When the Oasis of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship, was bathing in opening ceremonial champagne in 2010, no-nonsense dredgers were busy scraping out the bottom of Sint Maarten’s Great Bay to accommodate the behemoth boat’s thirty-one foot draft. The port did not want to miss out on welcoming the 6000 passengers that this mega-vessel promised to deliver each time it arrives. The dregs from the bay were taken to the Great Salt Pond, one of the few remaining wetlands on the island—critical habitat for birds, fish, and other marine organisms. The pond is currently being filled in with the bay’s sand to build a ring road, one declared by politicians and developers alike as an absolute must for the island’s economy. There is also talk by some of constructing a drag strip there. Others want to build a cricket stadium in the pond, which also currently holds the island’s landfill. Welcome to a paradise in peril.
This island is the smallest inhabited land mass divided by two nations in the world. It has been co-occupied by the Dutch and the French since 1648. The French side, Saint Martin, covers approximately sixty percent of the island and is governed as an overseas collectivity of France. The Dutch side, Sint Maarten, became an independent nation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands on October 2010. It stretches along a narrow east-west corridor and occupies the remaining forty percent of the land. This portion is the more densely populated of the two sides, and because of this, it faces more environmental challenges. More people and less land equate to more impact. The 2011 official census put Sint Maarten’s population at 55,222. Many residents, however, believe there are easily an additional 20,000 unregistered illegal immigrants on island. If true, Sint Maarten’s urban density population would rival that of metro New York City. In any case, with only 13.1 square miles of land, it is one densely populated island-nation. But that is only a recent phenomenon.
“When I came in 1968, there were only 5000 people living here,” says Frank Boekhout, a Dutchman who sailed to the Caribbean from Holland at the age of 22. “Looking back, the most striking thing was how peaceful and quiet it was here. Families were close-knit. It was a different kind of society than what we have today.”
Boekhout claims that things changed rapidly during the 1980s real estate boom. During those years, he built his home high in the Pelican neighborhood overlooking Simpson Bay Lagoon, Sint Maarten’s vast inland water to the west. There was barely a neighbor in sight. Boekhout, a self-taught botanist, surrounded his home with verdant gardens of trees, bushes and flowers. Since retiring after 40 years of teaching, he began propagating orchids. He also became a board member of the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation, a non-profit organization working to promote conservation on the island. Boekhout’s lush, personal Eden masks much of the multistory development that now surrounds his property. When asked what is the biggest challenge facing Sint Maarten’s environment today, Frank does not mince words. “Concrete! We have too many people and not enough land. We can’t grow economically anymore. We are no better than a caterpillar that devours a plant to the point where there is nothing left to eat. Since we live on an island, the consequences of our actions are immediately more apparent. What is happening here on Sint Maarten should serve as a warning to the rest of the planet.”
Boukhout’s ‘concrete’ theory is readily obvious when driving down Simpson Bay Road, locally known as The Strip. During much of day the traffic is snarled at a snail’s pace. Cars, limos and tourist buses warp into a slow-motion procession under the hot, tropical sun as they pass by high-rise hotels, casinos, strip clubs and restaurants. Mass tourism, the number one industry of the island, is the economic motor here and apparently nothing gets in its way.
It was four years ago when the Westin Hotel chain chose Dawn Beach on the east coast for their new 300-room high-rise development. A quaint, one-story hotel and simple beach bars favored by many Sint Maarteners were bulldozed away in the process. “It was a beautiful, low-key resort on a spot that was popular among locals,” remembers Tadzio Bervoets, manager of the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation. “It was located in front of one of our closest in-shore coral reefs and there was a mangrove-lined pond on the property which was an important juvenile fish area. When they developed the Westin, they stripped all of the trees, filled in the pond and their runoff has seriously damaged the reef.”
Bad feelings toward developers go back even further to the Maho prehistoric cave site. In 1968, the Concord Hotel, which later became the Maho Bay Beach Resort, encountered a large cave during construction on the site. “There were only a few men who actually saw the open cave, and we have the stories about it from them and their descendants,” says Dr. Jay Haviser, director of the Sint Maarten Archaeological Center. “Within hours of the cave discovery, it was filled with concrete, at least partially, and collapsed for further construction with no remains ever identified again. From the reports, inside the cave were numerous prehistoric rock paintings, petrogylphs carved into the walls and rocks, and a large open freshwater source. Unfortunately, undisputed proof of the cave and artifacts is still being investigated, with no probable certain answers to ever be found.”
This story remains the stuff of urban legend and it is not surprising that many locals still distrust developers based on past history. That is what Indigo Bay, the largest development ever undertaken in Sint Maarten, has faced. It is located on 150 acres of stunning oceanfront property. That is 1.5% of the total land area on Dutch side. After breaking ground in 2007, the project was hit hard by the global economic recession. “In 2007, we started presales and got $50 million,” explains Marc van de Bilt, project manager for Indigo Bay. “Then in the first two months of 2008, we lost 50% of the presales in two months. We took a step back and re-evaluated where we were going with the project.”
By this time, much of the land had been stripped of vegetation, top soil was piled high, and roads criss-crossed the steep hillside leading down to what is actually called Cay Bay. But with the economy on the ropes, the development stalled. “We got flack from the community. Basically they said, ‘You were going to build this big project and you cut out the roads and left the landscape scarred. Now we’re stuck with this and you guys are going to go broke.’ Well, fortunately we didn’t. We had a core of original investors that stayed with us. They signed up for town houses, but we promised them villas if they would stay with us. They did.”
That investor leap of faith allowed the Indigo Bay project to weather the recession of 2008-2009, and by 2010, signs of progress were noticeable. Topsoil originally stripped from the land was being returned to create a green space for the development. Thousands of native plants and trees had been removed and transplanted to a temporary area. Those that survived were beginning to be replanted. The land was terraced to reduce sediments flowing into the sea. Likewise, a series of ponds was created to handle runoff. The design is such that the ponds act as natural filters with sediments becoming progressively less as the water works its way down to the sea.
Indigo Bay is billing itself as a low-density build out. Most resort developments on Sint Maarten have a density build out of 45-50%, according to van de Bilt. He expects his joint venture company, Indigo Estates LLC, to come in around 14% when the development is completed. That substantial reduction goes a long way to preserving green space on this densely developed island. “We believe that by doing the right thing—applying principles of sustainable development, green technology and best management practices towards a low-density, exclusive build out program—the return-on-investment for our investors will ultimately be equal if not better compared to traditional developments. I feel we are obligated morally to do it the right way.”
But from van de Bilt’s point of view, doing it ‘the right way’ has not always gone smoothly during the Indigo Bay project. One of the developer’s goals is to recreate the sandy beach that used to grace the shores of Cay Bay before Hurricanes Lenny (1999) and Luis (2005) swept most of the sand away. The company filed for a beach development permit application in May 2007 to VROM, Sint Maarten’s Department of Public Housing, Physical Planning and Environment. “We heard nothing so I re-approached the government with additional information,” adds van de Bilt. “We had a study done with retention and flows on building the beach. I don’t think they really wanted to touch this because it is the biggest development currently going on.”
With the study submitted, Indigo Bay developers moved forward. But during beach restoration work of December 2009, they received a work-stop order from the Building & Domain Inspection Department. In days, Indigo Bay responded by sending a letter to the Executive Council of the Island Territory of Sint Maarten. “We never received a written answer to this letter in spite of the many meetings we held with the proper authorities regarding this issue,” complains van de Bilt. “However, we were verbally informed by VROM during one of our many meetings that we could go ahead with placing beach sand along the shoreline.”
Van de Bilt says that, based on VROM’s verbal permission, the company resumed beach work. Then on March 2010, VROM issued a second work-stop order stating that rocks were being removed from the beach without proper permits. “Indigo intended for these pebbles to be collected and stockpiled for future use within the overall Indigo development,” counters van de Bilt. “However, when we started clearing the beachfront by excavating and stockpiling beachfront pebbles, we received our second stop-work-order since no beach construction permit had ‘formally’ been issued by VROM as yet.”
In spite of the delays and the global economic recession, the Indigo Bay project continued to move forward during 2010. Plans are for the first phase—villas, town homes and a beach house—to be complete by the end of 2012. Marc van de Bilt remains steadfast in completing the project. “We’re not playing hide-and-seek here because in the end it doesn’t make sense. Indigo Bay has always been proactive and responsible in terms of liaising with key stakeholders, including the St. Maarten Nature Foundation. I’ve lived here 17 years. My business partner and his family have been here for 50 years. We are not going anywhere. We are part of this community.”
“Obviously, they tell a very nice story,” comments Rueben Thompson, a local environmental watchdog. “I am not happy with how the project started. If you were to ask me if the developer is working with environmental organizations at this stage of the project the answer would be ‘yes’. I do believe they are making a serious attempt at making use of the best environmental management practices. Will these practices be maintained in the long-term? Only time will tell and we’ll continue to closely monitor progress.”
Born and raised on Sint Maarten, Thompson has tracked impact on the island’s nature for a half decade. He works for several environmental groups, and in 2009, was awarded the McFarlane Award for Outstanding Environmental Leadership in the Insular Caribbean for his efforts. The twenty-nine year old activist believes there are three major problems facing the island—the absence of environmental legislation, inferior solid waste and sewage infrastructure, and the need to implement existing legislation.
“There has been a lack of political will because politicians have a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. They believe that they need to build new hotels, new casinos—all sorts of things to get the tourists to come here. What they don’t realize is that tourists come here because of our natural environment, our beaches and our lagoon if they are marine tourists.”
For those and other reasons, tourists flock to Sint Maarten in droves, especially visitors from Europe and North America. Hang out some afternoon at Maho Beach and watch the planes land directly overhead en route to shore side Princess Juliana International Airport. You will see Air France and KLM from Europe; Continental and Air Canada from North America; and Liat and Sint Maarten-based Winair island hoppers connecting travelers to their final destinations. Then there is the new A.C. Wathey Cruise Pier, which can accommodate up to ten cruise ships at a time. Located just east of Sint Maarten’s old center, Philipsburg, cruise passengers take advantage of the town’s duty-free stores. Front Street and Back Street abound with retailers selling jewelry, electronics, and liquor. The sea flanks one side of the narrow, 4-block wide commercial strip. The Great Salt Pond borders the other.
“The Great Salt Pond has different functions,” continues Thompson. “It serves as a water catchment basin from the runoff that comes from the surrounding hills. The pond prevents flooding of Philipsburg and the neighborhoods of Sucker Garden, Illage Road, and Madam Estates. It also has been declared an IBA, an Important Bird Area, by Birdlife International.”
“The salt ponds, including Great Salt Pond, are the most important habitat for shorebirds, and for all the waterbirds for that matter,” declares Adam Brown, vice president of the NGO Environmental Protection in the Caribbean or EPIC. Brown regularly conducts bird monitoring on Sint Maarten. “There are very few shorebirds that utilize the beaches along the shore as the majority are developed resort areas and the beaches offer much less foraging resources than do the salt ponds. The salt ponds offer both deep and shallow water areas. They also have healthy populations of invertebrates such as the fiddler crab, and in some cases, populations of schooling fish such as mullet.”
“The environmental damage due to the ring road project is unsurpassed,” asserts Thompson. “It is the largest scale damage that the government has done to our natural resources in decades. The sand dumped in the pond has caused flooding of nearby neighborhoods since the basin could not function properly. If you live on an island where it is normal for sewage to be on the streets, where abandoned cars are common, where garbage is all over the place, how do you expect people to have respect for the natural environment?”
That environment has changed drastically in the past 50 years. Thompson reports that the government did a count of the Sint Maarten’s natural ponds in the 1960s. There were nineteen at that time. Only five exist now—fragile wetlands called Fresh, Little Bay, Mullet, Red and, of course, the Great Salt Pond. The others were filled in, all in the name of development. But beyond the environmental loss, there is something culturally intrinsic to many of these ponds. These are places where early Sint Maarteners fished and labored for generations.
“Many of our ancestors worked in the Great Salt Pond both during and after slavery,” explains Thompson. “It was used in salt production from the 1630s to the 1920s in a large scale, and up to the 1940s on a smaller scale for personal usage. My father, Kennedy Thompson, learned about those days from his family. His roots go about 200 years deep, back to African Caribbean slave days.”
Thompson is not alone in feeling the loss to both environment and culture. Jadira Veen is the president of the Emilio Wilson Estate Foundation, a nonprofit group striving to preserve a piece of historically significant hillside from development. Her African, French and Scottish roots on Sint Maarten are centuries old.
“Many local people feel a close kinship to the estate because our history is there,” explains Veen. “Many can trace their ancestors back to colonial times through slavery, European ancestry or both. The families were interlinked. The Emilio Wilson Estate is one of the last areas left that showcases that.”
Emilio Wilson, who died in 2002, was the last resident to live on the estate. The plot once held the prosperous colonial plantations called Industry and Golden Rock. The fertile land produced sugar cane, indigo, fruits and vegetables. It was home to over 50 slaves at any given time and a succession of plantation owners, both early ancestors of many of today’s Sint Maarteners. The plantation home where Wilson resided and the ruins of an old sugar boiler house still exist. Caves located on the property served as shelter from hurricanes over the centuries. Emilio Wilson, grandson of a freed slave, realized this land served as a cultural touchstone for many. Before he died, Wilson stated in a Dutch television interview that he wanted to give it to the queen of the Netherlands so it would be forever protected. But upon his death, the estate was transferred by will to his brother, Granville, who was living in a New York City nursing home. He died one year later, but before passing on, the estate was transferred from Granville to a third party.
“It is very confusing what actually transpired,” says Veen. “The exchange of the estate is riddled with mystery of how it got into the hands of certain people. The point is that the person who now holds claim to the estate wants to sell it, and there have been several developers who want to buy it.”
One developer has designs for a 200-home neighborhood. Additionally, the government is reconsidering an old plan to build a major highway through the property. Either construction would destroy the cultural integrity of the Emilio Wilson Estate where many slave burial sites exist. Plus, the old plantation extends hundreds of feet above to Sentry Hill and St. Peter’s Hill. A trek along the rugged crest trail delivers one into a world of lush, hilltop forest. Bromeliads and orchids grace the path. Resident songbirds and migratory species reside in these relatively untouched highlands. The foundation also wants to preserve this part of the estate.
“It is one of the very few green, pristine areas left where we can research biodiversity in its natural state,” explains Veen. “The Emilio Wilson Estate Foundation wants the government to zone the area as a green area so that we could purchase it.”
Others are willing to bid much more than the $3.2 million dollars that Jadira Veen predicts the estate would be priced at as a green area. Presently, there is a company vying for the land with plans to build an ‘eco’ park complete with zip lines and gondolas. “They want to bring 600 people a day from the cruise ships. They want build a restaurant, a swimming pool, and have toilets on top of the hill. What they don’t realize is the impact on this fragile environment. That is a totally different vision then what the foundation wants. We see the estate as a place for hiking, bird watching, ecological research, and one for cultural preservation.”
In fairness to the local government, some measures have been taken recently to honor the cultural past of Sint Maarten. Drive around many of the island’s traffic roundabouts and you will be treated to wonderful sculptures centered in the circles in celebration of the island’s people. There is one dedicated to the salt workers located near the Great Salt Pond. Another is a tribute to One Titty Lokhay, a rebellious slave woman who would often escape to the heights of the Sentry Hill after committing crimes against the plantation owner. But for Jadira Veen, these efforts smack of tokenism.
“Sint Maarteners want to feel that they belong to something bigger, something larger. I think they deserve that. Should we then put our culture and history in a roundabout and not in the real location like the estate? I think not. Plus, a country should not progress at the expense of the environment because if you kill off our environment, you are going to eventually kill off our tourism industry. I’m not saying the island has to stay exactly the same way it was in the Sixties. Everyone wants to grow, make money, to progress. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But things went wrong here because there was no control over the progress, no control over the growth.”
That relentless expansion has also affected the Simpson Bay Lagoon, one of the largest natural lagoons in the Caribbean and the epicenter of the island’s significant marine industry responsible for 12.5% of the total economy. Riggers, shipwrights, mechanics, and other related workers make up 17% of the workforce, about 2800 people. The bay is a gathering point for visiting yachtsmen who use Sint Maarten as a place to re-provision or have boat maintenance completed. It is also home to the Sint Maarten Heineken Regatta, the largest of its kind in the region.
Take a boat ride with Etienne Lake, a marine park ranger for the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation, and you can easily see what Simpson Bay Lagoon is all about. Restaurants, boat facilities and luxury condos crowd the shores. The water bustles with marine traffic and is dotted with transient sailboats, recreational vessels and mega-yachts. Lake steers his craft to Mullet Pond, one of that last vestiges of natural mangrove remaining in the lagoon. Looking from the bow, it is a lush pocket of natural wonder. Snowy egrets and green herons perch on mangrove branches. Juvenile reef fish scurry in the clear shallows, residents of this natural nursery. They eventually migrate to the sea where the fish remain through most of their adulthood. But as Ranger Lake turns the boat back around to the entrance, the view changes to a shoreline stacked with luxury homes, resorts and a shopping center. This urban landscape now blankets most of the shoreline. “When I was a kid, nearly the whole lagoon looked like Mullet Pond,” comments the 43-year old ranger softly. “It was rich with fish, lobster. It was a natural playground for us locals. Now, this is all we have left.”
Recently, there has been a controversy over pollution coming from visiting yachts. Etienne Lake’s manager, Tadzio Bervoets, has been receiving complaints from the public about yachts dumping sewage in the lagoon. “I get calls all the time that boats, especially mega-yachts, are emptying their holding tanks while in port.”
“Do the big boats occasionally empty their holding tanks into the lagoon in the middle of the night?” asks Gary Brown. “It does happen. But it’s really a minor irritant when it comes to pollution in the lagoon. To me, it’s not a real big problem.”
Brown first sailed to Sint Maarten in the 1980s. He returned permanently in the 1990s and lived on his yacht in Simpson Bay for 12 years. He now resides ashore near the lagoon where he manages his media company. As editor for All At Sea Magazine, he has extensive knowledge of the island’s marine community. “The biggest challenge is from a lack of infrastructure with sewage systems and waste management, and that’s all land based. The sewage system is still like it was 40 years ago.”
Bervoets agrees. “Eighty percent of the waste water from the dwellings surrounding Simpson Bay goes directly into the lagoon. That comes from dysfunctional septic tanks or people piping waste directly into the water. There is no wastewater facility in the area. I’ve sent photos to the appropriate government officials of sewage being pumped directly into the lagoon. The government comes and inspects, and then issues a warning that the problem has to be fixed. Two or three months pass by, but because there is no follow-up, the dumping starts again. It’s a Wild West mentality here.”
Gary Brown claims that he still swims in the lagoon and notes that the local youth who constantly capsize their sailing dinghies in the bay have no ill effects. But that opinion of the bay’s cleanliness is contrary to the view of some who work in the food and beverage industry. A waitress at a waterside café complains that the stench from the lagoon’s sewage is so strong some evenings that they have to close their doors. Customers go away hungry and workers are sent home without pay.
“It would be nice to ramble about how beautiful it used to be,” continues Brown, “but we live here. A small island like this you have to develop, and unfortunately, the environment suffers from that development. It’s the tradeoff. The environmentalists are trying to hold on to what’s left of the wild side. That’s admirable, but it is too little, too late.”
Tadzio Bervoets believes there is still time left and continues the fight for preservation. His concern for water pollution goes beyond Simpson Bay Lagoon to the sea. In 2010, three oil spills occurred at the Cay Bay power plant operated by the local utility company, GEBE. The plant is located on the island’s southern shore. Each incident resulted in waste oil overflowing into the sea. “Aside from the damage caused to the coral reef ecosystem, these oil spills were also disastrous to sea turtle populations,” explains Bervoets. “They occurred during sea turtle nesting season, and inevitably turtles will die because of all of this oil.”
The culprit was a malfunctioning oil treatment system that is supposed to skim off any waste oil from the production process. William Brooks, GEBE’s president and managing director at the time, claims that there were different reasons for each of the spills, but refused to detail specifics. “Oil is used in the operation of the engines in the power plant—barrels of it. I think with the small things that we now put in place that we shouldn’t have problems. There is now more physical, visual controls—being around there, getting it on time when the system is getting overloaded. You can manage it.”
The problem is that until the aging system is updated, the chance for additional spills exists if GEBE plant workers are not constantly vigilant. “I think sometimes we dropped the ball,” admits Brooks. “We do our very best for it not to happen. We are investing in a new oil management system. We have to expand it.”
That promised improvement could not have come at a better time. After years of negotiations with the government, the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation in late 2010 finally secured the right to establish the Man of War Shoal Marine Park. The new marine park, Sint Maarten’s first, is but a couple of miles from GEBE’s Cole Bay power plant. The shoal includes the island’s most ecologically and economically important marine habitat. It holds extensive coral reefs and seagrass beds essential for grazing sea turtles. With acceptance of the nature ordinance, Tadzio Bervoets and his staff finally have enforcement powers. The shark now has teeth.
“It’s always worth protecting what’s left. We want to give nature a chance to come back—reef restoration, bring back the mangroves, and increase fish populations. Having Man of War protected is a great start. But it’s still hard for me to experience the disconnect between people and nature. It is difficult to not take personally what’s happening to my island home.”
* * *
It is readily apparent that Sint Maarten is approaching a breaking point. Increasing population, unbridled development and an aging infrastructure are stretching the island’s carrying capacity to the limits. The very attractions that draw tourists to this established Caribbean destination are being threatened, and will continue to degrade if sustainable solutions are not quickly implemented. Will tourists come back to bask on palm-studded beaches if oil spills and sea contamination persist? Do divers return to offshore reefs if coral degradation continues due to coastal runoff? Will yachtsmen and partygoers still revel in the warm, tropical nights along The Strip if the stench from Simpson Bay sewage and overwhelming traffic jams increase?
These are pressing questions that the politicians, developers and environmentalists need to answer soon. It is a complicated balancing act of preserving a quality, natural environment while keeping the economic engine of tourism afloat. Ironically, the island’s treasures in jeopardy—clean beaches, a healthy lagoon, robust reefs, and verdant ridge forests—are the same gems prized by many tourists. If the fundamental value of these natural resources is not realized soon, Sint Maarteners will destroy the very things that draw cash-carrying visitors to their tropical homeland. Increasingly, the island will become a paradise in peril.
[All photo courtesy Patrick Holian]