Environmental Preservation In The Commonwealth Of The Bahamas

by Lynn P. Holowesko, Ambassador for the Environment and Chairman, The Bahamas Environment, Science & Technology Commission

The Bahamas National Trust:

An option for protected area management

In many international fora where the management of Parks and Protected Areas is discussed, it is recognised that governments cannot continue to carry the full responsibility for conservation, and that in the future a diverse array of institutional arrangements will have to be devised to manage such special places. In the Commonwealth of The Bahamas there is an interesting example of one such institution.

The National Parks of The Bahamas are owned, or leased to, and managed by the Bahamas National Trust, a non-governmental organisation with some quasi-governmental characteristics. In fact, the entire park system in The Bahamas is the brain-child of the Trust, which in the 1950's recognised the need to set aside some areas for the use and enjoyment of the public in the face of rapid new development.

The Bahamas National Trust was brought into being in 1959 by the Bahamas National Trust Act, one of the Statute Laws of The Bahamas. By the mandate given it, the Trust is charged with promoting the permanent preservation (for the benefit and the enjoyment of The Bahamas), lands, buildings, submarine areas of beauty or natural or historic interest, and the preservation of their natural aspect, features, animal, plant and marine life.

The Trust has broadly interpreted these words, believing that a clean environment is the basic requirement to enable it to meet its responsibilities. It incorporates all environmental factors into its concerns, including pollution, toxic waste, run-offs and litter, among others.

By the Act, the Trust is given the right to hold, acquire, maintain and manage property to further the objects for which it was created. It advises government in matters concerned with Parks and wildlife management, among others, and the policy to be persued for their preservation.

The Act also gives the Trust power to declare its property inalienable, and to make bylaws governing conduct within the boundaries of its properties. The Trust appoints officers and wardens to manage the parks and enforce the bylaws.

The makeup of the Trust's governing Council is a useful mix of the private and public sectors, and scientists and professional park managers. Of 21 persons, the Governor-General appoints two, the respective Ministers of Agriculture, Tourism, Health and Education, one each. Six appointments are from organisations outside of the country, including the U.S. National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, National Audubon Society, American Museum of Natural History, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami and the New York Zoological Society, now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society. Nine additional members of Council are elected annually from among the general membership. The Council meets annually, or bi-annually, to review the work of the Trust, establish policies and approve the year's programme.

The many advantages of park management outside of government far outweigh other considerations. The first such advantage is flexibility; the ability to plan, to act, to hire outside of the civil service and to decide from time to time which areas require immediate attention or long range planning, and which vacuum needs filling.

The second advantage is autonomy, to be able to act outside of political or social constraints, and solely in accordance with the mandate of the Act.

The work of the Trust is extensive, covering National Parks and protected area management, wildlife protection, research, environmental concerns, historic preservation, school education programmes, public education, land use planning, restoration programmes and advice and assistance to government on these and a variety of other issues. For example the Trust spearheaded the initial proposal for a Bahamian National Conservation Strategy, found funds to hold workshops and write the first proposal.

National Parks

The Bahamian National Park system comprises more than 130,000 ha (320,000 acres). There are 12 parks presently under Trust management, and government has in hand recommendations for extensive additional areas to ensure adequate representation of all ecosystems within the country. Included in the later is the Andros Barrier Reef, a well kept national secret, the third largest, but perhaps the most biologically diverse, barrier reef in the world.

The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, comprising 45,620 ha (112,640 acres), was the first land and sea park established anywhere in the world. The land areas are semi-dry coppice to dry scrub vegetation; the coral reefs are extensive and varied. Mangrove creeks and inland brackish ponds, freshwater wells and ocean holes are also contained within the park.

A wide variety of sea birds and waders inhabit this park, as well as Bahamas Iguanas and the only endemic mammal, the hutia, which was translocated to the park by the Trust, and now thrives on two cays.

There is a considerable impact by tourists, who travel through open seas to the Park on their own boats, making management difficult. Recently, because of expansion in the fishery regulations of the country to allow compressor assisted spear-fishing, the Trust took a decision to prohibit all fishing and the collection of living or dried animal, plant or marine life within the park.

There was a period of resistance which followed, both from recreational visitors to the park, but particularly from the local fishing communities on its borders, whose people resented the closing of the park. Recently, however, there has been an increase in support for the position, boosted in no small measure by the noticeable increase in fish returning to the reefs, both inside and outside of the park's boundaries.

Some of the smaller islands and cays in the park have always been privately owned. Recently, several of these owners have come together to create a trust fund for the support of the park, to improve housing for the wardens and scientists who work in the park, and to improve management tools for the better enjoyment of the park by all.

The Inagua National Park, located on the southern-most island of the 700 island chain, is internationally recognised as the site of the world's largest breeding colony (approximately 60,000) of West Indian flamingos. The Trust has actively managed this flock for almost 40 years, with guidance and support from the National Audubon Society of the United States.

In the early part of this century, flamingo flocks could be found in great numbers on many of the larger Bahamian Islands. In the 1950's the birds had been pushed back to the island of Inagua. and their numbers had dwindled to less than 5,000. Now, in most years there are that many, or more, hatchlings. The Inagua flock is re-populating not just Bahamian Islands, but other southern Caribbean islands, where flamingos have been on the decline. A recent publication cited the Inagua park as the most significant ecotourism site in the Caribbean.

Just outside of the flamingo rookeries is the Union Creek reserve, an 18 km tidal creek which has served as a research site for sea turtles, especially the green turtle, for more than 25 years.

The park is also home to a vast array of wading and shore birds, feral donkeys, and the Bahamian Amazon parrot. It is protected by full-time wardens, and is a valuable research and educational centre. A rudimentary camp within the park houses 12 visitors in the best "camping out" style.

The Lucayan Caverns National Park, located on the northern island of Grand Bahama, features the world's most extensive underwater cavern system, last surveyed at over 110km of galleries. It also contains a mangrove walk, a recreational beach, and endemic orchids.

An entirely different kind of park is located on New Providence Island. The Retreat is a 4.5 ha (11 acre) garden of rare palms and native Bahamian coppice. It is one of the largest private collections of palms in the world. Its grounds also house the administrative offices of the Trust in a small, late 19th century plantation building. The gardens are a valuable tool in conservation education, and the grounds are extensively used by both the public and private sectors.

Management Policy

The Trust has published a general policy statement for its National Parks, which recognises that each park is a complex mix of values and resources with its own unique qualities and purposes, requiring specific treatment in the development and implementation of management strategies and operational budget. The Trust also established a general management plan, including regulations and enforcement, implementation of park programmes, resource management, guidelines for research, visitor use, interpretation and education.

Enforcement in the parks is based on the principle that education should preclude the need for enforcement, but provides that park regulations and bylaws will be enforced as necessary by wardens, both professional and honorary, or by law enforcement officers of the Commonwealth.


Until very recently, the Trust depended entirely on three annual sources of funds to promote its objectives: membership subscriptions, a small government grant and gifts and donations. But, the annual budget of the Trust grew almost ten-fold in a fifteen year period.

In 1985 the Heritage Fund was launched as a carefully planned alternative to a hand-to-mouth existence which was sapping the energies of its already strained human resource base. The original goal of US$3 million was reached four years later in 1989. The fund, designed as a endowment and a perpetual source of interest-income for Trust administration and projects, is now over US$4 million.

Future Challenges

Within The Bahamas, the historical vision of the country as a tourism destination has previously been that of a Caribbean Monte Carlo, ignoring the fact that the country's most valuable resource is its uniquely lovely environment. This perception led to development in undesirable directions.

The Bahamas' legal system is based on common law. It promotes order and development, and encourages foreign investment. But this stability paved the way for intense social and political pressure to expand development in sensitive areas, thereby providing employment for the unacceptably large percentage of the population which was unemployed. These demands influenced land use planning and resource management, resulting in severe straining of freshwater resources and fisheries among others, and further complication of waste disposal problems.

The country's educational system has been weakest in the sciences, accounting in no small measure for a widespread lack of understanding and appreciation of environmental concerns. This lack of training has also created a gap in the work force dealing with environmental management, leading to reliance on costly foreign expertise.

All of these problems are now further vastly complicated by illegal immigrants from Haiti, who accounted for more than 25% of persons in a recent census of the Bahamian population.

These issues have compelled the Trust to stretch its resources to the limits, and beyond, to assist government with environmental concerns. The present Prime Minister of the Bahamas has made it clear that he values the advice of the National Trust in environmental matters. This has led to frequent consultation and new responsibilities in sustainable development matters.

It also has to be emphasised that the new government is keenly concerned about the environment and aware of its responsibilities both nationally and internationally. In its Manifesto for the 1992 and 1997 election campaigns, it published strong environmental sections, and pledged to make development in The Bahamas sustainable in the future.

However, because clean air and abundant fisheries, pristine islands and cays still abound, albeit not in the manner of 30 years ago, they are still too-much taken for granted, and under-valued by the people.

It is not unusual in small islands where environmental issues have not been at the top of a society's priority list, for non-governmental organisations to take up the resulting challenge.

In fact, IUCN, WWF, the Interamerican Development Bank, UNEP and other institutions have acknowledged the role of non-governmental organisations as partners with governments in environmental programmes, and as institutional options for park and protected area management. Such organisations also deserve international funding support.

Indeed, there is a good case to be made for internationally-based financial and technical support of those NGOs, particularly in the Caribbean region, which are contributing substantially to aspects of conservation and protected area management. After all, conservation of native species is not only nationally significant, but of vital concern within the current international focus on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.

The Bahamas Environment, Science & Technology Commission

In The Bahamas today, an enlightened, new government has recognised that the beauty and diversity of the Bahamian environment is the most precious resource its people have. It appreciates that conservation and enhancement of the environment are critically important to the sustainability of the economy and, hence, to the economic well-being of future generations.

In 1992 The Bahamas government took bold steps to halt the environmental degradation which was occurring throughout the country. It made a policy decision to factor environmental concerns into national development projects through incorporation of the environmental impact assessment process.

Government also made decisions for increased protection of Bahamian resources, enacting legislation which ended the devastating practice of long-line fishing in Bahamian waters. Then Government set aside over 20,000 acres of Bahamian pine-land in Abaco Island, a habitat of the Bahama Amazon parrot, as a National Park.

In 1995, Government founded the Bahamas Environment, Science and Technology (BEST) Commission, the first such entity ever created in this country, and unique among many countries of the world. The BEST Commission is charged with the co-ordination of all matters relating to international conventions, treaties, protocols and agreements concerning the environment, science and technology. It is responsible for co-ordinating national efforts to conserve and manage the environmental resources of the Bahamas, for developing a national conservation and sustainable development strategy for wiser use of natural resources, and for identifying suitable scientific and technological advances and programmes which can contribute to the development of The Bahamas.

BEST was then given national significance and prominence by its location in the Office of the Prime Minister. Government further acknowledged the importance of the Bahamian environment by appointing an Ambassador for the Environment, following the lead of several other environmentally conscious nations, but being the first country in the Caribbean and the developing world to take such a significant step.

The Ambassador has a responsibility for representing the Bahamas at international environmental meetings, thereby ensuring that the value of The Bahamas' environment is recognised and taken into account in global environmental deliberations.

Through these efforts, international grants have been secured for The Bahamas to implement two projects for the assessment and preservation of Bahamian biodiversity. The first of these is a Bahamian Biodiversity Data Management Project. Using state-of-the-art technology, existing data on Bahamian natural resources is being gathered through the use of a Bahamian Institutional Survey and computerised searches. The information is being logged into a central national data base, or Metadatabase.

When completed this summer, the BEST Commission will house an electronic library on Bahamian biodiversity which will be accessible to Government Ministries and Departments, planners, decision makers, research projects, students and the private sector throughout the country. Unquestionably, it will be the first of its kind in The Bahamas. In fact, the successful completion of this project will place The Bahamas in the forefront in this field in this region, and ahead of many other countries in the world.

The second of BEST's current projects is the development of a comprehensive programme for biodiversity conservation and sustainable use activities in the form of a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. In this important work, BEST is involving key individuals from Agriculture, Fisheries, Finance, Lands & Surveys, Tourism, Water & Sewerage, Environmental Health, Local Government and The Bahamas National Trust.

Under the theme "The Bahamas: A Strong Nation Rooted in a Healthy Environment", the project has as its goal enhancement of the quality of life in The Bahamas through sustainable use of the environment. This activity will support further economic development to address the needs of the Bahamian people. But it will demonstrate that such development can be achieved in harmony with the special quality of the nation's environment and natural resources.

To achieve this, BEST will develop a process of integrated, comprehensive planning, will promote public awareness and education, and draft appropriate legislation to support its strategy.

The BEST Commission has also begun the early stages of a GIS mapping project. With the assistance of the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC), a six month project is under way to begin to map Bahamian biodiversity through GIS technology.

It is anticipated that before the end of 1997 an additional funded project will come on line. The Bahamas expects to participate in a component of the Regional plans and strategies for the protection of the Caribbean islands from the effects of Climate Change.

With these programmes under-way, the Commission has turned some of its attention to Science & Technology. Aided by volunteer assistance, and equipment donated to further its mandate, a "Bahamas Cyberkids" pilot programme was launched to develop computer technology expertise for gifted young Bahamians in the public school system.

The results have been fun and exciting for all concerned. The Bahamas Cyberkids have created their own web site, based at Government High School, and although the skeleton site has a way to go to be fully developed, the Cyberkids and their volunteer mentors are justly proud of the strong beginning they have made.

Bahamas Cyberkids are now communicating with high school students in other parts of the world doing similar projects. They are sharing experiences and new lessons learned in technology. Visit them at www.bahamas.net.bs/Cyberkids.

It is anticipated the Bahamian Cyberkids will assist next school year in helping to set up additional pilot projects in other government schools for similarly gifted students. One of the students will have a summer job at the Commission, and will assist in the creation of a web site for BEST.

Cyber-technology will soon be bringing expanded opportunities to increased numbers of Bahamian students who will become familiar with, and benefit from, the Internet and the World Wide Web.

In March 1997, the Free National Movement, first elected in 1992, was given an overwhelming mandate by the Bahamian people to continue to govern for the next five years. The new term in Parliament was launched, on its first day, by the passing of landmark legislation to protect native hardwood trees. The same legislation also prevents destruction of the landscape by halting the excavation of hills and the cutting of canals. The legislation received overwhelming support from the Opposition and the Bahamian people.

Soon to follow will be a major land-use study and plan, forestry legislation, an inventory of biological resources and the establishment of monitoring and quality control procedures to protect natural resources.


The more than 700 islands of the Bahamas, rimmed as they are by soft, white sandy beaches, stretching one-third of the length of the Caribbean, have been described as a magnificent string of pearls cast on an azure sea. Indeed, they are incredibly beautiful by land or sea, a delight to wander, to explore and to enjoy.

It is no wonder The Bahamas is such a favoured destination for visitors. No wonder too that it is being pressed to approve more and more development, to enable even more tourists to come and enjoy its delights.

The country is fortunate however, that at a time of heightened interest and intense pressure to develop, it has its priorities straight. Protection of the environment and natural resources have become a vital part of the national planning process.

The Bahamas is clearly poised to meet the environmental, scientific and technological challenges of the new century. Its policies should ensure that future generations will be able to meet challenges of their own.