2009-09-21 13:22:46
Abaco Over-Development Fears Raised
What sets the islands of the Bahamas apart from other tourist destinations in the Caribbean is that in this splendid chain of islands, each has its own character.

Abaco, the third largest and fastest-growing economy in the country, has so far retained its natural beauty by virtue of a somewhat independent economy sustained by a steady stream of boaters and second homeowners who flee to Great Abaco and its chain of cays in search of somewhere to escape unwind, and get away from it all even in a recession.

But both Abaconians and second homeowners who find peace in Abaco's pristine beaches, clear waters and expanse of creeks that lace Great Abaco's coastline, fear the Abaco they know is slipping away, and that they have little power to prevent it.

Abaco is at a point where further development is imminent, and there are groups who want to have a say in the direction it steers towards the future, but they feel their concerns are falling on deaf ears.

They were insulted to learn about the development of a Bunker C fuel power plant in Wilson City in a public meeting on September 10, over a month after construction had already begun.

The Bahamas Electricity Corporation (BEC) admitted it was wrong not to inform the Abaco public earlier, as nearly 1,000 concerned residents attended the meeting requested by local conservationist group Friends of the Environment because of the high level of public concern.

Not all who attended the meeting were against the, project, but there were many who had questions they wanted to be answered.

They knew the power plant was planned for Snake Cay, an environmentally sensitive area on Great Abaco's east coast, and opposition formed, as people feared the destructive impact it could have on the environment and the health of the community.

Hence when government and BEC decided to plough ahead with the plans for a $105 million, 48 mw power plant burning Bunker C (HFO) fuel in a new site at Wilson City - an area intrinsically linked to the environmentally sensitive Snake Cay by a complex network of blue holes - plans were kept quiet.

BEC chairman Fred Gottlieb confirmed the project had been agreed by the Christie administration in 2005, and signed off by the Ingraham government in December 2007, but as plans moved forward, Abaco's permanent and part-time residents were left in the dark.

Dundas Town resident and mother of two Leazona Bethel-Richard said: "I don't think they even consulted people in Abaco who know the area, people who have lived here all their lives and who can offer some serious input thats what's insulting."

Residents fear the Bunker C plant will pollute Abaco's clean air, land and sea, and Mrs Bethel-Richard, and others, feel there was not sufficient exploration of alternative, renewable energy sources.

Part-time resident and wind turbine designer David Pitcairn said figures presented at the meeting showing winds blowing southeast across Great Abaco at around seven mph were misleading, has his own Internet research had shown winds are likely to be around 18 mph and blowing northwest.

Mr Pitcairn said investing in a data logging wind tower could confirm this, and mean a different future for Abaco.

Mrs Bethel-Richard said: "I have not got the impression that they wanted renewable energy to be looked into in a meaningful way.

"I don't want for our kids to have to be burdened with still having to buy fossil fuels in the future, when they could put the money they are pulling into the power plant into a renewable energy plant, even if it isn't completely renewable."

She added: "We need power, without a doubt, but I think we need to be more responsible.

"There's this impression that people who love the environment don't like development and that's not true.

"We want something responsible that can be sustained for a long amount of time.

"I would like for Abaco to be the greenest island in the Caribbean."

Designating Abaco as an energy-efficient island would certainly be one path towards development that would set the main island and cays apart from the rest".

And power plant developers MAN Diesel Group is known to have built renewable energy plants elsewhere, but BEC and government have made clear Bunker C is the only option they will consider for Abaco right now.

An Abaca woman, who asked to remain anonymous told Insight she feels there is something more going on.

She said: "I firmly believe something is fishy about the fuel supply contract, because if it wasn't, why would they' be so hell bent about sticking with Bunker C?

"They have said the difference in price between diesel and Bunker C is upwards of $9m, but it could be as little as $3m, and that's nothing considering the health implications.

"I think somebody is going to get the contract for the HFO and giving kickbacks, that's what makes this country go around," she speculated.

Others fear the power plant will only pave the way for over zealous development.

It is feared that a large-scale development of South Abaco, including three hotels, two golf courses, and an amphitheatre in an area near the Abaco National Park, may be coming in behind the new power plant, and is perhaps linked to the $105 million investment of "local" funds for the plant.

The Valencia development sparked controversy when it was proposed last year, and has since-gone so quiet that" even the website about the project has vanished.

But it is rumoured the developers are now hoping to put their plans back in action.

There are some Abaconians who feel such large-scale developments are not needed in Abaco, as it has a steady stream of visitors who are attracted by the fact that it is less developed than New Providence and Grand Bahama.

And more than that, they fear developments on that scale could be doomed to fail.

Marsh Harbour real estate \ broker Brent Cartwright said:

"We really don't need any developments right now because the ones we already have are struggling, so we would hate to see any other developments come on in the next five or ten years when we have two here which have the volume and capacity to bring a lot mon, growth just between them.

"I just don't see how many more could be successful on the island and I don't want to see other projects come on and not make it. I think rapid growth could be detrimental for Abaco."

Abaco suffered less than other islands when the economic crisis· hit last year as small-scale development was kept alive by second homeowners equipped with enough disposable income to vacation when most potential visitors were tightening their belts.

Meanwhile the Four Seasons resort in Exuma was forced to close, and thousands of people in the hotel sector lost their jobs at Atlantis, the Wyndham, and hotels across New Providence and Grand Bahama.

Many Abaco resldents say they would like to see more sustainable models of development, like Schooner Bay in South Abaco, and allow such models, to characterise the area's growth.

Schooner Bay is intended to be a sustainable community with a farm and farmers market growing food for the residents of its 600 homes, as well as providing a mixture of shops, restaurants, offices and boutiques.

One Abaco woman told Insight: "Valencia is the kind of development Abaco people don't want, and we don't have a say about what happens in our own island.

"Decisions are made in Nassau and then they come here and shove it down our throats.

"I think developments like Schooner Bay, which are not too big but big enough for developers to make some money on, would be a better model.

"They are trying to involve locals as much as they can in terms of creating business opportunities on site, where as Baker's Bay (in Guana Cay) wants to be gated, and private, with Bahamians sweeping floors, mopping floors and serving drinks."

As a farmer, she would also like to see agriculture developed in Abaco so the island can be independent and sustainable.

She said food shortages could become a serious concern for Abaco, and after the September 11 attacks in 2001, food imports didn't reach the island for nine weeks.

South Abaco MP Edison Key, as executive chairman of the Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation (BAIC), is supportive of the cause to develop farming in Abaco.

He is also supportive of the move for a Bunker C power plant in Wilson City and of the Baker's Bay development, as well as others like it, and does not see agriculture as an alternative, but an additional form of development.

The BAIC currently has charge of around 10,000 acres of former sugar plantations south of Spring City, 640 acres of which have been divided into five and ten acre farming plots which have already attracted Chinese investment.

Mr Key said: "There's a tremendous amount of interest being shown by a lot of people, especially since the economy has slowed down.

"People have realised it's not just tourism we need, we need another industry to provide jobs and agriculture is one. of the most important at this time to supply the country with food.

"Agriculture has the potential for employment for thousands of people, and there's tremendous potential for food security in our country."

However, farmers in Abaco said they have been hindered from making a profit on fruits and vegetables because of the over-complicated application process to reduce import duty on farm supplies and equipment.

"There is too much red tape going through all this," Mr Key said.

"It should be very simple and hopefully We will get to that stage, but right now, this is how it has to be done."

If the growing population of Haitian migrants, thousands of whom have settled in the slums of The Mud and Pigeon Pea in Marsh Harbour, could also be mobilised to work through a more simple work permit application process, there would also be a tremendous potential work force to develop agriculture.

Mr Key said: "We need people to work on the farms, and they could be helping to develop the agriculture industry that's already in the country.

"There must be some way to put these people to work and help to support us in the food industry while they can also help themselves."

Many of those in the Haitian community come from an agricultural background, but are unable to work because of the difficult work permit application.

An Abaco farmer told Insight how she waited for 20 months to get a work permit for one Haitian employee, as Haitians who may have lived in the Bahamas for decades and held seven work permits are still forced to return to Haiti at a high cost to the employer in order to go . through the application process before they can be hired.

The process divides families, and puts the applicant in a position where they are unable to work for months on end.

"It's a tremendous expense to the person who needs the labour," Mr Key said.

"The Immigration Department needs to make it easier to employ them in areas such as agriculture and common labour."

But, according to the farmer who waited 20 months for a labourer: "It's a ploy to get them to give up or to get money under the table."

The system certainly doesn't seem to be benefiting Abaconians, who want residents of The Mud and Pigeon Pea to be regularised and housed in a safe and sanitary environment.

Regular raids on the shantytowns have failed to stop the· communities from expanding over the last 30 years, and have only bred resentment in the Haitian community as sources say violence is used and families are separated.

Commenting on the large scale raid carried out by Immigration and Royal Bahamas Defence Force officers on July 30, an Abaconian told Insight: "The raids were absolutely atrocious. They take women and children out of their beds at 3am without letting them put on their clothes, take six-week-old babies, these are human rights violations.

"Fifty per cent of the people they pick up are Bahamian, but they would not let them go back to their homes to get their papers."

There was a man standing there in his Jockey's and they hold a gun and a flashlight in his face, he asks to go in to get his passport, and they say no."

Mr Cartwright expressed his disappointment that in 30 years neither government has been able to take control of the migrant community.

He said: "It needs to be addressed now and it needed to be addressed 15 years ago. "They have these raids, and I think they are necessary but I cannot agree with the way they are done. They are quite inhumane, specifically with the children."

"What they need to do is have constant patrols to monitor who is there because there is a constant influx of people."

Abaconians who are so connected to the issues of the island are full of ideas about the way their community can be helped, how it can grow, and they are keen to communicate about a common goal. But with projects as huge as the Bunker C power plant going ahead without public consultation, and suspicions over big developments being pushed through without informing residents, Abaconians fear their beloved home will develop at such a rate it will spiral out of control.

While it has a good ecohomy, and great potential, development must follow a delicate balance, bearing the island's unique resources and issues in mind to help it grow in an organic way, and the best way for Abaco.

But if the people who care about Abaco, and the people who know it best are not even consulted about major changes in their community, they will one day wake up and feel they are no longer in their home.

As one Abaconian told Insight: People in Abaco are not dumb. It's like they think we have not educated ourselves to any degree, and a lot of people are frustrated.

"This was meant to be a new transparent government, getting people involved, and they're not.

"They are just sweeping our concerns under the carpet.

It seems the people in Abaco simply want to be heard. They want the government they elected to listen to their concerns, consider their ideas, and treat them with respect before making plans in arrogance, Which they fear, could be the ruin of Abaco.

Source: Insight, The Tribune
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