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Environmental smoke and mirrors

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Tip of the spear: the Fairmont Southampton SDO is only one of the environmental issues that has BEST significantly at odds with the Bermuda Government (Drone photograph by Rufus Bonnar)

Bermuda is at a crossroads when it comes to protecting our environment for our future generations. Overseas trips by government ministers where they promote Bermuda’s “environmental leadership” contrast sharply with our present reality, where environmental protection policies are often sidelined for short-term economic gains.

The Government’s stance on the environment seems to be that it is more of a nuisance to be managed, rather than a precious resource to be stewarded. This short-sighted perspective is resulting in an increasing threat, especially to our most important natural resources. Previous governments were not better, but that is a poor excuse for failing now. The world has changed and Bermuda and Bermudians want our government to provide the needed environmental leadership.

For six years, we have been talking about restricting single-use plastics, yet still Bermuda does not have legislation to make this happen! This is particularly shameful given that many countries around the world, including islands in the Caribbean, introduced such legislation years ago. The Beyond Plastic Bermuda campaign has been working in the community for almost three years to support the Government’s promised ban, covering all related expenses for the campaign thanks to generous donations by local community champions, but there is no sign of actual government support.

There isn’t even mandatory recycling in Bermuda for aluminium and tin. There is little or no recycling in government offices and no recycling in our national parks. We lag behind most of the developed world that introduced effective recycling decades ago. At a minimum, we want our government to lead by example.

In July 2021, only two months after we were shown the design plans for a special development order application for the Fairmont Southampton, a change to the legislation surrounding the process for approving SDOs was proposed by the Minister of Home Affairs, Walter Roban, giving him the right to single-handedly approve any SDO without having it debated in the House of Assembly.

Of note, it was in 2011 when the same minister argued the importance for having an SDO debated in the House; the complete opposite position! Interestingly, and coincidentally, this was the same time as the Tucker’s Point SDO — another example of the “guardrails”, originally put in place to protect our environment, being systematically removed. The minister went on to approve that SDO, against the recommendations of the local experts in the planning department and on the Development Applications Board.

In late 2022, the minister responsible for parks, Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch, took the significant step of suspending the National Parks Commission. This body was established by law to provide expert advice to the minister on matters affecting the conservation and management of the parks and nature reserves within our national parks system. Finally, in 2024 the commission was reinstated, although installing a sitting MP, Zane DeSilva, as the chairman. Mr DeSilva is a prominent developer on the island, which many feel makes a mockery of his oversight on the commission.

There have been no improvements to our fisheries protections, despite years of talking about the deficiencies. It is common knowledge that the department is under-resourced and yet we are being told that it will be tasked with the management of additional legislation and oversight responsibilities if, or when, the much discussed Bermuda Ocean Prosperity Programme is adopted.

With respect to planning applications for development, ministerial discretion seems to have hit an all-time high, where the present minister is using veto power to overturn decisions made by the DAB — such that decisions that are underpinned by the policies of the island’s Bermuda Plan are under threat like never before. Recommendations by the Department of Planning and the subsequent decisions by the DAB play a critical role in safeguarding Bermuda’s environment, since those decisions are based on careful assessments that balance development needs with environmental preservation. By our count, nine applications that were refused by the DAB have been appealed in the past 12 months. Two of those are pending, but seven have been approved by the minister on appeal. Overriding these decisions signals a preference for short-term economic gains over long-term sustainability.

It now seems to be common knowledge that having the Department of Planning or the DAB refuse one’s development application is not a need for concern. Appeals to the minister appear to, almost certainly, result in his granting permission, regardless of local or foreign expert recommendations, although it should be noted that the responsibility for the Department of Planning was shuffled off to a new ministry in late 2023.

One positive environmental action that the Government can be praised for is the installation of solar panels on government buildings, and while moving forward with electric buses and cars may be seen as a positive, the country still relies heavily on fossil fuels for the electricity that powers them. But where will the electric vehicle batteries be disposed of when they reach their end of life? Will they end up being added to the unsightly and ecologically concerning dump near the airport that greets our visitors?

Make no mistake about it, the above is not a full account of our concerns, but suffice to say that the undermining of local environmental protections will not serve this country and will result in long-term, negative and possibly irreversible economic, environmental and social consequences for us all.

Yes, we need to stimulate the economy, but not in ways that threaten the environment and cost us more in the long term. It’s time for our government to evidence its stated commitment to our natural environment by upholding and even strengthening the policies and practices so that our future generations will inherit a sustainable Bermuda. It’s the least that they deserve.

We need to see tangible progress. We require more than soundbites and platitudes from our government.

Kim Smith is the executive director of the Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce

Kim Smith is the executive director of the Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce. She can be reached at office@best.org.bm

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Published June 07, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated June 07, 2024 at 7:13 am)

Environmental smoke and mirrors

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