29 Jun 2015: Report

On an Unspoiled Caribbean Isle,
Grand Plans for Big Tourist Port

East Caicos is a tropical jewel – the largest uninhabitated island in the Caribbean and home to rare birds and pristine turtle-nesting beaches. But plans for a giant port for cruise and cargo ships could change it forever.

by fred pearce

The Caribbean’s largest uninhabited island is under siege. For most of the past century, sea turtles, birds and other wildlife have been the only occupants of East Caicos island, part of a tiny British-run tax haven known as the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI). But if the politicians of the Turks and Caicos get their way, a U.S.-inspired development boom that critics say would overrun the island and decimate its natural heritage will soon be underway.

The premier of the TCI, Rufus Ewing, is seeking support from U.S. cruise ship companies and Chinese cargo firms for a giant port complex amid the wetlands and coral reefs on the east of the island. Meanwhile, a Philadelphia-based real
East Caicos
gov.tc
Unspoiled East Caicos island covers 35 miles at high tide.
estate company is offering for sale a large plot of land that includes more than two miles of one of the Caribbean’s longest and least disturbed turtle beaches.

Environmentalists say the proposed port project would trigger a rush of speculative tourism development and an influx of people looking for work. The result, they contend, would be devastating to the island’s ecosystems.

“East Caicos is a jewel," says Kathleen Wood, a former director of the territory's environment ministry. "It has been protected until now by its isolation. But once a port is built, there will be a rush of speculators across the island and illegal development. Everybody will want a piece of the pie. Everything would be wiped out.”

“East Caicos is the most unspoilt wetland complex in the region, but it seems to be completely undervalued,” says Mike Pienkowski, director of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum, an NGO that campaigns for environmental protection in this and other surviving specks of the British empire around the world.

The British government, which would have the ultimate sign-off on the port project, is refusing to get involved. It was responsible for signing up
The island’s wetlands, woodlands, and savannahs are home to several rare birds.
the TCI to a number of conservation treaties relevant to East Caicos, including the Ramsar Convention, an international agreement that protects wetlands. And British government scientists have recommended that an existing Ramsar site covering parts of the Caicos Islands should be extended to provide protection for the whole of East Caicos, including the proposed port site. But officials in London say conservation and planning are matters for the local elected government.

The Turks and Caicos Islands lie southeast of the Bahamas and north of Haiti. They consist of parts of two giant sand banks that break the ocean's surface. The Caicos bank alone covers more than 1,900 square miles. East Caicos, a one-hour boat ride from Middle Caicos through treacherous channels around coral reefs, covers 35 square miles at high tide, but twice that at low tide.

The island is not virgin wilderness. It was probably permanently occupied by the Lucayan, a branch of the Caribbean Tainos people, before the arrival of Europeans decimated local populations. But subsequently it

Enlarge

Wikimedia Commons/Yale e360
The Turks and Caicos Islands are located in the Caribbean Sea southeast of the Bahamas.
was largely empty of people until the late 19th century, when an Irish entrepreneur, John Ney Reynolds, settled on the island and established a sisal plantation that supplied rope and twine to New York, dug phosphate-rich bat guano from limestone caves for sale to sugar plantations in Jamaica, and operated a cattle farm.

Reynolds’ endeavours died with him at the turn of the century. But their legacy lingers. While abandoned cattle were finally exterminated by American hunting parties in the 1940s, the descendents of the donkeys that once dragged the guano along a railway track to the coast still graze the island's salty and pond-dotted savannah interior. And there are a few remains of a former settlement, Jacksonville, on the northwest shore.

The island has become a valuable refuge for the wildlife of the Caribbean. Its mangroves, wetlands, woodlands, and savannahs are home to several rare native birds, including an endemic subspecies of the Greater Antillean Bullfinch, the vulnerable West Indian whistling duck, and important populations of the Bahama mockingbird and the thick-billed vireo, as well as plenty of flamingos and brown pelicans. The island is also home to the dwarf boa constrictor, a snake found only on East Caicos and neighboring Caicos islands.

The northern shore — where many would like to see resorts built — is fringed by more than 15 miles of white, sandy beaches, where green and
Until now, tourism development has not reached East Caicos. But Premier Ewing is intent on changing that.
hawksbill turtles nest. And the caves that were once mined for guano remain largely unexplored. They contain their own natural wonders, including rare crustaceans that are probably endemic but have not yet been identified or named, according to Wood. They also contain carvings and paintings made 1,400 years or so ago by the Lucayan and documented a century ago by American anthropologist Theodoor de Booy.

Much of the island remains undocumented by researchers, says Wood, an American and a long-time resident of the TCI. She resigned her post as environment director last year after a barrage of verbal attacks and criticism from supporters of the port project. Currently, Wood is trying to update the old ecological research by conducting snap surveys of the island for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a British NGO. But she fears she faces a race against time before colonists take over.

Periodic efforts to recolonize the island in the 20th century all failed. A group of Americans, recruited by an executive of Standard Oil, set up camp in 1940. But having eaten out the feral cattle, they were reduced
Rufus Ewing
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Turks and Caicos Premier Rufus Ewing supports the proposed port project.
to feeding on donkey meat before giving up. A buccaneering English journalist, John Houseman, and his wife stuck it out for a few months in 1968. Two years later, a group of Bermudans acquired 1,300 acres at Breezy Point along the northern beach, the former base of Reynolds. But they never moved in.

Tourist developments spread across other islands in the TCI in the 20th century. But until now they have not reached East Caicos. Premier Ewing and his government are intent on changing that.

Two years ago, he launched the idea of a major port on the east of the island. At a conference in Miami, he said that U.S. cruise lines, including Carnival — which has an existing port on neighboring Grand Turk island — had expressed interest in the project. Carnival told Yale Environment 360 that it had no immediate plans to add to its existing port at Grand Turk.

Last fall, TCI ministers reiterated their enthusiasm and declared that a 19 million euro grant for transport infrastructure from the European Development Fund would be spent on kick-starting the project. Finance minister Washington Misick said the government would use it “specifically for the development of a deepwater port.”

But so far Ewing's government has not been willing to discuss how the project design would meet fundamental environmental concerns, including those raised by Wood. "The whole of TCI is low-lying land in shallow
An environmentally sensitive port development is simply not possible at this location,” one critic says.
waters, with banks and coral reefs," she says. "The port construction would need to plow through acres of vital coral reefs, dig out wetlands, and create a basin that would destroy an aquifer that birds rely on. An environmentally sensitive port development is simply not possible at this location.”

Yale Environment 360 attempted to contact the TCI government’s permanent secretary, Wesley Clerveaux, and its former director of investment, Rebecca Astwood, who still works in the premier’s office. Astwood referred our questions to the government press officer, who did not respond. Clerveaux did not reply to emails or phone calls.

Wood believes that any kind of big government-sponsored development would turn the island into a honeypot for developers. Even before a port deal is done, efforts to leverage the plan into profitable real-estate sales are underway.

Sotheby’s recently put up for sale a 1,407-acre plot on the north shore of East Caicos, with more than two miles of “pristine beachfront” adjacent to the port development. The price tag is $42 million. It describes the plot as “the only privately owned beachfront parcel on the magnificent and uninhabited island” and “perhaps the finest freehold opportunity in the Caribbean.” It claims the port plan, which would include a deepwater yacht marina, is attracting investors from China and Russia.

The seller of the plot is the Arden Group, a real-estate company in Philadelphia that describes its investment strategy as “to identify and acquire top-tier properties in major markets and resort destinations that have demonstrated demand, but are undervalued.” Sotheby's confirmed that the plot is the former Reynolds estate near Breezy Point acquired by unknown Bermudans for development in 1970, with some added oceanfront.

Even without blue-chip real-estate investors, the lure of jobs and the development of infrastructure for the port would likely see much of the island overrun by land speculators and the TCI’s landless — including some of the thousands of illegal migrants from Haiti who have settled on other TCI islands.

Most of East Caicos has long been part of the U.K. government’s Crown Estate. But that may be no barrier to uncontrolled development. Land and
Ninety percent of the biodiversity under the control of the British government lies in its dependent territories.
tourist developments are a contentious topic on the tax-haven island. The British government took direct control of affairs in TCI between 2009 and 2012 after a commission of inquiry found extensive corruption among the small ruling elite centred around former premier Michael Misick, particularly through the sale of Crown land for private profit.

The British government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office referred all questions about the port plan to Ewing's government, which was elected after home rule was restored in 2012. This hands-off approach, which it commonly adopts for its dependent territories, frustrates conservationists. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds estimates that 90 percent of the biodiversity under the control of the British government now lies in its dependent territories, former fragments of empire scattered from the

MORE FROM YALE e360

Nicaragua Canal: A Giant Project
With Huge Environmental Costs

Lake Nicaragua
Work has already begun on a $50 billion inter-ocean canal in Nicaragua that would cut through nature reserves and bring massive dredging and major ship traffic to Central America’s largest lake. Scientists and conservationists are warning that the project is an environmental disaster in the making.
READ MORE
Pacific Ocean to the South Atlantic and Caribbean.

British Prime Minister David Cameron told leaders of the territories, at a meeting in London at the end of 2012, that their biodiversity represented "an important opportunity to set world standards in our stewardship of the extraordinary natural environments we have inherited." But there is a big gap between rhetoric and reality. In many of these territories, including the TCI, there is little or no legal protection for wildlife, in part because the British government does not want to interfere in local affairs, but also because it is unwilling to spend money on conservation.

British government representatives in the former colonies often recognize the unique natural heritage over which they preside. Earlier this month, Wood took the British governor of TCI, Peter Beckingham, on a visit to East Caicos. He was evidently impressed. Afterward, he declared in a blog: “I suspect few visitors to TCI, and possibly even some of our local residents, can have any idea what a jewel sits on the edge of the islands.

"We should all be grateful,” Beckingham continued,” for [those people] keeping and preserving East Caicos as the region’s last remaining, biggest, uninhabited paradise.” Sadly, his own government is not currently among them.



POSTED ON 29 Jun 2015 IN Biodiversity Biodiversity Oceans Policy & Politics Science & Technology Sustainability Central & South America North America 

COMMENTS


Will there be a petition?
Posted by Madeleine Yeo on 30 Jun 2015


Same primitive way of thinking as locally here in Curacao.
Curacao has one of two or three of the last untouched pristine coral reefs in the Caribbean.
Politics and government will develop the corresponding coastal area with at least five hotels and adjacent housings, infrastructure etc.
Slaughtering the chicken laying the golden eggs.....
Posted by Marcel on 02 Jul 2015


European Development Fund... Maybe forwarding a complaint to Brussels would help.
Posted by Tortuga on 31 Jul 2015


POST A COMMENT

Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Name 
Email address 
Comment 
 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.


fred pearceABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the U.K. He serves as environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine and is the author of numerous books, including The Land Grabbers. Previously for Yale Environment 360, he has written about conservation efforts for Kenya's mountain forests and threats to Oman's ancient water systems.
MORE BY THIS AUTHOR

 
 

RELATED ARTICLES


How Nations Are Chipping
Away at Their Protected Lands

Winning protected status for key natural areas and habitat has long been seen as the gold standard of conservation. But these gains are increasingly being compromised as governments redraw park boundaries to accommodate mining, logging, and other development.
READ MORE

For James Hansen, the Science
Demands Activism on Climate

Climate scientist James Hansen has crossed the classic divide between research and activism. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he responds to critics and explains why he believes the reality of climate change requires him to speak out.
READ MORE

How to Talk About Clean
Energy With Conservatives

Angel Garcia, of Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, is working to persuade Republicans about the need for renewable energy. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he explains why his group avoids mentioning climate change when it makes its pitch to conservatives
READ MORE

How Forest Loss Is Leading
To a Rise in Human Disease

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that the felling of tropical forests creates optimal conditions for the spread of mosquito-borne scourges, including malaria and dengue. Primates and other animals are also spreading disease from cleared forests to people.
READ MORE

Beyond the Oregon Protests:
The Search for Common Ground

Thrust into the spotlight by a group of anti-government militants as a place of confrontation, the Malheur wildlife refuge is actually a highly successful example of a new collaboration in the West between local residents and the federal government.
READ MORE

 

MORE IN Reports


As Drought Grips South Africa,
A Conflict Over Water and Coal

by keith schneider
Facing one of the worst droughts in memory, South Africa’s leaders have doubled down on their support of the water-intensive coal industry. But clean energy advocates say the smartest move would be to back the country’s burgeoning wind and solar power sectors.
READ MORE

Saving Amphibians: The Quest
To Protect Threatened Species

by jim robbins
The decline of the world’s amphibians continues, with causes ranging from fungal diseases to warmer and drier climates. Now, researchers are looking at ways to intervene with triage measures that could help save the most vulnerable populations.
READ MORE

How Rising CO2 Levels May
Contribute to Die-Off of Bees

by lisa palmer
As they investigate the factors behind the decline of bee populations, scientists are now eyeing a new culprit — soaring levels of carbon dioxide, which alter plant physiology and significantly reduce protein in important sources of pollen.
READ MORE

Can Uber-Style Buses Help
Relieve India's Air Pollution?

by jason overdorf
India’s megacities have some the deadliest air and worst traffic congestion in the world. But Indian startups are now launching initiatives that link smart-phone apps and private shuttle buses and could help keep cars and other motorized vehicles off the roads.
READ MORE

Trouble in Paradise: A Blight
Threatens Key Hawaiian Tree

by richard schiffman
The ʻohiʻa is Hawaii’s iconic tree, a keystone species that maintains healthy watersheds and provides habitat for numerous endangered birds. But a virulent fungal disease, possibly related to a warmer, drier climate, is now felling the island’s cherished 'ohi'a forests.
READ MORE

Climate Change Adds Urgency
To Push to Save World’s Seeds

by virginia gewin
In the face of rising temperatures and worsening drought, the world’s repositories of agricultural seeds may hold the key to growing food under increasingly harsh conditions. But keeping these gene banks safe and viable is a complicated and expensive challenge.
READ MORE

As World Warms, How Do We
Decide When a Plant is Native?

by janet marinelli
The fate of a tree planted at poet Emily Dickinson's home raises questions about whether gardeners can — or should — play a role in helping plant species migrate in the face of rising temperatures and swiftly changing botanical zones.
READ MORE

With New Tools, A Focus
On Urban Methane Leaks

by judith lewis mernit
Until recently, little was known about the extent of methane leaking from urban gas distribution pipes and its impact on global warming. But recent advances in detecting this potent greenhouse gas are pushing U.S. states to begin addressing this long-neglected problem.
READ MORE

Is Climate Change Putting
World's Microbiomes at Risk?

by jim robbins
Researchers are only beginning to understand the complexities of the microbes in the earth’s soil and the role they play in fostering healthy ecosystems. Now, climate change is threatening to disrupt these microbes and the key functions they provide.
READ MORE

As Electric Cars Stall, A Move
To Greener Trucks and Buses

by cheryl katz
Low gasoline prices and continuing performance issues have slowed the growth of electric car sales. But that has not stymied progress in electrifying larger vehicles, including garbage trucks, city buses, and medium-sized trucks used by freight giants like FedEx.
READ MORE


e360 digest
Yale
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies
.

SEARCH e360



Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter


CONNECT


ABOUT

About e360
Contact
Submission Guidelines
Reprints

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


DEPARTMENTS

Opinion
Reports
Analysis
Interviews
Forums
e360 Digest
Podcasts
Video Reports

TOPICS

Biodiversity
Business & Innovation
Climate
Energy
Forests
Oceans
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology
Sustainability
Urbanization
Water

REGIONS

Antarctica and the Arctic
Africa
Asia
Australia
Central & South America
Europe
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

“video
Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.

e360 MOBILE

Mobile
The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 PHOTO ESSAY

“Alaska
An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

“Battle
The 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner documents a Northeastern town's bitter battle over a wind farm.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.

e360 SPECIAL REPORT

“Tainted
A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

OF INTEREST



Yale