Editorial: Development vs destruction

There are more than a few people who are a bit perplexed by the recent decision of the High Court judge, Justice Rosalyn E. Wilkinson, in regard to the airport issue in Barbuda. The judge instructed that all construction taking place on the international airport in Barbuda be stopped effective immediately. The basic argument in the case surrounds whether the government complied with the requirements of the Physical Planning Act.   

Before we progress, it should be noted that last month, while speaking on radio, the Minister responsible for Barbuda Affairs, Dean Jonas, has publicly admitted that there was not strict compliance with all the requirements of the Act. It was a somewhat strange admission. With a chuckle in his voice, he dismissed the environmental claims by touting his ability to assess any environmental damage by looking at the shrubbery in the areas surrounding the cleared construction site. He then went on to link greater salinity in the soil for much of the environmental damage to the flora rather than addressing any link to the construction of the airport. Who knew that the Minister was such an environmental expert with abilities to use the surrounding shrubbery as forensic evidence that flora and animal habitats were not damaged in any way? So great are his skills that he can “definitively” tell the world that there has been no environmental impact as claimed. Based on these fantastic skills, we can only assume that the Minister is some kind of nature whisperer.

Whispering aside, Minister Jonas then sought to belittle the deficiencies by throwing the project manager, B.T. Lewis, under the proverbial bus by saying it was a simple bit of miscommunication on his part. Apparently, the very well qualified and experienced Mr. Lewis thought that someone else was doing all that pesky environmental impact study stuff and submission of plans, etc., but it did not get done. Not only that, when the approval in principle was received from the Development Control Authority (DCA), it was mistaken as full approval by the contractor to press forward with the construction. Now, that is a stretch.  B.T. Lewis is one of Antigua and Barbuda’s most experienced engineers and project managers. It is impossible for us to believe, as the Minister has suggested, that the good gentleman could mistake an approval in principle, based on preliminary plans, with a final approval to proceed. Or, to be more exact with the Minister’s proclamations, that Bahamas Hot Mix (BHM), the contractor, would proceed independently, without Lewis’ approval.   

While Dean Jonas is a man with a good reputation for hard work and getting things done, it would appear that spin doctoring is not his forte. We believe that he missed a golden opportunity to build some bridges by simply admitting to some deficiencies and pledging to work with the Barbuda people towards development and a sustainable economy. That would have given him the upper hand by placing “development” as the key discussion point rather than “destruction” as the Barbudans have emphasised.

Through their council, Leslie Thomas QC, the Barbudans have make it clear that they are not against construction of the airport but are concerned about the way the government ran roughshod over the requirements of the Physical Planning Act. They have effectively painted a picture of a deliberate ‘construct first and ask questions later’ scenario with little regard of the environmental impacts. Not only that, they have presented evidence that there is little desire by the central government and agencies to communicate, as several letters to the relevant authorities about the environmental impact assessment that the government was required to carry out before construction commenced, were ignored.

It was because of this dismissal of the local Barbudans that John Mussington and Jacklyn Frank applied for judicial review arguing that the government was in breach of the Physical Planning Act. They have pitted a concern over “massive destruction” of forests, wildlife and ecosystems against the Government’s rush to development. While the claimants have been labeled as obstructionist, they, along with their lawyer, put forward a persuasive argument against what appears to be an ill-prepared response, and they were successful in this round.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. The full hearing for the judicial review is scheduled for late September, but we would like to suggest, again, that the parties sit down to find a resolution to the common goals of development and a sustainable economy for Barbuda. From our perspective, the overarching goal is the same. Both sides want the airport, but the disagreement appears to be how it gets done. The Physical Planning Act is there to keep things running smoothly, but it has been ignored to a certain extent. Right now, there is a wide swath of land cleared and prepped for the airport construction but will remain dormant until the courts hear the case, the lawyers make money, and construction costs likely rise due to delays. Is everyone so stubborn that something, that everyone apparently wants, cannot get done in a less adversarial way?

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