Lack of measures to halt unsustainable development despite Nature Policy Plan | THE DAILY HERALD

PHILIPSBURG–The Government of St. Maarten has nothing in place to stop landowners from developing their property and building structures for private or commercial use, said Minister of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure VROMI Egbert Doran on Wednesday in response to questions from Members of Parliament (MPs) about the status of implementation of the Nature Policy Plan 2021-2025.

    In October 2021, VROMI Minister Doran approved a comprehensive Nature Policy Plan and a Nature Plan. These documents were drawn up based on the requirements of international conventions and of the legislation of St. Maarten. The Nature Plan outlines the proposed tangible activities that were to be realized during the planning period to achieve the Policy Objectives of the Nature Policy Plan 2021-2025.

    The VROMI Ministry, through the Nature Policy Plan, envisions “A future where the value of the nation’s natural resources and characteristics are fully appreciated and sustainably managed, especially in terms of their contribution to economic well-being, strengthening resilience to (natural) disasters and supporting human well-being.”

    At the time Doran acknowledged the following statement: “It can be said that in St. Maarten we have taken nature for granted for the sake of economic growth. Without planned intervention, St. Maarten may become a regional example of how unsustainable development destroys nature, leaving small islands urbanised, degraded, polluted and unattractive to critical tourism dollars.”

    According to the VROMI Ministry, the Nature Policy Plan aims to “embody a shift in attitude from perceiving the protection and conservation of nature as a hindrance to economic development towards one that views nature as an essential asset for the sustainable development of St. Maarten.”

    The Nature Plan outlines the steps to be taken before the end of 2025. In the form of a table, each Policy Objective is broken down with prioritised specific outcomes. For instance, by 2023 there would be an established cooperation structure with French St. Martin for the preservation and management of nature and environment on the island as a whole. This cooperation would be facilitated by the government-initiated Green Platform that would have been created by 2022. The VROMI Ministry committed itself to identify and restore degraded ecosystems by 2024.

    Of high priority was the establishment of protected areas. “By 2024, there is at least one established and effectively managed terrestrial protected area,” it is stated in the Nature plan. From the answers given by Doran in Parliament on Wednesday it is evident that the proposal to designate Little Key as a Nature Park Has not yet been formalised.

    At present, St. Maarten is home to one marine park and one wetland of recognised international importance: Man of War Shoal Marine Park and the Mullet Pond section of Simpson Bay Lagoon.

    The Nature Policy Plan 2021-25, approved in October 2021, was initially presented to Parliament on September 22, 2022. However, both the Nature Plan and the Nature Policy Plan stipulate that “The Minister of VROMI will report annually on the state of affairs regarding the implementation of the Nature Plan (before 1 June) and the Nature Policy Plan (before 1 September) to Parliament.”

    On Wednesday, Chair of Parliament Sarah Wescot-Williams reminded Doran of this legal obligation, emphasising that it had not been complied with, along with the obligation to seek Parliamentary approval of the Nature Policy Plan. A public meeting must be scheduled for this process to be finalised. However, this can only occur after all queries posed by MPs are addressed.

    “I don’t have all the answers, maybe 50 percent,” said Doran, who requested two weeks to prepare written responses.

    When asked by Wescot-Williams about the status of the Hillside policy, Doran simply said, “The Hillside policy is implemented.” However, when Wescot-Williams sought further clarification, Doran declined to provide additional details or elaboration.

    MP Ludmila de Weever voiced her concern, saying, "It is my understanding that we granted a lease for the seafloor in Little Bay. When that was done, was it taken into consideration what was going to be placed there? The Nature Policy emphasises the importance of protecting our waters to ensure the thriving of plant and animal life. I fail to see the connection between the nature policy and the presence of plastics in an underwater museum, which is not a positive addition to the thriving marine environment.”

    Doran responded by acknowledging the issue, saying, “Inspectors had noticed the presence of plastics in the underwater museum. I have to verify how that was addressed.”

    Underscoring her concerns about over-development of the island and its impact on nature, MP Melissa Gumbs read from the Nature Policy a chapter titled “Threats”:

    “Threats to the terrestrial nature of St. Maarten include invasive fauna, development or conversion of land use, erosion, and waste. Historically, the nature of St. Maarten was disturbed primarily by activities related to agriculture, breeding of livestock and harvesting of salt. Nowadays the rapid tourist development and the large and increasing population density mean that nature and the remaining green spaces are experiencing direct threats from spatial developments.”

    It is further explained that 84% of St. Maarten’s land cover is parcelled for private ownership or for long-lease purposes. “These developments and the accompanying roads are encroaching and excavating higher into the hills and threatening the remaining untouched habitats such as seasonal evergreen forests, leading to habitat loss, fragmentation and deterioration as well as increasing the incidences of erosion, landslides and water management complications,” the Nature Policy Plan states.

    Gumbs: “Taking this section of the Nature Policy into consideration, where the risk of commercial development is explicitly outlined, I find myself asking the same question I asked when we were discussing the spatial development policy strategy. I asked in that meeting last year, or in 2022, is there or has there been any consideration given to pausing the issuance of large scale commercial building permits?”

    Not hitting the pause button while you are working on the nature policy and the spatial development plan, Gumbs said, “is essentially like appraising a house while it is still under construction.”

    She received a response indicating that pausing the issuance of building permits had not been considered. In fact, the number of building permits issued has increased from approximately 300 in 2022 to 350 last year. Through the media, Gumbs learned that Doran is of the opinion that it is “crazy” to halt development, as it would negatively impact the economy.

    On Wednesday, Doran said, in response to Gumbs’ concerns, that individuals own their land, making it challenging to dictate what they can or cannot do with it. “If they wish to build a home or a commercial development to improve their and their families’ lives, there are no legal measures in place to prevent them from doing so,” he said. “However, if someone violates our building code, we can enforce corrective actions.”

    Doran did not mention the requirement of a Civil Works permit as per Article 28 of the National Ordinance on Spatial Development Planning LROP. The reintroduction of Article 28a on April 26, 2021, listing the conditions for a civil works permit for demolition, clearing land for construction and removal of trees, was at the time heralded by Doran for protection of the environment.

    In a press release Doran explained: “Article 28a regulates the requirements for a civil works permit, which will allow the minister to review certain planned works prior to approval. This will ensure that the works will not cause undesirable and irreversible damage to the environment and are executed with concern to the environment and that the works fit within the government Spatial Development Vision. In addition, the article allows the government to impose conditions on the execution of the works.”

    No revenues from the application for or granting of Civil Works permits was mentioned during the 2024 budget debate. The number of permits issued in 2023 remains undisclosed.

    On Wednesday, Doran told Parliament that he considered implementing a building halt to be “extreme.” In response, Gumbs highlighted the importance of considering precedents, saying, “Anguilla paused large commercial developments for 24 months to prevent exactly the terrestrial threats scenario outlined in this nature policy.”

    While Doran asserted that there are no legal measures currently established to prevent construction from adversely affecting nature, Objective 5 of the Nature Plan outlines a different trajectory. It stipulates that by 2024, enhanced enforcement of rules and regulations concerning nature and the environment would be implemented. This initiative includes the development of an English handbook detailing rules and regulations pertaining to nature and the environment.

    As per the approval of the Nature Policy Plan in 2021, the VROMI minister theoretically prioritised collaboration with the prosecutor to delineate offences and fines related to nature. The goal was to enhance enforcement capabilities for nature preservation, with the intention of swearing in additional individuals as extraordinary police officers to enforce fines associated with nature.

    “I am wondering how policy lines up with action,” Gumbs said.

Source: The Daily Herald