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By Gemma Handy

The gargantuan Yida development was once again at the centre of controversy yesterday after environmental activists filmed what appeared to be dredging taking place within the country’s largest marine reserve.

Long-time vocal opponent Foster Derrick raised the alarm while out on his boat for a Sunday afternoon jaunt, close to where the sprawling 2,000-acre project is being built.

His Facebook Live video had been viewed hundreds of times within hours of being posted, reigniting fury levelled at both the developers for apparent continuous flouting of environmental laws – and the government for facilitating it.

Dredging is the practice of removing sediment from the seabed, often to make the waters more accessible for larger boats or to be used to fill in channels. But it can have a devastating effect on coral reefs and fish nurseries.

Both Chief Environmental Officer Diann Black-Layne and Senior Fisheries Officer Tricia Lovell told Observer yesterday they were not aware of the company being given permission to dredge in the protected area.

Neither Environment Minister Molwyn Joseph or Chief Town and Country Planner Frederick Southwell could be reached to confirm that.

Fears are rife that the incident is the latest in a string of eco offences seemingly carried out by the Chinese-owned firm in the North East Marine Management Area (NEMMA), which spans 30 square miles on the windward side of Antigua.

“To my amazement I found the dredger here – and the dredger is actually pumping water,” Derrick said from his boat yesterday.

“There are no local monitors. They’re filling in a lot of land around here and have dug out a lot of mangroves. There’s effluent being pumped out into the NEMMA. It’s very silted up, with tremendous pollution,” he claimed.

The development has been mired in controversy since the agreement was signed in 2015. It will see factories, homes and holiday resorts created within a special economic zone which offers a slew of tax concessions to investors.

The NEMMA is one of the country’s most prized areas, home to a variety of endemic and critically endangered species. There has been widespread public outrage at the removal of mangroves which act as a critical buffer against storms and provide key habitat for juvenile species.

“This is a highly protected area, characterised by coral reefs, young corals and lots of seagrass beds,” Derrick continued.

“Dredging and just allowing the effluent to flow into an area like that will cause extremely heavy siltation on the corals and seagrasses and kill them because they can’t get access to sunlight.”

Derrick issued a public call to action.

“The public definitely has to stop this now. Enough of the ignorance from the government; I don’t have any faith in them regarding this development anymore.

“There have been too many lies. It’s time the public came out and did something. We are definitely going to see what we can do,” he pledged. “This is unacceptable.”

Last week, an Observer investigation laid bare a litany of environmental violations since work began at the site. In addition to removing mangroves, Yida has also been flagged for mining sand and limestone without permission, among other offences.

Investors bought the land for US$68m from the liquidators for the disgraced Texas financier Allen Stanford, once Antigua’s biggest employer, currently serving a 110-year prison sentence in the US for running a global Ponzi scheme.

The development encroaches on coastal land and several tiny unspoilt islands that fall within the marine reserve, protected by law since 2005. Its mangroves have long been a haven for migrating birds and a draw for tourists who flock to experience the untouched beauty.

The area is also a nesting ground for critically endangered sea turtles, the threatened West Indian whistling duck and the Antiguan racer, once dubbed the world’s rarest snake, brought back from the brink of extinction by efforts from local environmentalists.

A spokesman for the development could not be reached for comment up to press time last night.

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