Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass March 2004

The Tobago Cays: Experiment or Example?

Since my last article on the Tobago Cays ("The Tobago Cays in Crisis", Compass January 2004), the St. Vincent & the Grenadines Chamber of Commerce met with Prime Minister the Right Honorable Ralph Gonsalves to discuss concerns about the management of the Tobago Cays National Park. Chamber President Brian Glasgow tells Compass that "One of our Council members had been invited to sit on a committee of Friends of the Tobago Cays who are considering the management of the Tobago Cays National Park. The Chamber shares the concern of placing the responsibility for the management of a national treasure in the hands of a privately-owned company. A private entity, being profit motivated, may not be inclined to invest in the resources needed to preserve the environmental integrity of the Cays. We all agree that the Cays have historically suffered from neglect. However, in going forward, we believe that the Cays should be operated only under the most robust management conditions. In this regard, we respectfully asked that Prime Minister Gonsalves consider alternative submissions, including those from the 'concerned citizens' before making a final decision."

Following on this request, there was a meeting between Prime Minister Gonsalves, and the group of citizens called the Friends of the Tobago Cays (FOTC), who requested that the government consider options other than handing management of the Tobago Cays National Park over to Robert Barrett of the Palm Island Resort Ltd (PIRL) company. I was not at this January 29th meeting, neither am I a member of the FOTC, however, I got the feeling, from talking to some who were there, that they were told by the Prime Minister that the Palm Island deal was the way the St. Vincent government intended to go. FOTC delegates were given a copy of a document of about 25 pages, which is a draft agreement between the SVG government and PIRL. It is this document to which I am now going to turn my attention.

It must be said that the Prime Minister's Press Secretary Glen Jackson informed Compass before this issue went to press that, as yet, "there is no agreement and the government is still in the process of consultation with the stakeholders, including Palm Island Resort. final decisions have not been taken."
In addition, an article by Assistan tEditor Duggie Joseph in the February 20, 2004, edition of the local newspaper The News, quoted Robert Barrett as saying, "I even heard I signed an agreement. That's not true and I am not even sure I want to go forward with this."
If this document is anything to judge by, that is just as well.

The document is entitled "Strategic Alliance Agreement for the Protection and Preservation of the Tobago Cays Marine Park between Palm Island Resorts Limited and the Government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines". I will call it the New Agreement for short (I tried SAAPPTCMPBPIRLSVG, but as an acronym it just does not make it).
The original Tobago Cays Marine Park framework was typical of most parks', in as much as it included a Board of Directors - whose various members, including relevant NGOs and government ministries, would presumably have the best interests of the park in mind - and a Manager. It was the job of the Board to set the policy and direction of the park and instruct the manager, who was to implement the plan the Board came up with. In this New Agreement, however, management of the park is, in effect, handed over to the contractor. In other words, PIRL takes over the complete management of the Tobago Cays and no other body has any meaningful control.
PIRL would be responsible for coming up with its own "master plan" of operating policies and procedures, subject to approval by the government (acting through the Marine Parks Board). PIRL would employ their own "project manager" (their park manager), who would be directly accountable to PIRL. PIRL would also recruit, hire and pay their own marine biologist, who would be accountable to the project manager. Reports from the marine biologist would be available ONLY to the project manager and the government. And, although nominally remaining "government employees" as required under SVG law, the Park Rangers would be recruited, hired, trained, supervised and paid by PIRL, and be accountable to the project manager. PIRL would also be given the authority to fire any TCMP employee.

Meanwhile, under the New Agreement, rather than helping set policy, NGOs would merely "be given an opportunity to provide input relating to the environmental management of the TCMP, or review and provide comments to the administering party." In other words, PIRL have NO obligation to follow any of their advice,
If we study this document further, we can get an idea where PIRL would be headed:
They plan to build on and "improve" the Cays. From article 4.7: "The contractor (PIRL) or its affiliates shall have the sole responsibility with respect to drafting and implementing the master plan and shall further have sole responsibility for obtaining any architectural drawings, plans and reports in connection with the construction of the Marine Park Ranger Station and any other improvements and facilities to be used in connection with this agreement."
According to the New Agreement, PIRL hopes to put in, and make 50 percent of the profit from, 120 yacht moorings in the Tobago Cays. But wait, there's more: PIRL would also place 20 yacht moorings in Salt Whistle Bay, Mayreau, and 20 yacht moorings in Clifton Harbour, Union Island - plus more in other anchorages where they can get government agreement.
A lot of the New Agreement is about moorings, which is strange considering that the most knowledgeable report on the Tobago Cays National Park - Tom van't Hof's "Evaluation of the Tobago Cays Marine Park", an ECLAC study done at the request of the government of St. Vincent & the Grenadines and published in 2002 - states clearly that, for the most part, yacht moorings are COMPLETELY UNNECESSARY for the park. (It mentions that a few moorings may be necessary to the west of the islands for larger yachts, but that where most yachts currently anchor, they are unnecessary.) This is a fact that is obvious to all of us who sail there. Furthermore, in the New Agreement, the moorings have spread from the Tobago Cays to Mayreau and Union. Now, the idea of placing moorings in various Grenadine anchorages, whether done by PIRL or others, may have merit. But it should have nothing to do with a plan for the Tobago Cays National Park.

Apart from its title and a half a page of vague "recitals" (e.g. "Whereas, the Tobago Cays Marine Park contains, or could potentially contain, a diverse array of plant and animal life") the only thing I can find of relevance to the environment in the New Agreement, apart from promising to take out the garbage, is: "The contractor shall at all times ENDEAVOUR to operate the TCMP in an economically viable and environmentally friendly manner" (caps mine). As a lover of the Tobago Cays I don't find this reassuring.
The New Agreement is full of details but devoid of meaningful content. For example, it stipulates that the marine biologist shall have accounting proficiency and computer skills, but there is nothing about the vitally important step of providing dinghy and dive-boat moorings for snorklers and divers on the reefs. Nowhere does it indicate that PIRL have any understanding of the meaning of the Tobago Cays, and their economic and social impact locally or regionally. It says nothing about public outreach and education, nothing about what kind of environmental monitoring will be done, or who will design the monitoring program. There is nothing to suggest that management decisions will not be based primarily on profit rather than public good. Stakeholders have no significant say. There is no one to monitor management effectiveness except the managers, and only the managers would seem to decide what is beneficial for the Tobago Cays.

Unfortunately a staff, a couple of boats and 120 mooring buoys do not make a park. A park needs vision and understanding. I can find none here. In fact, I very much doubt the parties that wrote this agreement have read and understood ECLAC's "Evaluation of the Tobago Cays Marine Park". I am not qualified to comment on the legal aspects of the New Agreement document, but from a perspective of those genuinely interested in the welfare of the Tobago Cays, it is absurdly off the mark.
In short, this agreement hands over virtually all direct control of the Tobago Cays Marine Park to a for-profit company, while giving little indication of how they would manage it and absolutely no meaningful safeguards for protecting it. With its emphasis on infrastructure, it is what one might expect from resort-hotel developers with no understanding of what a national park is or how it should be run.

But, indeed, why should a for-profit company be expected to have any understanding of this? Kai Wulf, manager of the Soufriere Marine Management Area at the neighboring island of St. Lucia, says "I don't know of any example where a marine park was or is run by a private, for-profit entity. There are not really any comparisons or experiences to show." Agreeing to let any for-profit company manage a marine park, and trusting that businessmen will put the park's welfare ahead of the profit motive, therefore owes a lot to wishful thinking. The question is, can we afford to risk the Tobago Cays? When there is so much genuine expertise available in the marine park field, and given a regional history of successful not-for-profit parks, why shouldn't TCMP be made into a best example rather than a risky experiment?

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