Relief and a new reality

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Environmentalist must have felt some small sense of relief when they listened to the words of Minister of Information Melford Nicholas at the recent post-Cabinet briefing. The matter at hand was the Yida development and the fear that environmental concerns would be trumped by the desire for development.
Earlier this year, the Chief Environment Officer, Diann Black-Layne had indicated that the only way for the development to proceed with the scope and activities planned would be for the relevant minister and Cabinet to override the protections placed on the site by various Acts, or for the Acts to be altered altogether.
Of course, that got everyone who loves our environment, and understands its importance to our lives, to stand up and take notice. For most people, it would be inconceivable for the government to take such an unprecedented act. This was not about “economic terrorism”; this was about the long-term vision for our bit of paradise. People were anxious as they listened for some comforting words from the administration.
Were we going to sell our precious environment and our protected areas to a foreign developer in exchange for a few jobs and maybe some other financial benefits? Had our politicians become that shortsighted that we would risk the future for a few shekels now?
Luckily, it would appear that the feared wholesale sellout is not in our future. It may have taken a while to get a firm response but the Minister make it clear when he said, “Obviously, we want to have the development but not at all costs to sacrifice our ecology and our environment”, adding: “With respect to our environment, they have to find a way to comply.” You can’t see it but we are cautiously applauding.
This is a big deal because Yida owns over 2,000 acres of some of our most environmentally sensitive lands, including, but likely not limited to: Crabb’s Peninsula, Guiana Island, Crump Island, and Rabbit Island. All, or most, is located in the area designated as the North East Marine Management Area (NEMMA), which is protected by the Fisheries Act 2006 and the more recent Environment Management & Protection Act 2015.
The environmental sensitivity of the area and its impact to the region cannot be over emphasised. What NEMMA contributes to our marine ecology and the resulting economic and other benefits are priceless – and we mean that. Damage to the area would have a knock-on effect that will be felt near immediately and will last, literally, a lifetime.
We give kudos to the Cabinet and the Environmental Division for standing firmly on the side of the environment and we hope that the strength demonstrated is not eroded over time. We must particularly commend the Department of the Environment (DoE) for doing their job. It sounds like a strange thing to say that you are commending someone for doing their job but with all the pressure to pass the Yida development, they stood their ground and rejected the Strategic Impact Assessment (SEIA) submitted by Yida International. They pointed to the stale, two-decade-old data and the failure to meet the terms of reference that were given to the company. Bravo!
It would appear that the honeymoon period is over between the government and Yida. After all the glitzy ‘launches’ and promises, the trophy project with its proposed multi-billion dollar investment have produced only environment concerns, public outrage and wide swatches of cleared land. The faith that the Gaston Browne administration placed in Yida seemingly has not been returned with tangible action almost three years into the deal.
You would remember that the Yida project was the very first thing that was signed by the prime minister, one day after taking office. A big deal was made of the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) and PM Browne invested a lot of political goodwill into the project.
According to the press release at the time, Yida International was expected to invest over $200 million annually in the economy over the next 10 years, as well as provide an Antigua & Barbuda presence in the People’s Republic of China to attract additional economically viable investments.
Two years after that public love affair, things seemed to have soured somewhat. In April 2016, the PM seemed to distance himself from the Yida project when he was questioned about their plans. He said, “That is not for me to determine. Call the directors of Yida and speak to them directly if you have specific questions about Yida. We only get overall knowledge about it.” Clearly frustrated at the time, PM Browne sought to end the discussion, saying, “I am not an expert on Yida, so I won’t be interrogated exclusively about Yida and any further details required should be directed to a Yida agent.” In that same interview, the PM made it known that things had not gotten far off the ground when he said, “Yida hasn’t presented any plans to the government of Antigua & Barbuda … they may have concepts, but there are no firm plans for the development of Guiana Island.”
Another year has passed and we have no idea where the project stands, other than the recent rejection of the SEIA. That said, it does seem as though the warm welcome has begun to chill. Or maybe everyone is just waking up to reality.

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