A Take Away From Takamaka

Proposed resort development at Police Bay

The world is changing. And so is Seychelles. Things that we took for granted a few years ago are now being challenged. It’s probably ironic but not unexpected that with government sanctioned “people-centred development”, fuelled by a liberalising economy, taking centre stage in our country, we hear voices clamouring to be heard. 

This is the single most important message I took away from the Police Bay tourism development public scoping meeting held at Takamaka last Saturday. People wanted to be heard, and more than that, they wanted their needs and wants to be acted on by authorities. 

Police Bay has been earmarked for tourism development ever since the prison was moved.  This has been known but no one really bothered to object. Until now! Way back in 1995, in a book published by the World Bank and the Swedish Development Agency, I had warned that continuing tourism development, particularly the issue of access to beaches would become what I then called a “flash point” in our country. And sure enough this is happening.

Let us not fool ourselves. Tourism is not all frippery and finery. It has a Dark Side. Mercifully Seychelles, through controlled development, has been spared from the excesses of tourism so common in many other countries. But now with mega-resort proposals still in play, people’s raw emotions are bubbling to the surface. 

These burning issues are being discussed, often acrimoniously and with little information at our disposal. We saw this at the Takamaka meeting. People had many concerns. But at the end of the day they needed more information on the entire Police Bay project because, as I said at the meeting, only a snapshot was being presented. The hot button is, without doubt, something very dear to the political philosophy that has driven this country since 1977: the notion of equity. The questions being asked include: who got the land, how was it given, who benefits from these large tourism projects, what exactly are the benefits, and is the negative flip side going to be dealt with?

In one of my favourite articles on the trials and tribulations that often accompany tourism, Elizabeth Becker wrote in the Washington Post: “Global tourism today is not only a major industry — it’s nothing short of a planet-threatening plague. It’s polluting land and sea, destroying wildlife and natural habitat and depleting energy and natural resources. From Asia to Africa, look-alike resorts and spas are replacing and undermining local culture, and the international quest for vacation houses is forcing local residents out of their homes. It’s giving rise to official corruption, wealth inequities and heedless competition. It’s even contributing to human rights violations…”

In Seychelles, damage to existing roads by oversize hotel construction trucks and difficult or closed access to once popular beaches have already raised the ire of local residents. Opaque plans by resorts are fuelling many fears, including land tenure, access to land and sea, and loss of environmental amenities. Whether these are real or misplaced concerns underscored by lack of information need to be examined and tackled properly. But it has to be admitted that our peoples’ perceptions of tourism are changing. And these changed perceptions are not always positive.

Amidst all the debates and acrimony the famous policy of “carrying capacity” has been lost. There was a time when we were known to have resisted the mass tourism temptation and to have established limits to tourism growth. I believe people are really disturbed by the sudden turnaround – it seems that mega-development with little thought of carrying capacity limits has, without much explanation, become the norm.

Over the last 3 weeks I have had about 50 emails and many more telephone calls and conversations with citizens who are very eager to learn my opinion of this and other similar proposed development. Well, as I informed everyone, a substantial part of the coastal zone of Police Bay has been ecologically damaged through years of inappropriate development and neglect. The wetland has been polluted and silted up through the activities of the former military camp and prison. Hundreds of tonnes of sand have been removed from the beach over the years. Turtles have been poached and continue to be poached.

But, we can restore the degraded environment. At Nature Seychelles we worked with the management and owners of Fregate, Cousine, Denis, Darros and other islands to restore entire ecosystems and establish new populations of threatened Seychelles birds. We rehabilitated the marsh at Roche Caiman such that it is a showcase of a managed wetland. Now we are restoring coral reefs. I have worked with the Lemuria and Banyan Tree resorts to rehabilitate and expand their wetlands. With all this experience, we would like to undertake a comprehensive conservation plan for Police Bay. However, ecological restoration takes a huge amount of resources and in the case of the islands I mentioned the high-value tourism products situated there as well as international donors paid for the remedial work.

Police Bay has become the poster child for something new in Seychelles. Once upon a time the private sector wanted Seychelles developed quickly and a few environmentalists like myself were lone voices in the wilderness. The only businessman I knew who was interested in supporting conservation projects was my father. Today, we see business people railing against “rapid development” and insisting that the government protect the environment. I find it ironic. For the first time in my 30+ years of professional experience I  hear the “man on the street” call out for turtle protection. Yet, when I was the Director of the Conservation and National Parks service, I couldn’t go to the market in Victoria because angry people would yell at me for “not allowing us to eat turtles”. Are people just hypocrites? Or have environmental education efforts been successful beyond our wildest dreams and all Seychellois are now environmental champions? Perhaps they are frightened of rapid (and often unknown) change?  Maybe Seychelles, a nation  of immigrants, has become inexplicably xenophobic? There are many questions.  I don’t have all the answers. What I do know for sure is  that sensitive ecosystems can be preserved and even enhanced through funding from tourism. It is essential that we work with the proponents of the Police Bay project to ensure that the development is not only ecologically and socially friendly but that in fact it becomes a model of sustainable tourism.
New Information: On Tuesday 28th May at the discussions of findings of the “Assessment of Areas of High Biodiversity for Informed Decision Making in Future Land Use Planning and Management” it was revealed that areas above the coastal strip of Police Bay, especially sites above 100 metres deserve to be protected. An orchid occurring in the Western Indian Ocean islands of Madagascar, Mauritius, La Reunion, Comores and Seychelles,   Oeoniella aphrodite, (or Oeniella polystachys has been found there in an area known as Mont Corail. This orchid has been known from Seychelles but is uncommon.  It can be cultivated quite easily (and has been all over the world) and I recommend that its propagation forms part of the conservation plan I mentioned above.

Author: Dr. Nirmal Shah

Nirmal is a well-known and a passionate personality in the Seychelles environmental and sustainability scene having an encyclopedic knowledge of Seychelles biodiversity as well as a wealth of experience in environment management. He has worked in senior positions in the parastatal, government, private and NGO sectors and consulted for international organizations such as the World Bank, IUCN, UNEP, Sida and UNESCO. He has appeared on CNN, BBC, Radio France, PBS, NBC, ABC, SABC and others

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