I read with much interest two articles in The Daily OBSERVER of Thursday April 18, 2019. The first article by Carlena Knight was captioned Government to meet with EAG and the second one by Arica Hill captioned We Have Skin in The Game. Both articles highlighted the role of the EAG in environmental issues within our country.
With respect to the second article, I am in total agreement with Arica Hill – Executive Director of the Environmental Awareness Group (EAG) – that the EAG does have skin tin the game when it comes to the protection and preservation of our natural environment.
However, that skin in the game should go beyond educational activities to sensitize the populace to the need to protect and preserve our natural environment and, in particular, environmentally sensitive areas such as the North East Marine Management Area (NEMMA).
The EAG, with the environment as its primary focus, should be more informed than the rest of us (including attorneys) of legislation governing environmental matters such as the Physical Planning Act 2003, the Environmental Protection Management Act 2015, the Fisheries Act and the Special Economic Zone (Licence) Regulations 2015. All these Acts are meant to protect the environment, and when they are breached it is the environment that suffers — with sometimes irreparable consequences.
I would say, therefore, that it is the raison d’etre of the EAG to undertake activities to protect and preserve the environment. To its credit, the EAG has done great work to protect and preserve the endangered Antiguan racer snake that is endemic in the NEMMA – which includes over 30 islands, islets and rocks.
EAG’s restorative work on Redonda is also commendable. It is this need for protection and preservation of the environment that the EAG uses to solicit assistance from international donors, as the EAG itself notes in its recalled OBSERVER article: ‘‘So when we refer to NEMMA being a Marine Protected Area, one protected by the Fisheries Act and further enshrined in the laws and policies stipulated by the Department of the Environment, it means something to those donors. They have provided the financial resources and the technical expertise because we say we have protected it’’.
It is my contention, however, that the EAG needs to go further in its protection and preservation of the environment and its support for activities that safeguard our biodiversity in the NEMMA.
You ask, what do I mean by the EAG going further? The EAG is the entity best suited (since the question of locus standi would not arise) to legally challenge all the violations of our Environmental Laws that have taken place as a result of the YIDA Project in the NEMMA.
I will cite just one example of a major development, earmarked for the British Virgin Islands (BVI) by a group of investors from Hong Kong, but challenged in Court in 2009. That case was the Virgin Islands Environmental Council versus the Attorney General and Quorum Island BVI Limited.
Quorum Island BVI Limited wanted to build a 5-star hotel, marina and golf course on Beef Island. The Minister of Planning granted permission to the investor to proceed with the project. A coalition of local fishermen, concerned residents, scientists and environmental activists came together as the Virgin Islands Environmental Council (VIEC) to challenge the project. A judicial review claim was brought to quash the decision of the Minister of Planning.
The project was supposed to take place in an area called Hans Creek – a fisheries protected area. The Judge, in outlining some of the reasons why VIEC brought the claim, noted: ‘‘Marine protected areas are safe havens for underwater plants and animals. They are valuable tools for protecting coral reef-habitats and managing near-shore fisheries while playing an essential role in the overall conservation of marine biodiversity’’.
The Judge having found that Hans Creek was a fisheries protected area, ruled that the permission granted by the Minister of Planning was void because it was plain illegal!
In my humble opinion, there are many similarities to Hans Creek in the BVI and our NEMMA. They are both protected areas. The role and function of our EAG would most certainly be similar to that of the VIEC in the British Virgin Islands.
VIEC, in the context of our situation here in Antigua, would equate to the EAG. I would submit, therefore, that our EAG needs to follow the example of VIEC and not only seek funding from international donors to protect and preserve our environment, but seek funding to mount legal challenges since the Court is the last bastion for the protection and preservation of our environment.
The open and blatant breaches of our Environmental Laws by the government must stop, but that will only happen if litigation – like protection and preservation – becomes part of the EAG’s modus operandi.