Thoughts from Peter Allard
It is with extreme regret that we must continue the closure of the Exhibits, Aviaries, Interpretive trails, and the Café to the general public at the Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary.
Over the past 20 years, I have spent over US $35 million (excluding nominal interest) to help restore and protect our portion of the Graeme Hall Wetland. The wetland is now designated as a RAMSAR site and recognized by the Convention on Wetlands Treaty.
Many know the Sanctuary as being the finest nature park in Barbados, home to the last significant mangrove, and sedge wetland on the island. With serious efforts to preserve the area, less than 10% of the Sanctuary's habitat has been developed with interpretive exhibits, trails, and support facilities.
It has been a significant centre for environmental conservation, education, and research. But the sad reality is that the Sanctuary and the wetland has been under severe assaults from external forces. These assaults are out of our control, and threaten not only the health of the wetland, but it's very survival.
After years of fruitless pleading with the Government of Barbados to repair critical environmental control structures and enforce environmental laws, in 2009 we were compelled to file formal complaints with the Ministry of the Environment. These complaints alleged that Barbados had violated the Convention on Wetlands and the Convention on Biodiversity Treaties, as well as the Canada-Barbados Investment Tax Treaty. The complaints alleged that for over a decade, de-facto policies have been adopted by Government that allowed for continuous and increasing pollution, including raw sewage dumping, rezoning high-density land development as part of the buffer adjacent to the wetland, and completely disregarded and turned a blind eye to environmental stakeholder interests within the site. Please click here to read more.
An extensive environmental study (Click here to read the full study) conducted in 2010 by notable environmental scientists from the United States confirmed that the ecosystem had become primarily a freshwater system rather than a brackish estuarine system. The seawater is unable to enter the wetland due to a Government-controlled and mismanaged sluice gate that controls drainage and tidal seawater charges, and in addition the Government-sanctioned development has closed off other traditional sea-to-wetland waterways.
The conclusions of this study were clear. Once the mangrove forest dies, freshwater organisms will compete with and dominate any fledgling mangrove system trying to restore itself.
The South Coast Sewage Treatment Plant started experiencing failures that were predicted. The Government was warned on several occasions about the failing sewerage system. Their negligent actions and lack of responsibility in maintaining the system caused several discharges which have been sporadically occurring since 2005 and almost continuously since late 2017. For over 10 years, the wetland has been treated as a conventional wastewater facultative lagoon (raw sewage dumping ground) by the South Coast Sewage Treatment Plant.
The Government has exacerbated the problems by continuously failing to maintain and operate the sluice gate diligently and responsibly, and as a result, causing further damage to the health of the salt-tolerant mangroves and wildlife as mentioned above in the 2010 environmental evaluation.
In June 2019, another extensive laboratory and environmental evaluation was completed by environmental experts from Florida to assess the condition of the Graeme Hall Nature Sanctuary and surrounding protected mangrove/wetlands area.
Almost a year after the long-awaited collapse of the South Coast Sewage Treatment Plant, it has been shockingly revealed that there are high levels of fecal matter and other dangerous pollutants contaminating the Sanctuary and surrounding area. The report recommends the restriction of public access to the lake due to serious health concerns, thereby making it impossible to operate the Sanctuary as an eco-tourist site.
No private investment in a nature reserve can withstand such external forces. Ultimately, environmental protections for multiple generations must stem from prudent and judicious government leadership and responsible lending practices by international funding agencies. The environmental policies must be adhered to by the Government and international funding agencies and based on sound science rather than politics.
Most of us know that environmental preservation comes at a price that is not easily justified using standard economic investment rules. But we believe that the Sanctuary and its associated 240-acre wetland and upland buffer lands are to Barbados what the 842-acre Central Park was to New York nearly 140 years ago.
We were pleased to see that in 2007, over 6,000 Barbadians signed a petition in favor of creating the 240-acre Graeme Hall National Park. As the most significant green space on the South Coast between the Airport and Bridgetown, the proposed National Park would include the designated 81-acre RAMSAR wetland, the 35-acre Sanctuary, and recreational lands.
Unfortunately, despite the heavily supported petition for a national park, a new government
zoning policy calls for commercial and residential development for the majority of the area.
Click here to view a “Then and Now” Map.
The proposed 240-acre National Park at Graeme Hall is comprised of lands that were initially recommended for protection under the 1988 Barbados National Physical Development Plan. Visionary land-use experts developed the 1988 Physical Development Plan from Barbados and the United Nations. In conformance with good urban planning practices, it was promised that approximately 300 acres would be preserved as a green buffer for conservation and recreation between the urban areas of Greater Bridgetown and Oistins. This influenced our decision to acquire Sanctuary lands in 1994 as the 1988 Physical Development Plan assured us that the area around the conservation investment would be kept as protective buffers for the sensitive wetland habitat.
But according to the new 2003 Physical Development Plan advocated by the Government and enacted in 2008, the residential and commercial development is at our doorstep, stopped only by the 100-year floodplain boundary. The Government plan does not lead with proactive policy to provide buffers for the wetland or preserve parkland for future generations. Given that the only protected area is within the 100-year floodplain, it means that the people of Barbados will lose all the high ground originally promised as parkland.
As a local Barbadian parent once told us, it will soon be nearly impossible for a child to find a place to ride a bicycle safely or for a family to have a picnic in a tranquil spot on the South Coast.
Can we put a price on such things when they are lost?
If the Government of Barbados continues to neglect the damage caused to the wetland and fail to initiate corrective actions using sound science, the disappearance of the mangrove forest is all but assured.
It is up to the people of Barbados to determine what they want to do to preserve the 240-acre green space at Graeme Hall, of which the Sanctuary is a part.
If you want to save Graeme Hall and support the effort to create Barbados First National Park, we encourage you to contact us and work with us to convince the leaders of Barbados to do the right thing. You can join the conversation by visiting our social media pages (Facebook and Twitter).
Peter A. Allard
October 31, 2019