Government officials recently threatened to fine a South African businessman who removed a large swath of mangroves and other vegetation from the Paraquita Bay lagoon as part of efforts to salvage a yacht.
But the law may not be on their side.
Unlike many other jurisdictions, the Virgin Islands has no legislation dedicated to prohibiting the destruction of mangroves and other wetlands, which play a crucial role in the territory’s terrestrial and marine ecology.
And a draft law that would help protect such delicate ecosystems — and enact a raft of other wide-ranging environmental reforms — has been delayed for some 15 years in spite of repeated promises from legislators.
Patchwork of laws
Currently, the rules protecting the VI environment are spread out over a patchwork of largely outdated laws as diverse as the 1985 Beach Protection Ordinance, the 1997 Fisheries Act, and the 2006 National Parks Trust Act.
In the mid-2000s the newly launched Law Reform Commission tackled the issue.
Working with a committee of stakeholders, the agency drafted a comprehensive environmental management bill that would bring disparate elements together under one legal umbrella overseen by a board.
“By and large, a lot of what the new environmental act was calling for is basically just bringing everything back together; just pulling all the different components out of the different ministries and so forth,” former Chief Conservation and Fisheries Officer Bertrand Lettsome, who sat on the stakeholder committee, explained during a 2017 interview. “But everybody just wash their mouth with the environment.”
Biologist Clive Petrovic, who also sat on the committee, recalled in a 2017 interview that many of his fellow members never expected the act to take effect.
“A lot of good stuff came out of it, but at the end we also knew all our recommendations were never going to get passed by government, because the laws took the ability to decide away from government,” he said.
In the past decade, various iterations of the environmental bill have appeared repeatedly in successive governments’ legislative agendas, but no draft has been introduced in the House of Assembly.
Most recently, the September Speech from the Throne, which detailed the government’s most recent plans, promised to introduce an “Environmental Management, Biodiversity Conservation and Climate Change Adaptation Bill.”
This hasn’t happened.
In spite of the delays, however, public officers have said that extensive work on the bill has been ongoing behind the scenes, including consultations with several government agencies.
A working draft now includes protections like those envisioned in a management policy for wetlands and salt ponds that was drafted in 2005 but never approved, according to a public officer with knowledge of the documents.
Mr. Petrovic has said the law would be welcome.
“I figure any part of that that they use and anything that they do in that direction is better than what we have now,” he explained in the 2017 interview. “And you have to have good reasonable legislation on the books before you can have any hopes of enforcing it or seeing any improvement.”
In spite of the delays, Messrs. Petrovic and Lettsome also said they have seen progress over the years, such as a section in the 2004 Physical Planning Act that requires many developments to undertake environmental impact assessments.
“There was a lot of resistance to it at the beginning,” Mr. Petrovic said of the EIAs, which he often conducts himself. “But it’s only been 12 years since then, and in that 12-year period since then there’s been a movement in the right direction to abide by those things and accept them.”
To spur further reform, education is a must, he said, adding that the territory also might consider compensating landowners who are adversely affected by any new rules.
“Where wetlands exist we should use them to better advantage, and restore some of the ones that have been gone,” he said by way of example. “And if that means government needs to pay the landowners for it, so be it.”
Such efforts, Mr. Lettsome agreed, are crucial to the territory’s future.
“As the environment goes,” he said, “so goes the Virgin Islands — or anywhere for that matter.”
Meanwhile, government officials charged with protecting the environment may have limited options for responding to the recent mangrove destruction in Paraquita Bay.
Kelvin Penn, the acting director of the Conservation and Fisheries Department, said officials are considering levying a fine that would at least cover the cost of restoring the mangroves in the area.
But because the territory has no law specifically banning the destruction of the trees, any penalties might have to be levied through the Physical Planning Act of 2004, which restricts coastal development, Mr. Penn explained.
But Greg Adams, the head of the Town and Country Planning Department, said the mangrove removal might not be banned by that law either.
“The Planning Act specifies that you have to apply for development permission and then there’s a legal definition of what development entails, and cutting trees and clearing the landscape or the vegetation is not necessarily — quote, unquote — development,” Mr. Adams explained last month.
He added that no one had applied to his office for permission for the work in Paraquita Bay, but it was difficult for him to say if such permission was required because he didn’t know anything about the project.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Dec. 20, 2018 print edition as a sidebar to the front-page article “Mangrove removal sparks outcry.”