Bimini: Locals speak out

Alison Stancliffe revisits an issue made tragically topical by September’s devastation caused by Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean.

[The impact of major resort development on a small island was raised last year by blog contributor Blake Dowling.Our recent blog below updated you on developments in Bimini before Hurricance Irma swept in. Go to the Facebook page of the Bimini Blue Coalition to follow what’s been happening since.
https://www.facebook.com/BiminiBlueCoalition]

The Bahamian island chain of Bimini was once home to Ernest Hemingway, inspiring his famous novel ‘The Old Man and the Sea’. But when he lived and fished there, any threat to the pristine natural environment was decades away. There are still natural wonders to explore in the beautiful waters fished by Hemingway, but today they are endangered as never before by the resort tourism expanding along North Bimini’s coastline, completely at odds with the island’s traditional laidback visitor welcome.

Undoubtedly, artificial beauty and man-made pleasures are bringing in big bucks. But who’s getting those bucks and is the price being paid – the devastation of a special marine environment – ultimately disastrous for people and nature? It seems local people are feeling able to ask that question more and more now that a new national government is in charge following the Bahamas’ General Election in May 2017.

Some years back the government of that time declared its intention to create the North Bimini Marine Reserve, specifcally designed to protect the fragile ecosystem in North Bimini.  However, its successor, the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) failed to implement it during ten years in power.

More disturbing still, just before the 2017election, PLP Prime Minister Christie signed an agreement giving permission for the construction of an 18-hole golf course in the area, despite fears of the damage it would cause. Biminites had been assured back in 2010 that the golf course wouldn’t be allowed, and the hope now is that the new administration will honour that assurance and not only scrap the permission but also finally go ahead with the long awaited Marine Reserve.

There’s now an increasing number of vocal comments from Biminites,a measure of the anger among locals at the government’s failure to protect their natural environment. Take this one which was posted on the Facebook page of the giant hotel resort that dominates North Bimini:

‘Resorts World is providing employment to Bimini but at a great cost – they are involved in the destruction of the environment. In collaboration with OPAC and RAV Bahamas, the amount of devastation that they have caused just to the marine life and mangroves is cruel, criminal and irreversible. The residents of that island are finally standing up to them and speaking out against the selfish, merciless ruination borne out of unadulterated greed. They will never be able to pay the people or produce the returns for the destruction they have caused to the ecosystem and fishing life of that island.’

 Environmental journalist Philippa Ehrlcih from Save our Seas reported witnessing the environmental damage done by the construction of a pier and terminal for ferries from Florida. ‘Since the ocean floor was dredged to build the pier, the west side of North Bimini has experienced massive land erosion. In just one hurricane season the entire beach disappeared. A little way down the road in the Bailey Town graveyard, I had watched contractors trying to build up the land to prevent tombstones from tumbling into the ocean.’
This situation is not something that has come out of the blue – it’s more than ten years since Tourism Concern supported locals’ efforts to challenge the ambitious plans of resort developers. Bahamian columnist Larry Smith recently spelled out the history in this Tribune article:

‘The island of North Bimini is just 3,100 acres in size – and most of those acres are covered by mangrove wetland, with only few hundred acres of hard land supporting about 2,000 people. In addition to the small settlements of Alice and Bailey Towns, North Bimini now supports hundreds of cookie-cutter homes and condos, a mega-yacht marina, a bulkheaded artificial island dredged from the lagoon, restaurants, pools, bars, shops, tennis courts, and a beach club.


It’s called Bimini Bay, and the resort’s history goes back to 1984, when the Pindling government gave the former owners blanket approval for a similar scale of development, without a thought for the environmental or social consequences. The property includes a big chunk of North Bimini with five miles of ocean frontage, as well as parts of a pristine mangrove wetland surrounding the lagoon on East Bimini.


Despite some clearing and dredging, the initial plans were never implemented. And in 1995, a Cuban-American from Miami named Gerardo Capo acquired the property for $3 million. Capo’s Rav Bahamas construction company launched the current development two years later, after the landscape had been duly scraped to the bare limestone rock. The first phase of the resort opened in 2007, and then nosedived after the 2008 financial crisis.


Capo’s original plans called for dredging an 85-foot wide channel entirely around Bimini’s mangrove-fringed lagoon and bulkheading most of the land – essentially killing the only marine nursery in the region. And then establishing a golf course on the East Wells wetlands.


The ultimate size and scope of the resort has fluctuated over the years, with both the golf course and a water theme park on and off the table several times. And many residents, as well as scientists at the Bimini Biological Field Station, spent years in a futile effort to conserve the island’s natural environment—an oasis in a vast expanse of water.’

What will happen to North Bimini? It’s too close a call to say.  But through the years the grit and determination of big business to get what it wants has been matched with equal grit by islanders fighting for their precious heritage, and this year looks like being a turning point. Larry Smith has sadly passed away since he wrote his investigative piece in July but others continue to document the issues. Here’s a recent piece from the Tribune highlighting conflicting viewpoints:

http://www.tribune242.com/news/2014/may/23/bimini-councillor-hits-out-at-environment-group/

Many thanks to Blake Dowling and other contributors for providing material used in this update.

About the author

Alison Stancliffe

Alison Stancliffe is a Scot who has lived for many years in north East England. She is a keen traveller, an educator specialising in global development and community heritage, and one of the founders of Tourism Concern.

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