The key ingredient

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Less than one year ago, in July 2016 to be exact, the issue of beach access and spear fishing vaulted to the fore as the Spear Fishermen’s Association threatened legal action to demand landward access to the beach and sea via Mill Reef Club. Fast forward to today and that threat has been renewed.

We thought this issue was mediated and a resolution was in place, however, the recent reports from the president of the association, Melvin Samuel, seems to indicate otherwise. According to Samuel, he recently gained access freely to the property and was able to venture out to sea to ply his trade; however, when he returned two days later, he was denied access. He reports that the denial was made in spite of the fact that he provided all required information to the security guard on duty.

Things escalated from there as Samuel, determined to gain access to the beach, lifted one side of the gate and entered the premises. That action resulted with him being detained by police and possible charges on the horizon. 

Last year, the issue got so heated that Prime Minister Gaston Browne jumped into the middle. He said that the government was considering holding talks with Mill Reef

Club over landward access to the several beaches bounded by its massive property. His opinion was that a balance needed to be found between security and access.

According to the PM at the time, “If it is that individuals are seeking to trespass on private property in order to access, then that’s a different ball game, but we’re saying that there ought to be access.” To put his thoughts into perspective, he added, “If we look at Sandals as an example, if someone is insisting that they have the right to walk through the Sandals property to go to [the] beach, that cannot

be right, but clearly a little further down between Halcyon and Sandals, there’s a little easement in which they can walk and get on the beach.”

He was quick to point out that “all beaches are public, and not only should there be sea access, there should be land access. That’s the policy of my government.”

Beach access is a touchy subject and every politician knows that. It is deemed a right! Former Prime Minister Sir Lester Bird chimed in at the time and gave full support for beach access, saying, “That is the position that I took when I was prime minister. That’s the position that VC [founding father, the late Prime Minister Vere Cornwall Bird] took.”

When it became known that the Mill Reef lease had been renegotiated by the United Progressive Party (UPP) in 2013, and that the new lease did not guarantee landward access, to keep it in compliance with the Physical Planning Act of 2003, Political Leader of the Party Harold Lovell was quick to fall on his sword and state that the administration missed an opportunity to negotiate access.

Considering all that occurred last year, we are therefore forced to ask “why”? Why are we in this position, again?

When the Physical Planning Act came into force in 2003, Section 50 (1) of the Act required all beach-front property holders to allow access to beaches. It states: “There shall be at least one public landward access to every beach in Antigua and Barbuda.” Has Mill Reef conformed to this requirement or have they been given an exemption (if one can be lawfully given)? It is hard to tell from the remarks so far.

Mill Reef has countered that it is a matter of safety for their very important members and guests, some of whom date back to the 1940s and 1950s. The former operations manager at the Mill Reef Club Hotel, Dane Knight, said at the time that a careful balance needs to be struck between the public’s demand for landward access to beaches within the property and the interests of the club and resort, saying, “Top security is needed at Mill Reef for the kind of clientele that Mill Reef attracts. We’re talking about Mill Reef attract princesses, governors, people from America, and you know how it is with security with top officials. So, I would say there should be a balance.”

More to the point, Knight said, “Antiguans have to make up their mind what they want. If they want tourism, or if they are going to be on a hard and fast.” He emphasised the point by distilling it down to a simple question, “Do we really want these people here who have been here since 1947, or we don’t?”

Today, an answer to that question seems to remain outstanding. The spear fishing association’s head has lamented what he describes as the “failed” promise by the PM to address the matter with the property’s management. Meanwhile, we have not heard from the PM on the matter.

While this disagreement continues to play out in the public and maybe the courts, there should be some common ground on which we can agree. The first is the value of the Mill Reef Club and its members to the prestige of Antigua & Barbuda as a tourist destination. It is also widely known that the members are generous to a wide variety of interests in Antigua & Barbuda and the value of those contributions cannot be denied.

Secondly, we should all agree that beach access is a right and accommodations should be made to allow for the exercise of that right. The spear fishermen are not unreasonable folk who want to set up a hi-fi and lime on the beach. They seem to understand the situation and only want access to ply their trade and earn a living. Certainly, that is not too much to ask.

Finally, and this seems to be the only thing already agreed, there needs to be a balance. Mill Reef cannot maintain its prestige and reputation if there is unfettered access to the property and its guests.  The property has endured because of the security and serenity it provides. At the same time, fishermen need to and have a right to work; ironically, sometimes to provide the catch-of-the-day for Mill Reef guests.

So, this cannot be such a massive issue that it cannot be solved with direct communication (maybe with the help of a skilled mediator). The key ingredient will be ‘mutual respect’.

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