Earth Day Message from Nature Foundation’s Vice President Rueben Thompson


"So bright by beach and strand"

St. Maarten’s environmental challenges symptoms of larger problem.

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Dear Editor,

Please allow me to review the state of St. Maarten’s environment on behalf of EPIC, St. Maarten Pride Foundation and the Emilio Wilson Estate Foundation on this 22nd day of April, 2010 the 40th anniversary of Earth day which coincides with St. Maarten Pride Foundation’s 10th anniversary.

Our National Anthem describes St. Maarten as being "So bright by beach and strand" and "Where the chains of mountains green, variously in sunlight sheen" yet the reality of today’s St. Maarten is somewhat different;

Sewage, leakage from septic tanks and urban run-off floods the streets of many of St. Maarten’s neighborhoods and flows towards the island’s natural treasure chests and economic products; ponds, lagoons, beaches and coral reefs. These same sewage covered streets are more often than not adorned with solid waste ranging from car wrecks to a multitude of bottles, plastic bags and other domestic garbage. School children and other pedestrians jump over or walk straight through the endless puddles of sewage and discard of whatever waste they may be carrying wherever they deem it is convenient to do so, thereby contributing to the further degradation of the already unsightly and unhygienic surroundings.

Over 50.000 people are registered as residing on St. Maarten with the actual figure rumored to be at least 70.000 yet there are no solid waste or sewage treatment facilities.

Developers have managed to clear and excavate property, construct extra floors, entire buildings including hotels, condos and in one case even a marina without the required permits to do so.

Commissioners circumvent their departments and issue verbal approvals to developers to in essence, do as they please, while publicly making well documented statements that permits are frivolous details. These same commissioners spearhead the destruction of our natural and cultural heritage for potentially disastrous infrastructure projects, such as the Ring road in the Great Salt Pond, in the name of progress and in this particular case supposed traffic alleviation, without regard for public safety concerns, whilst doing nothing to improve public transportation or curb the ever increasing amount of cars on the island.

St. Maarten’s Utilities Company GEBE N.V. discharges oil and other forms of fuel unto public beaches and into the sea on an all too regular basis and does very little to mitigate human health and environmental effects or prevent reoccurrences.

Cement companies pollute our air, at the same time as boaters, marinas and boatyards contribute to marine and terrestrial pollution through solid waste and sewage discharge and the use of harmful chemicals during vessel maintenance, reparation or painting.

The Government Accountants Bureau SOAB report about Sector ROB’s permitting process mentions a number of irregularities and other reasons for concern within the Sector but so far nothing has been done to seriously address the matter.

The Marine Park Ordinance, designed to preserve the natural resources of St. Maarten’s marine environment for both commercial (fisheries industry, tourism), as well as educational, recreational and scientific purposes has been completed and has been awaiting approval by the Island and Executive Councils since 2006. In recent media reports Mr. Theo Heyliger, the Commissioner of Environmental affairs, claimed that: "the delay in completion of the ordinance had to do with the shortage of staff in the Spatial Planning and Environment department (VROM)". A more plausible reason for the now almost 5 years of delay in passing this ordinance is that it would set regulations and restrictions to projects such as the large scale dredging activities in Great Bay for the Ring road project, the proposed filling-in of the Cay Bay area for an industrial zone and similar projects which are currently on the same Commissioner’s list of priorities.

Aforementioned behavioral, environmental and infrastructural challenges are symptoms of a much larger problem, namely;

The visionless, poorly planned and largely unrestricted development of practically the entire Dutch side of St. Maarten over the past 3 to 4 decades. Fuelled by, as well as evident in, the absence of comprehensive environmental legislation, deficient enforcement of existing legislation, due to the shortage of qualified personnel and more importantly the lack of political will to take often unpopular but increasingly necessary measures to protect the environment, improve public transportation and thereby safeguard the sustainability of the economy and well-being of society as a whole.

Thankfully there is also light at the end of the tunnel. Although the Foundations will be the first to admit that the Emilio Wilson Estate is far from being out of harm’s way. The fact that the Estate has thus far not been desecrated and that Government has made a number of commitments to the people of St. Maarten regarding the area’s protection, including placing the entire Estate on the Monument list, is a small step in the right direction.

Initiatives such as the Halley’s Seaside Nature Park on the Bell family property in Cay Bay/ Cole Bay, Ras Bushman’s gardens, the Bellevue organic gardens and Tri-sport’s kayak tours although small in scale and not entirely conservation projects are good examples of sustainable economic diversification.

The environmental awareness generated by foundations such as St. Maarten Pride, EPIC and Nature Foundation is becoming increasingly evident in; the responses of primary and secondary school students both during and after environmental education presentations; the number of environment related projects in the annual science fair; positive feedback from the public and the ever-growing scale of media coverage for the topic. The fact that Governor Fritz Goedgedrag and Lt. Governor Franklyn Richards are paying more attention to environmental concerns is a valuable acknowledgment of the need for sustainable change and a welcome sign of an increase in awareness. One or two politicians have also started to support environmental projects; Commissioner of Tourism Frans Richardson’s and the Tourist Bureau’s ongoing support of the Blue Flag and environmental codes of conduct projects has set an example that other politicians, whose support, if any at all, has so far been limited to nice speeches, would do well to follow.

In closing please allow me to thank all those who have supported the Foundations in various forms over the past years. Words of appreciation also go out to the many persons that congratulated me on having been awarded the Euan P. McFarlane Award for Outstanding Environmental Leadership in the Insular Caribbean, an honor which truly came as a surprise. Please know that my colleagues and I could not continue to carry-out our work without your support.

Special words of thanks go out to Mr. Jan Beaujon who gave me my start in the environmental field and Mr. Will Johnson whose life-long dedication to our islands was once again apparent in his heartfelt speeches and presentations related to the dismantling of the Netherlands Antilles in the Netherlands earlier this month. Senator Johnson’s efforts, stories and books about our islands continue to be an inspiration to us all as we continue our work "For the Love of St. Maarten".

Rueben J. Thompson

Vice President

St. Maarten Pride Foundation

Project Manager

Environmental Protection In the Caribbean

Board member

Emilio Wilson Estate Foundation