Environment v. Development: A Balancing Act
Without a doubt, the Cayman Islands boasts of some of the grandest and most luxurious homes money can buy. And on top of that, this jewel of the Caribbean also lays claim to some of the world’s most unique natural treasures, whose inherent values are way beyond measure.
Anyone who has taken up residency in Cayman will tell you that the notion of living in a tropical paradise was certainly one of the most irresistible attractions that beckoned them to stay.
But as Cayman continues in its march towards economic progress, questions have been raised on the ecological impacts created by human activities that encroach deeper into fragile territories where native flora and fauna live and flourish.
Not surprisingly, issues and controversies surrounding environment and development in Cayman are rife, especially as climate change escalates into a more heated topic on a global scale.
No room for big mistakes in a fragile ecosystem
Activities in real estate and construction have received much attention in recent years, especially in the light of the massive boom in property development on Grand Cayman. Property sales alone have exceeded over $ 1-Billion in 2021, signifying an unprecedented scale of development that amazes — and at the same time terrifies — different sectors of society.
While these staggering figures translate into economic gains, environmental advocates worry about the threat of irreversible damage to the country’s fragile ecosystem.
For instance, the clearing of mangroves to make way for man-made structures remains to be one of the most fiercely contested subjects involving property development in Cayman. Considered one of the most productive and complex ecosystems on the planet, Cayman’s mangrove forests serve as sanctuaries for various species of fish, sea turtles, lobsters, and sea turtles, as well as parrots and other native birds, which all stand to perish with the destruction of their natural habitat.
On more than a few occasions, the approval of certain site development proposals have been delayed or clamped down altogether after being investigated by government agencies over irregularities that would adversely affect the natural environment.
As for the island’s fabled Seven Mile Beach, there has been much scrutiny on how hard structures such as buildings, pools, and sea walls can exacerbate erosion and affect the ability of the beach to naturally replenish itself — conditions that have become much more difficult to manage due to climate change.
This has led government to propose a US $25.6-million beach re-nourishment plan aimed at rehabilitating the most badly eroded portions of the iconic coastline.
In a media interview, DoE director Gina Ebanks-Petrie warned that Cayman needs to take a more mature and far-sighted approach when weighing decisions that involve development and the environment.
“When we make decisions, we need to weigh everything in the balance and not just look at opportunities from a financial perspective. Even things that appear to be a positive may not end up being that way… We have very little room to make big mistakes,” she said.
A necessary investment with immeasurable gains
Healthy marine ecosystems, which include mangrove forests and coral reefs, are critical not only to the natural beauty of Cayman, but also to the national economy and to the overall wellbeing of its residents.
A 2018 report commissioned by the Department of Environment (DoE) for marine protected areas revealed that ecosystem services obtained from Cayman’s coral reefs, mangroves, seagrasses and beaches provided a total economic value (TEV) of at least US$179-million) per year. Furthermore, the report stated that since many residents on the islands engage in recreational activities such as swimming, diving and frolicking at the beach, then a pristine natural environment is important to the wellbeing and cultural identity of Caymanians.
As for the real estate industry, the study also indicated that proximity to mangrove areas, beaches and waterfronts are all positively correlated to property prices. Simply put, healthy marine ecosystems contribute to higher property values.
(Last month, the National Trust of Cayman Islands hosted a learning session called “Selling Mangroves,” specifically aimed at educating members of the real estate and development industry on topics such as natural capital accounting, blue carbon, and the incorporation of mangroves as part of sustainable luxury development.)
A more recent groundbreaking study on “national capital accounts” pegged the net value of Cayman’s natural assets at a staggering $ 3-billion — demonstrating the financial benefits that come from protecting the country’s beaches, mangroves, coral reefs, and open spaces.
These figures — along with incalculable considerations to human life — show us how protecting nature is not only simply a discretionary expense, but a necessary investment whose returns bring back both tangible and immeasurable gains.
“Economy and environment are not opposing forces”
In his recent Earth Day message, Cayman’s Premiere Wayne Panton — who is also Minister for Sustainability and Climate Resiliency — reiterated that attaining economic prosperity does not have to come at the expense of our planet.
Speaking on the theme Invest in Our Planet, he said: “It’s clear our economy and environment are not opposing forces, they are two sides of the same coin.” He reiterated his government’s commitment to taking a sustainable approach to the social, environmental, and economic development of the Cayman Islands, where serious efforts shall be taken to achieve a balance “between the protection and conservation of the natural environment with the need to develop some of the natural environment for social or economic purposes.”
He added: “It also means identifying ways to make existing infrastructure more efficient, introducing new technologies and innovations that reduce our collective environmental footprint, and collaborating with other governments, individuals and companies to link prosperity, peace and planetary health.”
As for the real estate industry, private initiatives towards more sustainable property development on the islands have begun over the last decade, particularly with the increased awareness — and demand — for greener, more eco-friendly homes. Today, Cayman is one of the top countries in the world for sustainable real estate development — a small but meaningful step in the right direction towards building for a more earth-friendly future.
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