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A Night to Remember

Civil servants take the gloves off over sustainability.

Candid, passionate—these aren't terms usually associated with civil servants, but that was the flavour of the recent seminar on Sustainable Development sponsored by the Ministry of Finance's Project Support Services Unit (PSSU).

Moderated by Ms. Shaina Smith of the PSSU along with her co-moderator, Mr. Bennet Smith, the seminar was first addressed by Financial Secretary Mr. Neil Smith, who welcomed the group by outlining the financial perspectives of sustainable development, such as operating within budgetary confines and not straying from sound fiscal practices. The conference room at the Moorings was perhaps half-filled, and then largely with insiders from various ministries and departments. Of regular concerned members of the public there seemed few.

Those in attendance were treated to several hours of intense discussion that, rather than being a seminar on sustainability became more a seminar on the unsustainability of the present way of doing business. The frustration of the speakers was palpable as they separately detailed the difficulties they experience in attempting to implement the mandate for sustainable development as laid down by government.

Early stages of construction at Little Bay.

A common theme was the lack of enforcement of building codes and environmental protections. The Conservation and Fisheries Department (CFD), the audience was told, cannot ticket transgressors but must go to government and request court action. By the time such requests are received and acted upon, the offending action and its consequences are well in the past, defeating the very purpose of the effort.

Shannon Gore, a last-minute addition to the roster of speakers, discussed a series of goals relating to the mission of the CFD. A prime task, she said, is to measure sustainable development without being greenwashed. It is important to achieve real and substantial results without succumbing to mere cosmetic decoration. Among the stated goals were a reduction of vulnerability to climate change, preservation of biodiversity, an emphasis on science and not just people's opinions, improved quality of life for the individual (“most restrooms in the BVI are unusable”), preserving cultural heritage, reduction of economic vulnerability, and effective use of legislation and regulation.

Kevin Drysdale of construction firm BCQS was equally adamant concerning regulation. “I come from the UK,” he told the group, “where regulation has got out of hand. I came here opposed to most regulation, but I have to say that here in the BVI, you desperately need regulation.” Citing the recent Peebles Hospital construction fiasco, Mr. Drysdale said “the health and safety practices on the hospital project would make you choke they were so bad.” He also made the point that if penalties were raised and enforced, the government would benefit financially.


Avaline Potter of the architecture firm A.R. Potter and Associates made the point that the ultimate goal of government was the creation of a strong middle class. “Will our children's children be better off as a result of our actions?” she asked. She cited the indirect costs of development such as the importation of foreign labour to do the work that BV Islanders would not or could not do, including the increased costs of education and health care, as well as the increased environmental impact.

Bulldozers and greenery for replanting illustrate the balance between development and conservation.

Greg Hodge of the BVI Contractors' Association brought some chuckles when he said, “Sustainability to a contractor means being able to work year-round.”  He pointed out that contractors would welcome ticketing as a way of controlling standards.

One participant was particularly incensed at the unwise use of resources and referred to the proposed drag racing strip as an example of development completely out of step with the territory's declared mission.“A pristine environment and low crime are what the territory sells—does government treat these as priorities? People of European descent living here must be laughing their heads off at us,” he said.

José de Castro, chief architect of the Public Works Department, lamented the antiquated ways the government conducts business. Because internal government practices require hard copies of correspondence to be ferried around by couriers and to be stamped and signed for at each stop, it can sometimes take two weeks for a piece of mail to get from one government department to another. “Email gets there immediately,” he pointed out.

Questioning the wisdom of government's spending $25 million annually on diesel fuel to drive the electrical generators that power the territory's grid, Mr. de Castro noted the absurdity of restricting individuals' ability to provide their own energy via solar and wind generation. Ascribing the restrictions to a belief that electrical linesmen working for the BVI Electricity Department were somehow in danger from energy flowing through the grid from such sources, Mr. de Castro pointed out that linesmen in virtually every other country in the developed world were able to operate in such conditions.

Furthermore, Mr. de Castro said that by emphasizing up-front costs over lifetime costs of a project, bad decisions were being made. Citing the example of air conditioning units, Mr. de Castro said that simply comparing the purchase price of various units didn't adequately account for their varying energy usage and running and maintenance costs over several years. The unit with an initially higher cost often provided better economic returns over a longer period by using less energy and providing more efficient operation.

Mr. Bertrand Lettsome, chief Conservation and Fisheries officer, attempted to put some context to the seminar by asking Ms. Smith of the PSSU, “Why are we having this seminar, what is it for?” Ms. Smith's reply seemed to be that the seminar was taking place for the very reasons that were emerging in the meeting—to see what the community had to say on the subject of sustainable development. Mr. Lettsome had earlier raised the issue of the wholesale cutting down of trees in Cane Garden Bay during a recent music festival as a perfect example of an uncaring public not being deterred by ineffectual regulation.

Co-moderator Mr. Bennet Smith referred to the opacity of decision making as a factor in contributing to public mistrust of practices. Citing the recent case of the mysterious construction of a dwelling right in the flight path of the Virgin Gorda Airport, Mr. Smith asked, “Whose decision was that? Somebody had to sign off on it.”  As an example of further inefficiency and waste of resources and money, Mr. Smith reminded Ms. Potter of a time when they both had separately been charged with constructing facilities in the same physical space. He was charged with building a heliport and Ms. Potter with building a sea-plane facility. Having surveyed the site and ordered materials, Mr. Smith arrived on-site to find Ms. Potter's team busy on their own project. “How could that happen?” he asked.

In perhaps the one comment to properly address the heart of the evening's theme, Mr. Drysdale urged the group to consult a U.S. Government publication, The Field Guide for Sustainable Construction, which is available free of charge as a PDF file. “Google it,” he said. “It's all in there.” 

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