by Gemma Handy
Ask anyone lucky enough to have visited and most will agree that the expanse of unspoilt countryside which stretches between Jennings and Five Islands is an area of exceptional natural beauty.
Encompassing swathes of pristine mangrove woodlands and the largest wetland area in the country, it is home to some of the most special and unique wildlife on Earth.
Dubbed The Flashes, it has earned a place in the hearts of hikers, birders and fishers alike who – just like the rare birds and sea turtles who come here to nest – have long flocked to enjoy its sights and sounds.
But many local residents fear all this will soon be gone.
Work is already well underway creating a special economic zone spanning almost 550 acres and which is set to include hotels, shops, theme parks, a cryptocurrency centre, casino, private homes, a financial district, warehouses, hospitals and universities.
Crucially, in addition to the environmental impact, businesses operating within it will be exempt from all taxes levied in Antigua and Barbuda.
On Tuesday morning, a group of protestors took their cries to the street. Around two dozen people associated with ‘the movement’ – which describes itself as an advocacy group for good governance –demonstrated along Valley Road, armed with placards, a short drive from the development’s border.
Much of their angst is about what they view as the covert nature of the deal struck with a private land owner.
Anger erupted in October when the zone was officially announced weeks after the agreement was signed, and days after a document which disclosed details was leaked to the public.
One of the protest’s organisers, Linley Winter, told Observer the scheme was “offensive in the extreme”.
“This agreement was passed secretly, surreptitiously. The mere fact it was done in that manner suggests they knew it would be unpalatable to the people,” he claimed.
Winter also questioned how much environmental oversight the government would have over the project.
The licence order dated September 20 2021, between Prime Minister Gaston Browne and a company called Millennia-Montaigne Developments, grants developers permission to build both over and under water.
Under a brief section entitled ‘environmental protection and approvals’, the government pledges to “provide all required approvals and permissions to the zone for its environmental impact assessment in a single instance”.
It is not the first special economic zone to be created in the twin island nation. Furore still abounds about the YIDA project where work is said to be “progressing” in a protected area of Antigua’s north-east, although a spokesman for the Prime Minister admitted to Observer that the developers were struggling to secure the requisite capital.
“Both of these projects are exempt from taxes for the lifetime of their operations; that says a lot about the people who signed off on these on our behalf,” Winter continued.
“The developers are allowed to regulate their own activities, and they have access to the wetlands to do as they please. Those wetlands are not there idly; they are an essential part of the ecosystem,” he added.
Meanwhile, up at the site, shrubland has been cleared to make way for roads where hiking trails once were, and a building has been constructed at what appears to be the entrance to the scheme near Jennings New Extension.
Birdwatcher Joseph Prosper has been a regular visitor to the area for almost 20 years and documents its numerous winged species for a number of regional NGOs.
Birds seen here, he told Observer, include the vulnerable West Indian whistling duck, hawks, kestrels, warblers and bullfinch, along with indigenous toads and crabs, butterflies, bees, and apparently every species of sandpiper found in the Eastern Caribbean.
“I heard about the project but I don’t know what the plans are. I went down there recently and realised I will not be able to go there for much longer. It’s kind of sad,” Prosper said.
“It’s beautiful there; I take my children every other Sunday to see the birds.”
Local hikers also told Observer of their fear that the picturesque area could be lost to them.
“They’re scraping down all the nice forestry down to Seaforth Beach,” one said. “It was a very good hiking area and they’ve basically destroyed most of it. A lot of persons are not happy about it at all.”
The area around Hanson’s Bay is described as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) by global body BirdLife International, which means it is deemed important for the conservation of bird populations worldwide.
Comprising a complex wetland system, it includes Antigua’s biggest mangrove woodland, plus salinas and wet pasture, and has significant populations of many birds, including the three species of restricted-range hummingbirds.
Not only do mangroves provide critical habitat for many species, they also capture and store carbon at more than twice the rate of rainforests, and protect coastlines against storms and erosion.
“This development is something every resident of this nation should stand up against,” said another demonstrator at yesterday’s protest, Agnes Blaize.
“We don’t care enough about our future generations in this country. Our young people will not be able to enjoy the beauty of our country,” she added.
Another protestor, David Spencer, said he was taking part on behalf of his children and future generations.
“This project is a total giveaway and will see the destruction of the biggest stretch of wetlands in this country.
“There has already been wholesale removal of trees at the beach. The government needs to stop this deal; it’s not in the interests of Antigua and Barbuda,” he added. “The land is being raped and we will not stand for it.”
Government has been largely tight-lipped on responding to concerns about the development. Acting Chief Town and Country Planner Clement Antonio declined to comment yesterday and hung up the phone when asked for clarification. Other officials from the Department for Environment and the Development Control Authority (DCA) could not be reached or did not respond to requests for comment.
However the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Lionel Hurst previously said the zone was intended to attract a large number of investors to the country, boost the economy and create jobs.