West Indies

Settlement and Harbor at Great Guana Cay, Abaco, Bahamas

Wings to the Storm:
Guana Cay Reef

Locals on Great Guana Cay battle a
golf course developer over the survival of their way of life.

These notes continue from “Eyes of the West Indies”, which I wrote in 2008.  I dedicate these notes to Aubrey Clarke. A complete history of the Great Guana Cay development conflict can also be found on the Notes from the Road Guana Blog.

Life is like a sail.  To get the most out of it, you gotta pull it in tight and head straight into the wind.

I just arrived on the island of Great Abaco, in the Northern Bahamas.  Jane and our son have dashed off to the grocery store before our bags are unpacked.  It’s a small but well-stocked resort grocery which hasn’t changed a lick since I first came here at the age of five.  Even the grocery items don’t change much – Ritz Crackers, little cellophane wrapped pork cuts with green jelly mints, Goombay Punch, Conchy Joe’s Hot Sauce, and Bay Rum in plastic bottles.

Technically, my family is about a quarter mile away when I see it in the sky.

It’s noon, and I’ve only been in the Abacos for an hour, when I see a strange bird pass over me.  The sky is bright blue, the underbellies of the clouds are turquoise – the effect of the shallow sea illuminating them. Under these clouds is the raptor, black and white, with streamers on its tail, and then it vanishes behind the pines.

I walk down to the white sand beach, and I look out towards Great Guana Cay.

Two years ago I was there, and I sat on the deck of Docksiders restaurant, where a dozen Great Guana Cay Bahamians and a handful of foreign landowners came to meet me.  The evening was the first time I was to meet many of the members of Save Guana Cay Reef  in person.

It was a stressful time for members of Save Guana Cay Reef.  Their lives were wrapped up in the most unlikely bid to derail the Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club, a radical and rapacious mega-development which was being built on the northeastern end of their tiny island, without their consultation or approval.  The development was bankrolled by the biggest names in North American finance, and Bahamian officials stamped approvals left and right. Big Hollywood names – Tiger Woods, George Clooney, George Strait had been flown in to play golf or to be pampered.  Lance Armstrong, just before being investigated for substance abuse, giddily Twittered about his experience at the unfinished resort.

Save Guana Cay Reef had been opposing the development through the Bahamian legal system, where they hoped to nullify the agreement between the Bahamian Central government and the California golf developer, which was granted rights to their island’s public land – threatening their most precious resources – a coral reef, a vanishing culture, and a small island economy.

In the Bahamian Court of Appeal, the locals’ case had been thrown out, and four years of fight had then seemed hopeless.  Two heart attacks had come after the Court of Appeals announcement, and, unrelated to the case, a senior member of Save Guana Cay Reef passed away.  Although the Bahamas is so often associated with luxury and wealth, native Bahamians on islands like Great Guana Cay live modest lives, often as fishermen or home caretakers.  The reef defenders were by no means wealthy, and they relied on small donations from Bahamians and concerned homeowners to keep their resistance moving through the legal system.

A heavy fog had hung over this group of barefoot patriots, who believed that a golf mega-development on an island only a quarter-mile wide would effectively destroy their way of life.  This was, to them, the Bahamian equivalent of Red Dawn, and if they failed, everything they knew and loved would be lost.

That night back in 2008, the eyes of these Bahamians looked heavy, almost fearful of what was to come.  But then a cell phone rang, and one man excused himself.  When he came back, he announced that he had just received a call from their lawyer.

“That was Fred,” he said.

“We’re going to Privy Council.”

Looking out at Great Guana Cay, I remember that somber night, perched above Guana Cay’s har harbor.  To go forward with Privy Council, the locals would be turning up the heat on an issue which had already captivated attention around the Caribbean.

My family came back, and Jane, pulling out the peanut butter and pickles, said, “I saw a new bird in the sky.  It wasn’t something we’ve ever seen before.”

Jane will never admit it, but she’s developed that same dewey decimal system that helps her narrow in on the species.  Because we evolved to categorize plants and animals, just a fraction-of-a-second glance at something in the natural world can tell us all sorts of things about what it is we are looking at.    And what my glance is what Jane’s glance says.  And that’s the glance that says things need to be investigated further.

On July, 7, 2009, barristers representing the Bahamian government, Discovery Land Company and Save Guana Cay Reef assembled at the Privy Council in London.  Save Guana Cay Reef had fought their cases through every court in the Bahamas.  For a case to make it all the way to Privy Council is the equivalent of a case making it to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The difference is that Privy Council is the court of final appeal for overseas territories, Crown dependencies and Commonwealth nations such as the Bahamas who have yet to separate their legal system from the UK.

The Privy Council has played a role throughout history in the U.K.’s empire.  Even Benjamin Franklin had to appear before Privy Council.

Abaco Parrots

Abaco Parrots, a subspecies of the Cuban Amazon, in flight over the Abaco Islands

For three days, the barristers would argue the merit of Save Guana Cay Reef’s case.

Save Guana Cay Reef was represented by a young lawyer from Muirhead & Burton, a highly respected solicitors firm in London, among whose specialties included Privy Council and human rights work.  The barrister took the case to a new level.  The case, which had been building in complexity and detail for four years, had become dizzying collection of paperwork. The case was so far-reaching, that it touched on some of the fundamental components of the Bahamian legal system. It was just a development case, but it was more than a development case.

On day one, the five Lords listened intently to the appellants case.  Over and over again, the Lords returned to the evidence in the Environmental Impact Statement that the defendents deliberately avoided consultation with the local Bahamians of Great Guana Cay.  The trial became extremely intense.  The lords appeared to be, quite simply, disgusted by the Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club.  They showed their disgust especially as images of the development before-and-after images were shown.  The Lords also appeared to be appalled by the deliberate policy by the developers of non-consultation with the locals.

Throughout the days in the court, the developer and Bahamian government were railed on by the Lords on many of the appellants points.  It was apparent, however, that the Lords were conflicted by the fact that the development had already made so much progress in construction. 

All sides waited for months before the Lords announced a ruling: the Lords did not declare the Heads of Agreement between the developer and the government as null and void.  The Lords made it clear that they had no legal mechanism to protect Great Guana Cay from what they called ‘indiscriminate development.’

They wrote in the judgment, The Bahamas has no comprehensive legislation for environmental protection, or public consultation on the disposition of public lands…”

In a press release, the locals explained that they will continue their fight against the Baker’s Bay Club, “Challenges through the courts have been  only one avenue of challenge. SGCRA will continue to bring domestic and international publicity to this abuse and to the injustice to which the people of Guana Cay were subjected by the delays in the judicial process, the collaboration between the Government and the Developers, the financial pressure brought by Baker’s Bay and the destruction of the environment and the ruination of the peaceful Family Island style life which this $500,000,000 mega anchor development project and Central Government’s dictates and abuse have raped the Cay with.”

Again, the news came hard on the Bahamians of Great Guana Cay.  The President of Save Guana Cay Reef, however, stated that something about the ruling made him feel good, because now, when Baker’s Bay fails, it will be entirely in their own hands.

But as the loss at Privy Council became clear, something else was beginning to crystallize: the hard fight had literally changed the Bahamas, and even the Caribbean. 

Bakers Bay Sapling

At Beef Island in the British Virgin Islands, a local group had found that a five-star development project would destroy a key natural asset of the island; a salt pond and mangroves area called Hans Creek.  Fishermen and local citizens joined  forces to protect the area.  They had learned about the Great Guana Cay strategy and contacted attorney Save Guana Cay Reef attorney Fred Smith, who started them off on a legal plan to fight the development.

By 2009, the British Virgin Islands golf development had been halted by the locals through the British Virgin Islands court system. 

Shannon Gore, a marine biologist in the British Virgin Islands lamented the decision in the Bahamas, explaining, “Sustainable development has a balance between economic, environmental, socio-cultural and governance components but when there is an imbalance, this simple framework for sustainability becomes skewed and the other components become compromised. Alienating a community or breaking down the socio-cultural component is what happened at Guana Cay and will most likely continue to hinder its developments from ever being truly sustainable. The economic side has probably had a drastic effect on everyone involved, just the cost of litigation alone has probably far exceeded what was in the original budget of the development.”

But, as the locals in the British Virgin Islands won their case, Gore explained, “Because the Guana Cay community came together as one and fought the developer and government, they have led the way for other island communities to stand up and fight for what they truly believe to be as sustainable. Inspired by and following in the footsteps of Guana Cay, the case of the Beef Island development was the first time a group of concerned citizens in the BVI had ever taken a developer and the government to court, and won. While the Beef Island development may not be entirely shut down, it has empowered the community to fight when they believe something is not sustainable for their environment, their culture or the economic welfare of the community.”

In an article in the BVI News, the director for the group that derailed the developer plans, explained the larger significance of the ruling: “[It] sets an example for others throughout the Caribbean that they can be heard when challenging these types of ecologically destructive mega-developments.”

But the Guana Cay case was also inspiring groups across the Bahamas.  During the government’s ‘anchor development’ phase, of which the Baker’s Bay golf development is a product of, the Bahamian government set out to create megadevelopments in every major island chain.  But groups, inspired by Save Guana Cay Reef, were formed around almost every single one of these megadevelopments.  Today, Baker’s Bay is one of the last-standing megadevelopments from the Bahamian government’s megadevelopment policy.

A day later, I am with my wife and son on a beach of mainland Abaco.  I see them on the horizon – Jane is picking up shells and handing them to our boy.  I look away from them, and up at the sky, and there I see it again, the white bird, circling in the wind.

This time, there is no doubt as to what it is – a swallow-tailed kite – a type of hawk known more for Southern Florida and the airstreams above the jungles of Latin America.  Why is it here?

As of October 2010, six years after the project began, Baker’s Bay has begun construction on only six homes, even though pundits had claimed only two years ago that over two-hundred units would be sold by now.  According to contractors working on the project, there are no more contracts for homes in the works, and some are saying that all six units are for Baker’s Bay investors.  This means absolutely no homes are being built for non-investors.

Just last month, the parent company for Baker’s Bay saw one of their flagship golf developments, the Spanish Oaks property in Texas, fall to foreclosure.  Some golf analysts are privately saying the industry’s golden era is over, and that perhaps, even, that newer gated communities with hundreds of golf-side megamansions, as a model, is over with.

A few days later, we kept seeing birds we had never seen in the Bahamas before.  I ask a well-known birder in the Abacos why I am seeing swallow-tailed kites in the Abacos, why I’m seeing other strange birds, like a goose that is known to live in Greenland, and which has never been seen before in the Bahamas.  He says the weather has been weird this year. He says the birds got thrown off course, maybe.  That’s one way to put it.  But to get here – to achieve those incredible distances – those hawks and warblers and geese achieved incredibly and unlikely distances - they pointed their wings toward the storm and flew.

As to whether the development will fail or succeed is anybody’s guess.  But to the people of the Abacos, I ask, why not at least consider what might happen to Great Guana Cay if the development fails?  What a lovely restoration project that land would make.  A place for families to plant mangroves, and begin the land anew, to return Great Guana Cay to a place known for the integrity of its coral reef and the beauty of its settlement – not as the place George Clooney visited or where mean, rich golfers swear and honk their golf cart horns.  What a lovely place for a national marine park.  What a lovely place to remind Bahamians that the destiny of places are better realized by the people who live there.  What a great place for the people of the Caribbean to turn to, and to say, this is the place where the people fought to save their coral reef, and who taught us to point our wings to the storm and fly.