If you think the environmental woes of the world will be solved by tree-hugging, species-loving do-gooders, you’re so wrong.
Sure, all the volunteers who clean up beaches or protect nesting sea turtles or rid streets of abandoned vehicles and persuade regular folks that only stupid people litter are valuable. Thank heavens for every last one of their initiatives. Without them, the world would be a far dirtier, smellier, more dangerous place to live. And we could run out of fresh water and precious resources even faster if it weren’t for those who care on a daily basis.
But if you want to know what will really save the environment, it’s the legal system. Yes, those same lawyers who pack laptops and papers into leather satchels and may never have camped in the woods a day in their power-suited lives will be the ones who save the planet.
Because the real fight for the environment takes place on a battlefield known as the courtroom.
I first learned that lesson from Robert F Kennedy, Jr. It was 2013, the first time I heard him speak in Nassau. Kennedy was here to announce the first Waterkeepers Alliance licence for The Bahamas and, through the Coalition to Protect Clifton, help the Bahamas National Trust launch Conchservation.
“The law,” he said between bites of cracked conch and peas ‘n rice at Arawak Cay. Basically, it works like this. An environmental protection organisation, known as the good guys, takes the bad guys, the defendants, who are polluting a river, lake or bay to court. The good guys win, the bad guys have to clean up the mess they made and the damages awarded the good guys go right back into suing the next bad guys who are polluting or fishing illegally or killing wildlife on an endangered species list. And on it goes.
That’s the thing about the environment that makes it so interesting. It’s easy to sort out the good guys from the bad guys. With Kennedy, who was head of environmental law at New York’s PACE University, as well as chairman of Waterkeepers Alliance worldwide, it started with New York’s Hudson River.
Once a posh summer address, its shores dotted with lavish estates, the once pristine river became a poisonous cesspit. Years of polluting factories across in New Jersey turned the water brown. Dead fish floated on the surface. Every year, more grand homes were boarded up and abandoned. Real property taxes fell and elected officials panicked.
Kennedy and team took the case and they won. Manufacturing plants had to clean up the river – and their act. The money Waterkeepers Alliance was awarded it plunged right into the next case and the money from that victory into the next.
When Waterkeepers Alliance - with its goal to make all waters must be fishable, swimmable and drinkable - turned its attention to The Bahamas, a legal team was assembled headed by Callenders partner Fred Smith. The first action was Clifton Bay. For decades, Bahamas Electricity Corporation (BEC), now BPL had been wantonly polluting the southwest bays with world-famous coral reefs packed with colourful marine life. Divers came from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. Videography of the undersea world just off New Providence and Lyford Cay was breathtaking.
But year after year, the leakage from the heavy fuel of BEC’s power generation plant got worse, taking its toll on the reefs and the life they support. The current Minister of Environment and Housing, Romi Ferreira, saw it happen.
Working at BEC as an engineer, witnessing the slow polluting of a stunning marine environment, inspired him to earn a degree in environmental law.
While we are all fretting and sweating and praying to anyone who might be listening to end the load-shedding and give us light, we failed to notice the problem that used to be BPL’s most visible flaw has vanished. The thick, black oil, the grimy, slimy grunge that stuck swimmers’ hair together like super glue, covered boat bottoms and draped the underwater statues off Clifton Heritage Park is gone.
Where did the problem of oil seeping into the limestone, making its way out in gooey oil slicks and smothering reefs go?
It went to court. In February 2016, the Coalition to Protect Clifton Bay, better known as Save The Bays, filed suit against five defendants, including the then-Minister of Environment, Attorney General, Deputy Prime Minister, and BEC. A little more than two years later, the court order was stamped making little known legal history – the first voluntary agreement between parties that if the defendant cleaned up its act, the plaintiff would hold off suing.
In the words of the court order signed by Justice Indra Charles, it was a cooperation exercise with parties “desirous of engaging in a cooperation exercise with the view to resolving the underlying environmental issue”.
Robert Kennedy was right. So were Fred Smith and his team of dedicated lawyers from Callenders who do more work pro bono than most law firms do for pay (though this particular action was not pro bono).
The battle to save the environment will take place not in a field or forest, nor in the ocean or a threatened pond but in the cool, air-conditioned battleground of the court room.
Could West Hill Street be a model for more of downtown Nassau?
As Nassau’s historic Bay Street struggles to retain any of its original architectural integrity, West Hill Street just a few blocks south is re-creating a period feel with shuttered second-storey windows, narrow doors, archways and interesting vibe.
True, the colours are more South Caribbean than traditional Bahamian but from the iconic always-award-winning Graycliff Hotel & Restaurant on the eastern end across from Government House to the beautifully refurbished Doyle Estate that is now the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, West Hill Street is a model of what can happen with a little imagination and a lot of courage.
Congratulations to the Gazarollis for everything from Graycliff to the chocolate factory, cigar factory, museum with its many borrowed pieces from collections around the world, and all the little businesses in between.
Congrats, too, to Historic Charles Towne. For those who may be quick to criticise saying the recent overhead display of colourful spheres is not Bahamian, I say merely, So? Neither are burgers. But every now and then, they are both a real treat.