We are thrilled that the new government appears to be moving ahead with a badly needed law that could go a long way toward better protecting the territory’s increasingly beleaguered natural environment.
Last week, the Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Ministry released a Cabinet-approved “Green Paper” that announces a forthcoming bill that seems to be the comprehensive environmental legislation that leaders have been promising for some 15 years.
This step would be huge, and it can’t come soon enough.
Currently, the rules protecting the Virgin Islands’ delicate environment are spread over a patchwork of largely outdated legislation. In the mid-2000s the Law Reform Commission tackled the issue, drafting a bill that would bring disparate elements together under one legal umbrella overseen by a board.
Since then, however, the bill has never even made it to the House of Assembly in spite of various iterations appearing on the governor’s speeches from the Throne year after year.
Meanwhile, unscrupulous residents and visitors alike have degraded the environment with impunity — as has the government itself at times.
On land, mangroves and other endangered vegetation have been cut indiscriminately; ecologically sensitive salt ponds have been filled; beaches have been desecrated; hazardous waste has been dumped into ghuts; and runoff has been allowed to pour unchecked into the ocean, among other issues. At sea, pleasure yachts and larger ships have spilled oil; dumped other pollutants; used dangerous chemicals to protect their hulls; and destroyed coral reefs.
Repercussions, when there were any, typically were laughable.
A large part of the problem is the existing legislation: Often, the public agencies charged with protecting the environment simply don’t have sufficient tools at hand to get the job done.
The proposed law, as we understand it, would help change that not only by upping penalties and clarifying grey areas, but by bringing comprehensive reform to existing systems and bureaucracies.
Of course, even the best law would provide no guarantee: It also would need to be properly enforced, even if that means spending money to beef up certain government agencies and taking stricter steps to hold public officers accountable for carrying out their responsibilities.
The new green paper is a step in the right direction, but we hope to see the draft law itself very soon. In the meantime, residents should educate themselves, reading the new document carefully and providing input on the way forward at every step.
One piece of advice that we can offer before even seeing a draft bill is to ensure that the law is designed to work in concert with the 2015 Climate Change Trust Fund Act and the 2017 Environmental Protection and Tourism Improvement Fund Act, both of which are progressive pieces of legislation that should be left in place — and, yes, followed.
The planned reforms should also come with a robust educational component designed to explain their importance to the public.
The territory depends on a healthy environment, the right to which is enshrined in the 2007 Constitution. Besides providing a good quality of life for residents, the VI’s natural beauty powers the tourism sector that is so valuable to the economy.
Business as usual, then, is not an option.