Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary: A Legacy Lost?

From the field journal of Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary's naturalist, Ryan Chenery:

"During (my) most recent kayak trip on the lake I had the privilege of watching a Peregrine Falcon (at times no more than 20 feet overhead) effortlessly reaching mind-boggling speeds as it hunted bats at sunset.  As I paddled through the water I noticed millions of small white flies which had evidently just hatched - desperately seeking out a mate before they fell and died on the water all around me (an image not unlike a snowfall).   Osprey and Great Blue Herons called and sought roosting sites for the night amongst the mangroves, while in the distance the solitary figure of a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron stirred to life in a small patch of White Mangroves to the west of the egret colony.   It is at times like these that I am struck by the magic of this place and am reminded of its staggering importance"

-Ryan Chenery, February 2009

Many have asked why Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary is closed to the public. It has been 13 weeks since the closure, and as of Monday all employees except for a small maintenance and security team have been permanently severed from their jobs. 

According to Peter Allard, Chairman of the Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary, the decision to close was extraordinarily painful, as it affected the lives of many good men and women. But the closure was inevitable because the physical survival of the Sanctuary is at stake.

“After spending nearly $35 million US on the Sanctuary and its operations over fifteen years, we finally realized the Sanctuary would not survive,” said Allard.

“We rely on a natural healthy ecosystem, along with its natural peace and tranquility, because it is the only “inventory” that the Sanctuary has to offer visitors.”

“It is not, as some would believe, about simple economics. Increasing pollution and government policies and procedures outside of the Sanctuary are killing the wetlands at Graeme Hall, and no amount of continued investment inside the Sanctuary can change that.” 

“It is simply not prudent or feasible for one man to continue supporting the Sanctuary in perpetuity. The matter is further complicated when governmental policies and actions are dooming its ecosystem to failure.”

“I understand that the future of the Sanctuary is a national issue and that it is up to the people of Barbados to let their government know what they want.   Perhaps the academic and scientific community will step up as well, if only to preserve the very areas they wish to study,” observed Allard.  

 

Allard ticked off a partial list of issues that led to the closure:

1.  The physical survival of the Sanctuary is threatened by specific land use policies that have changed since the initial decision to invest in the Graeme Hall ecosystem. 

“We would not have made the Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary investment if we had known the upland buffer lands at Graeme Hall were, in fact, scheduled for massive re-classification to Predominantly Residential and Urban Corridor use.

“We made the investment in the Sanctuary based on our the knowledge that the uplands and surrounding area would remain open natural parkland, as defined in the 1988 Barbados National Physical Development Plan (PDP) which was in force at the time.    We are knowledgeable about conservation investments, and our experience has shown that wetland and other conservation projects always need significant buffers around them, especially those in urban areas, otherwise polluted and excessive water runoff and other environmental disturbances will kill the natural ecological balance in the very area we are trying to protect.”

“Our investment began in 1993.  We envisioned an environmental centre that would anchor the approximately 240 acres of green parkland space at Graeme Hall.   Government already owned most of this land, and the 1988 PDP vision assured us that the original Graeme Hall green space between Greater Bridgetown and Oistins would always be there.    And in July, 1995, Mark Cummins, Chief Town Planner wrote us saying that the Sanctuary would indeed have appropriate buffers by saying, “The Planning Office has a very stringent policy on significant environmental areas, whose fragility is in need of protection.  It is felt that such areas require management as opposed to development and should be left for posterity.”  

“Along with thousands of citizens, we were shocked to learn that the new 2003 PDP passed Parliament in early 2008,” recalled Allard.   “Everyone had hoped that the 2003 PDP legislation would be amended to reinstate the Graeme Hall green area as originally promised and legislated in the 1988 PDP.” 

Citizen discussions, Town Hall meetings, notice to stakeholders and environmental  impact studies were  almost completely ignored by the government for the momentous land rezoning of green space at Graeme Hall.  It became more and more evident that government really wanted to proceed quietly and without fanfare to overturn the 1988 PDP recommendations for green space at Graeme Hall, and develop most of the area with commercial and residential land development. 

2.  The natural ecosystem inventory at the Sanctuary is being degraded by specific government-run environmental management practices and lack of environmental enforcement. 

“Over the past 15 years scientists and naturalists have been observing increasing stress on the Graeme Hall ecosystem from surrounding pollution sources.  Examples include raw sewage, pesticides, contaminated stormwater and contaminated runoff such as fuel, cooking grease and other pollutants from homes and businesses.”  

From water quality testing done by the University of the West Indies and others on waterbodies at Graeme Hall, measured pollutants include abnormally high levels of faecal coliforms from human sewage, high nitrogen from fertilizer and other runoff, corresponding low oxygen concentrations, high turbidity, and concentrations of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. 

“One example of a catastrophic event was the government's decision to bypass an approved emergency dump line and manually pump an estimated 3 to 6 million gallons of raw sewage into the closed Graeme Hall wetland without notification to the Sanctuary or the public.   This was in direct violation of international health and environmental protocols, treaties and international lending requirements to which Barbados has signed.    This occurred as a result of a system failure in July 2005, and was authorized by the Barbados Water Authority.   The volume of raw sewage was enough to significantly contaminate all water bodies within the 35-acre Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary, as well as the Sanctuary's main spring.  The wetland no longer flushes naturally, so the contaminants accumulate on Sanctuary property and in the wetland.”  

3.  Despite formal Sanctuary offers to government to help with Worthing Beach sluice gate operations over the years, almost nothing has been done, resulting in significant environmental degradation at the Sanctuary.  

“We experience massive fluctuations of water levels because the sluice gate is not operating.  This has contributed to increasingly unhealthy wetland waterbodies, including fish kills and mosquito infestations.  After nearly 15 years, mismanagement of the sluice gate and the elimination of traditional tidal flows into the wetland continues.  Since August 2006, due to the inoperative sluice gate, the Ministry of Public Works controls water levels in Graeme Hall Swamp using a backhoe to add or remove sand fill in the sluice gate channel.”

4.  Despite being the largest and most significant private conservation stakeholder on the South Coast, the Sanctuary has been pointedly excluded from the majority of discussions, meetings and activities that directly impact environmental management of the Graeme Hall wetland.   In addition, the Sanctuary has never been formally notified of any pending land use applications at Graeme Hall which may adversely affect the health of the wetland.  

“One example occurred in 2004.  Rumours of a potential Water Park in the 1988 PDP green space area began circulating.  The fact that the apparent application for the Water Park was being considered was in itself surprising, since the 2003 PDP which advocated urban corridor use of Graeme Hall lands was still in draft form and had not actually been ratified by Parliament.”  

“The issue became more confusing when then Prime Minister Owen Arthur advised us that he knew nothing of the Water Park application to Town and Country Planning and described such a development as "madness".   But then it was discovered that an application had in fact been made to Town and Country Planning, and that it was to occupy high profile and sensitive green area at Graeme Hall formerly designated as open/natural space in the 1988 PDP.

“When citizens became aware of the Water Park development application they immediately rallied in the thousands and signed a petition for preservation of the area and the creation of a National Park at Graeme Hall.   The initiative was defeated, but the problem of potential development remains because land use policy at Graeme Hall still advocates Predominantly Residential.”

5.  “The Sanctuary has invested heavily in environmental education and capacity-building for the government of Barbados, but because there has been no proactive participation from government, there appears to be no tangible benefit to the environment or the Graeme Hall wetland as a result of this investment.  

“There have been no tangible responses to our significant offers of philanthropic or partner support for government-led environmental, scientific, public health, recreational and educational initiatives. 

“But government disinterest was particularly evident several years ago after the Sanctuary funded an all-expense paid trip for government  environmental engineers to learn about wetland management technologies at the South Florida Water Management District agency in Florida. This was a technical capacity-building opportunity for the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Public Works, however when the trip was over there was no change in environmental intentions or services by government, the sluice gate continued to be inoperative, and no additional civil works studies were initiated within the wetland or the upland buffers.   Furthermore, to my knowledge, neither the current or previous Prime Minister has visited the Sanctuary or otherwise shown an interest in these offers of support.”

 

“Proactive government participation, control of pollution source points and land use policy in the environmental buffers outside the Sanctuary are not controlled by us,” said Allard.   “These shortfalls cannot be offset by more money invested at the Sanctuary.  It is a no-win situation.”

“The new government came to power as a result of a number of promises one of which was the protection of Graeme Hall but soon after being elected they passed the 2003 amended PDP.  Although no applications to our knowledge have as yet been filed to develop the upper lands, it became clear to us very quickly that growing environmental pollution plus the new plans to develop most of the Graeme Hall lands would kill the already fragile wetland and migratory bird site at Graeme Hall,” said Allard.  

“In 2007 we had been assured by both BLP and DLP members who were active in Parliament that the 2003 PDP could be passed with a rider that would reinstate the 1988 PDP recommendation to preserve the 240-acre Graeme Hall green space.   They told us this could be done prior to the final ratification vote, especially since there was so much public support for the national park at Graeme Hall.”

The assurances turned out to be empty. 

As of today, March 9, 2009, Sanctuary officials confirmed that there was still no word from Government on any new  intentions regarding the Sanctuary.

Will future generations of Barbadian children and families and visitors be denied this magic of green space and biodiversity on the South Coast?

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