Florida Caribbean Cruise Association revealed that since 2015 there has been a 59 percent increase in per capita spending – making The Bahamas the third highest passenger spending destination in the Caribbean, jumping from $243.5m to $322.6m in 2018. While this is a great improvement, the environmental cost is nearly unquantifiable – particularly when a country lacks the capacity to manage the industry.
That we haven’t focused on safeguarding our natural environment up to now reflects extremely poor on successive governments. Likewise, not until recently have we seen the government attempt to enhance our product offerings at the ports. The multitude of projects announced in recent months along with the redevelopment of the Port of Nassau can be a game-changer by enticing cruise ships to stay in port longer.
Although there is no doubt cruise ships seek to ensure their guests spend as much money on in-house entertainment and as little money at ports as possible, this is still something the government has been actively working on.
This is why these revelations could not have exploded at a worse time, and the lack of trust between Bahamians and the cruise companies has no doubt widened. With the controversial decision to allow Disney Cruise Lines’ purchase of Lighthouse Point and the ensuing “secret” signing of the Heads of Agreement, along with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and ITM’s letter of intent to purchase the Grand Lucayan and develop Freeport Harbour, there is heightened sensitivity around cruise developments.
There have already been grumblings within the wider community that Disney Cruise Lines is seemingly walking back some of its promises to South Eleutherans by omission in the Heads of Agreement.
Now, with the government left to do a clean-up job, they’re left “investigating” an investigation that would have seemed to have already concluded with a guilty plea, a $40m fine and a report made public by a US court.
In a statement, Minister of Transport Renward Wells said: “The government of The Bahamas finds these allegations most disturbing and takes this matter seriously and as such has engaged all relevant government ministries and departments to facilitate a comprehensive review and to provide an appropriate response commensurate to the actions.”
He continued: “Whilst the ships named are not Bahamas-flagged, the allegations, if founded, would be considered serious violations of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships 1973/1978 (MARPOL) to which The Bahamas is a party.
“As the port and coastal state in which the violations may have occurred, The Bahamas will investigate and take measures as appropriate.”
Obviously, upon reading Wells’ statement, it has left many citizens confused. Especially since without any environmental protection laws, it seems there is little we can do outside of walking away from this deal.
And you don’t need a degree in Bahamian politics to know they aren’t going to walk away from this project. Rather, it seems as if the government’s investigation is going to go on while the Attorney General’s office burns the midnight oil drafting environmental protection legislation – which he promised by summer’s end.
Of course, Carnival will likely apologise and tout new training processes to assure the Bahamian people that this will never happen again. And capping it off with the promise of more jobs for Bahamian people, all will be right in the world.
Save for the fact that it won’t be.
The only thing these cruise giants care about is the profits they generate. Carnival is no different. If, while on probation for environmental violations, they’ve been involved in 800 incidents of illegal dumping of sewage, food waste, grey water, furniture and more than a half million gallons of oil, we would be foolish to believe this was somehow their “come to Jesus” moment.
The judge that made the report public even regretted not being able to send the company’s president and chairman to jail, but said this: “Although Carnival Corp’s convictions are not unique, the company’s pattern of repeated violations, even when it is under a microscope, show how difficult it is for authorities to hold cruise companies accountable. It also shows the difficulty of strict compliance across 105 ships, more than 120,000 employees, millions of guests and dozens of countries.”
If American authorities have trouble keeping Carnival accountable, the collateral damage of partnering with such a bad actor may be devastating for a country that doesn’t have a single piece of environmental protection legislation on the books in 2019.
We don’t have the legislation nor the will to protect our natural environment, and that is what we should all fear.
Former Attorney General Alfred Sears reminded us recently in a separate discussion of the ‘brokenness’ of the Sir Stafford Sands model. While the government has shown the desire to help Bahamians build businesses, we are still awestruck with foreign investors – obvious remnants of a colonial mindset.
If we are honest, we can agree there is no way a Bahamian cruise company would be able to get away with anything like this in our country, much less in another.
Thus, as Sears put it, the Bahamian can only hope one day to elevate to the treatment afforded foreign investors. We truly do have it upside down.