Observer: By Gemma Handy
Ongoing silence among some of the country’s top officials amid spiraling controversy surrounding the Yida development is exacerbating concerns for the wellbeing of the country’s largest marine reserve.
It is now more than a week since an environmental activist videoed what appeared to be dredging taking place at the sprawling development which encroaches on the North East Marine Management Area (NEMMA), protected by law since 2005.
While a number of environmental bosses have said they are unaware of approval being given to dredge in the ecologically sensitive area, there is still zero response from Chief Town and Country Planner Frederick Southwell or Environment Minister Molwyn Joseph – despite repeated requests by Observer for clarity.
Neither has the Chinese-owned development company been able to be reached for comment.
Arica Hill, executive director of the Environmental Awareness Group, is the latest to demand transparency and accountability on the issue.
“I believe that the public needs to understand that within our systems we are supposed to have power – and our power is in our ability to say to developers, to our policy makers, that we don’t like something and they need to respond to those things – not by saying, this is a trivial concern but by responding fully and completely,” she said.
“They need to hear all of the concerns that we have and be flexible enough to say, ok I understand that this is your concern, we need to change what we are doing, because there are too many of you who are concerned about it,” Hill told Observer.
Dredging may be carried out for a variety of reasons including to make waters more accessible for large boats or to use the material gathered to fill in channels or create beaches. The latter seems likely given that developers have permission in principle to create two artificial beaches on the coastline.
The practice is controversial due to the potential impact on marine species and coral reefs. The NEMMA is widely considered to be one of the most valuable marine ecosystems in the region.
“The NEMMA itself is shallow so to dredge means you have to go really, really deep,” Hill continued.
“And once you do that you compromise seagrass beds as well as coral reef systems. Those two ecosystems work really well together to reduce storm surge that would go immediately into the community,” she explained.
“The beauty about having coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove ecosystems is that all three of them work together perfectly to reduce that wave energy.
“We’ve already removed the mangrove ecosystem and now you’re going to make the area more vulnerable. The NEMMA supports fisheries not just within Antigua but further down the Eastern Caribbean. The project is going to completely change the dynamics of the area, the habitats and the species that will survive there,” she added.
The Yida development has been mired in controversy since the agreement was signed in 2015. It will see factories, homes and holiday resorts created within a special economic zone which offers a slew of tax concessions to investors.
Earlier this month, an Observer investigation laid bare a litany of environmental violations since work began at the site. In addition to removing mangroves, Yida has also been flagged for mining sand and limestone without permission, among other offences.