Published On: Thu, Apr 18th, 2024

Nature Policy Plan implementation lags: Minister Doran admits lack of measures to halt unsustainable development

PHILIPSBURG — In a stark revelation, Minister of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment, and Infrastructure, Egbert Doran, admitted on Wednesday that the St. Maarten government lacks sufficient measures to prevent landowners from engaging in unsustainable development practices. This admission came during a Central Committee meeting of Parliament focused on the implementation status of the Nature Policy Plan 2021-2025.

The Nature Policy Plan, approved in October 2021, was hailed as a comprehensive strategy to safeguard the island’s natural resources. However, Minister Doran’s acknowledgment highlights significant gaps in its implementation and enforcement.

Crafted in compliance with international conventions and local legislation, the Nature Policy Plan was designed alongside its operational counterpart, the Nature Plan. These blueprints, meticulously crafted to align with international conventions and local legislation, aimed to chart a sustainable course for St. Maarten’s environmental future. The plans’ objectives, rooted in the sustainable management of natural resources, were envisioned to contribute to economic well-being, disaster resilience, and human welfare.

Despite the government’s rhetoric on prioritizing nature conservation, tangible progress has been lacking. For instance, critical initiatives such as the establishment of protected areas, including the proposed designation of Little Key as a Nature Park, linger in bureaucratic limbo.

Moreover, Minister Doran’s failure to adhere to parliamentary reporting obligations regarding the implementation of the Nature Policy Plan raised concerns about transparency and accountability. Chair of Parliament Sarah Wescot-Williams stressed that the absence of annual reports undermines public oversight and prevents meaningful evaluation of progress. She also reminded the Minister that the Nature Policy Plan 2021-2025 still has to be approved by Parliament.

During the Central Committee meeting, Member of Parliament Melissa Gumbs raised concerns about the unchecked proliferation of commercial development, citing the explicit threats outlined in the Nature Policy Plan.

According to the Nature Policy Plan, a staggering 84% of St. Maarten’s land is designated for private ownership or long-lease purposes. This extensive parceling of land has led to widespread encroachment and excavation, particularly in hilly terrain, posing a grave risk to untouched habitats such as seasonal evergreen forests. As a result, habitat loss, fragmentation, and deterioration have become commonplace, accompanied by a surge in erosion, landslides, and water management complications.

“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, is there or has there been any consideration given to pausing the issuance of large scale commercial building permits?” questioned Gumbs, emphasizing her concern. She concluded, “Not hitting the pause button while you are working on the nature policy and the spatial development plan is essentially like appraising a house while it is still under construction.”

Gumbs recommended that the Government examine precedents, such as Anguilla’s 24-month development halt, to study best practices in balancing commercial expansion with environmental preservation. Despite her inquiries, Minister Doran dismissed the idea of pausing large-scale commercial building permits, citing potential negative impacts on the economy.

Doran asserted that individuals have ownership rights over their land, posing challenges in regulating their activities. “If landowners want to construct residential or commercial properties to enhance their and their families’ lives, there are no legal measures in place to prevent them from doing so,” the Minister stated. “Nevertheless, if any construction violates our building code, we have the authority to take corrective measures.”

MP Ludmila de Weever lamented the disconnect between policy rhetoric and on-the-ground realities, exemplified by the presence of plastics in the underwater museum in Little Bay — a stark contradiction to the Nature Policy’s ethos of marine conservation.

Concerned about damage to the beautiful old Simpson Bay Bridge National Monument behind the Atrium hotel, Chair of Parliament Wescot-Williams asked Minister Doran about the groundworks taking place in that area. The minister replied that no permit was issued for these activities. He said that the issue has the attention of the Cultural department of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth, and Sport (ECYS), particularly the Cultural Department, and the St. Maarten Police Force (KPSM).

MP Gumbs called for a reevaluation of policy-action alignment, stressing the need for concrete enforcement measures. This sentiment was echoed by MP De Weever and Parliament Chair Wescot-Williams.

Before the Minister of VROMI can present the Nature Policy Plan to Parliament for approval, all queries raised by Members of Parliament must be addressed. Minister Doran requested a two-week timeframe to provide written responses to the questions posed.