Tobago Cays at the Crossroads
The Tobago Cays, a group of five beautiful and uninhabited Grenadine islands surrounded by coral reefs, is one of the most popular sailing destinations in the Caribbean. Its ecosystems are also among the region's most fragile.
To protect the area, the Tobago Cays Marine Park (TCMP) was legally established in December 1997. A Management Plan for the Park was submitted by the then-manager in August 1998, with a revised Management Plan being submitted in July 2000. For various reasons, much of this Management Plan has never been implemented, many of the protective regulations in the Marine Parks Act of 1997 remain unenforced, and to a significant degree the Marine Park remains such in name only.
With the Ministry responsible for the TCMP changing recently, two different non-governmental groups have contacted the government of St. Vincent & the Grenadines (SVG), each proposing that they be allowed to step in and assume an active role in the management of the Tobago Cays Marine Park. One group is a grassroots local environmental organization. The other is the management of a nearby up-market resort hotel.
From Plantation to Park
Prior to becoming a national park, the Cays were privately owned. In the 18th century, the Marquis de L'Isle's slaves grew cotton on Mayreau and the Tobago Cays. The Cays later passed to the St. Hilaire and then the Eustace families. In 1960, the Eustaces sold the Cays to a US citizen, Nicholas Fuller, reportedly for US$18,000. The SVG government bought the approximately 58 acres from Fuller's "Tobago Cays Holding Company" in April 1999 for the sum of US$1,025,000. This selling price, drastically below market value, was agreed to by both parties under the condition "that henceforth the Tobago Cays will be dedicated to use in perpetuity as a National Park and that the sole purpose of the acquisition was for the declared purpose of the establishment of a National Park within which no buildings, structures, fixtures or construction of any form or any commercial activity whatsoever will be permitted save in pursuance of the objectives of and in furtherance of the maintenance of a National Park." Permitting outright commercial activity in the Tobago Cays would create an opportunity for Fuller's company to re-open its claim for the initial asking price of US$6.5 million, plus accruing interest.
The SVG government began the process for the establishment of the Tobago Cays Marine Park long ago. In 1987, it designated a Conservation Area in the Southern Grenadines which included the Tobago Cays, Mayreau and their surrounding waters. In 1993, at the SVG government's request, the French Mission for Cooperation in the Lesser Antilles (an agency of the French government) undertook a study called the "Tobago Cays Marine Park Project".
The SVG government gave approval in June 1995 to a proposal submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Labour (the ministry responsible for parks and beaches) for the establishment of the Tobago Cays as a National Marine Park - the first officially designed Marine Park in the country. Legislation on Marine Parks was enacted in 1997, and regulations were gazetted in 1998. The mission of the Park is to protect, conserve and improve the natural resources of the area.
In April, 1999, after over 15 years of negotiations, the SVG government finally acquired the islands from Fuller. At the official handing-over ceremony, then Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell said, " even as we agree that this price is not the commercial value we accept that no commercial activity will ever be allowed on these islands. Today will mark the day when the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines assume responsibility for the preservation of the most unique group of islands created in our hemisphere."
Meanwhile, although the only way to get to the Tobago Cays is by boat, a widely quoted 1995 survey indicates that some 14,000 yachtspeople, 25,000 charterboat daytrippers and 10,000 cruiseship passengers are visiting the Cays every year. In July, a BBC report citing information from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and UK scientists stated: "Coral reefs across the Caribbean have declined by 80 percent in three decades [the] Caribbean's gardens of the sea are vanishing," and suggested that pollution, over-fishing, and tourism are the primary causes of the decline. Obviously, pollution, over-fishing, and tourism need to be regulated in a sensitive environment such as the Tobago Cays, and a National Marine Park should provide a suitable situation for such protection. But although the groundwork has been done - the land has been acquired by the government, extensive community consultations have taken place, the legal framework is in place, and a management plan has been hammered out - the steps taken to "protect, conserve and improve" the natural resources of the Cays so far remain more on paper than in effect. A Park technically exists, but the questions remain: Will the management plan and regulations ever be put into effect? And if so, when and by whom?
Can We Help You?
In June this year, Palm Island Resorts Limited (PIRL) - the company which owns and runs the upscale, all-inclusive hotel on Palm Island, just south of the Tobago Cays - submitted a management proposal for the TCMP to the SVG government. PIRL was acquired in 1999 by Robert Barrett, following the death the previous year of the Palm Island resort's founder John "Johnny Coconut" Caldwell, who was famous among sailors for his book Desperate Voyage. Barrett, with a background in international marketing and the tourism industry, has also operated Antigua's exclusive St. James Club and the Royal Antiguan hotels. Barrett's management team includes "certified accountants, attorneys, international marketing and tourism experts, destination management professionals, architects, watercraft experts, engineers, decorated former law enforcement officials and environmental consultants".
PIRL says its environmental innovations at Palm Island include "the transformation of mosquito-infested ponds into thriving saltwater fish and bird preserves" and "the establishment of sea and land turtle protection programs". The Palm Island Nature Reserve Association was founded in June 1999 by a group including Robert Barrett. Their web page states the association's goals as: "Helping to preserve the nature in and around Palm Island. Helping people to have a better knowledge of this environment by protecting the animals; building a sea turtle sanctuary; providing information; and obviously raising funds! Membership is actually USD 10 for adults, USD 5 for children, USD 5 for animals AND FAR MORE IF YOU WANT!!!"
Last month, another management proposal for the Tobago Cays Marine Park was received by the SVG government. This proposal was submitted by the Mayreau Environmental Development Organization (MEDO), a grassroots, community-based, non-profit organization based on the island of Mayreau, just west of the Tobago Cays. A legally recognized NGO, the group has been engaged in environmental and community development work for the past seven years. MEDO's present executive comprises two teachers, a restaurateur, a minister of religion, two T-shirt vendors and a fisherman. Its current president is Annie Adams.
Since the waters of the Tobago Cays are now protected and Mayreau's fishermen can no longer earn their living there, MEDO deliberately decided to re-involve Mayreau's people with that resource by equipping itself to "be deserving of co-management" of the TCMP. To this end, it has engaged in an EU-funded project called "Promoting Marine Conservation and Nature Friendly Tourism in Mayreau Gardens (reefs) and the Tobago Cays Marine Park", and last year sent three members on a fact-finding mission to the Soufriere Marine Management Area (SMMA) in St. Lucia. MEDO began petitioning the TCMP Board and the SVG government for greater involvement in the decision-making of the Park in 1998, and was accepted as an NGO on the Board in July 2002 for a period of one year. On Mayreau in August 2001, MEDO opened its Marine Centre for the study of the marine island environment. The Centre, which has a library and museum displays, has hosted two regional conferences on Biodiversity and Sustainable Environmental Management. Last year MEDO facilitated a series of 15 public lectures by Dr. James Comley of Coral Cay Conservation, UK, on issues such as biodiversity, environmental impacts and tourism which affect the Tobago Cays.
While specifics of neither PIRL's nor MEDO's proposal have yet been officially released to the media, it has been reported locally that a highlight of PIRL's proposal is that the company would undertake to manage the TCMP - following the existing Management Plan "to the greatest extent possible" - for a period of 25 years and collect revenues on behalf of the SVG government, but pay the government only 50 percent of all collected TCMP revenues "after operating expenses". PIRL would guarantee the government EC$134,410 in the first year; EC$201,615 in the second year; and between EC$268,820 (US$100,000) and EC$672,050 (US$250,000) annually thereafter "with excellent future growth potential". PIRL estimates that both the SVG government and itself could make "more than" US$16 million each out of the TCMP over 25 years. PIRL would reportedly build an "environmentally friendly" reception area on one of the Cays, and install new watercraft moorings. PIRL would also recruit and pay both the Park's Rangers and a marine biologist "to conduct studies and implement further protective measures" in the TCMP.
MEDO says that its main concern is that the TCMP "is a tremendous but extremely fragile resource that has suffered major environmental damage over the past 15 years Management of this Park must place its primary emphasis on an almost drastic environmental policy if this Park is to become a sustainable resource." Like PIRL, MEDO proposes to implement the existing Management Plan, but it has in addition written a detailed list of proposed actions, and also agrees to be placed under the legally established direction of the policy-making Board of Directors of the TCMP. According to MEDO. institutions including the EU, the UN, the Caribbean Conservation Association, the Nature Conservancy and the World Bank have indicated their willingness to completely fund the TCMP start-up operations.
The TCMP Management Plan offers guidelines for zoning by usage (i.e. anchoring, diving, licensed vending) or exclusion from usage; waste management; policing; the composition and function of the Board and management staff; and fund raising (including fees for yachts, day-charter passengers and scuba divers). We'll let you know when and if implementation of the Plan takes place, to what extent the Plan will actually be followed, and what ramifications that will have for visitors to the Cays.
Reaction to word of PIRL's proposal in the local press has been resoundingly negative, with the headline of the September 5th edition of The News newspaper being "Oppose It!" An editorial in The News of 29 August stated, "one cannot deny that there is need for a proper system of management and administration of this delicate area. But, was this not what was contemplated when steps were taken to legislate for the Marine Park? Do [native Vincentians] not possess the necessary skills, technical ability and common sense to properly manage the area? Surely we do!" But when will it be done?
An article by Aubrey Mills in the 30 August 1996 issue of The Vincentian newspaper stated: "because of the lack of a serious management and monitoring programme, the ecosystem [of the Tobago Cays] is being threatened. Although the area has been declared a [conservation area] since 1987, no serious work was done to halt the destruction of the Cays. Over-fishing, pollution and the degradation of the reefs continue at an alarming rate. any hope of saving the Tobago Cays Marine Park would depend on our effectiveness in implementing the management plan for the Tobago Cays Marine Park." That was urgent call to action was seven years ago.
As this issue of Compass goes to press, PIRL and MEDO each have indicated that they are ready to implement the Tobago Cays Marine Park Management Plan, and the SVG government will soon give the nod to one group or the other, or perhaps take another tack entirely. Whatever the decision made at this juncture, the repercussions will likely be felt for a far longer period than seven years.
Copyright© 2003 Compass Publishing