By Jomo Thomas
Every time the sad situation in Canouan is raised, a narrow band, intoxicated by glitz, glitters and the lure of a rich bounty, are quick to remind us that the foreign developers invested hundreds of millions of dollars and must now be allowed to enjoy the fruits of their business savvy.
Lost in the debate over Canouan is that the government gave away 1200 acres of prime, pristine real estate in the tranquil waters of the Grenadines to foreign developers.
In 1990, James Mitchell NDP Government, in its quest to develop SVG as a high-end tourist destination, leased the northern two-thirds of Canouan to an outfit called the Canouan Resorts Development Ltd. Canouan comprises of approximately 1800 acres of land. The Mitchell government leased 1200 acres for tourism development.
For the first 15 years, the developers paid no taxes. This is standard procedure in these kinds of developmental deals. What was not standard, and has never been standard anywhere in the world, is that the government allowed the lessee, who negotiated a 99-year lease, to sell freeholds out of the leasehold.
It is conceivable and highly probable that in 2089 when the lease expires, all of the 1200 acres of land could be developed and sold. There will be nothing that remains to be returned to our patrimony. For this sweetheart deal, the developers paid $10,000 annual rent beginning in 1996, and on the final year of the lease in 2089, the annual rent is $55,599.17.
We have essentially given away a fortune. In 2015, the government sold 40 acres of land on Canouan for $20,000,000 to the same developers. A well-placed source disclosed that about 15 years ago, an acre was sold to a wealthy Englishman for 9 million pounds. These investors are making a killing by selling lands that were leased to them. This can’t be right. This has to be wrong. The lease is either void or voidable. Our patrimony demands that we challenge the legality of the agreement. Once it’s found to be illegal, we can renegotiate more favourable terms that benefit the people of SVG.
Follow this conversation and do not lose sight of the fact that the 1200 acres of land belong to the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines. Understand that even though the land is owned by the crown and was leased from the government for 99 years, the owners of the Canouan Resorts Development Limited can sell parcels of this land. Whatever fee our land is sold for, the government gets a meagre 17 percent.
What is also significant about this lease agreement is that it was not only registered. It was passed into the laws of St Vincent and the Grenadines as Act # 4 of 1990 as the Canouan Resorts Limited (Lease Ratification) Act. Make no mistake, our people are holding the ‘shitty’ end of the stick in this deal. It will take a courageous people’s centred government to repeal the sell-out deal. If you believe foreign investors have more rights than citizens of SVG, you have been had.
There is no doubt that SVG in 1990, as in 2023, needs foreign direct investment. There is no question that we need more employment opportunities. However, no self-respecting national could/should/would countenance an agreement that gives away a sizable portion of a beautiful island for trinkets under the pretext of development.
It is, therefore, hard to believe or understand how the conversation in SVG is whether we support or oppose the protest action regarding access to the beach. PlainTalk is convinced that access is really a non-issue. Our law allows access to all our beaches. We know that developers are looking for exclusivity. They want to attract a particular clientele and offer them absolute privacy. Let them pay a hefty sum for privacy. Build the much-needed jetty, and pay up a nice piece of change.
There were similar struggles over the right of passage through private lands to Young’s Island, Breakers Bay, Indian Bay and Canash. Locals must never give up their rights. Governments must never arbitrarily negotiate away the rights of citizens regarding access to beaches. However, nationals must never abandon the spirit of compromise if they can gain in the bargain.
The issues in Canouan are not the exclusive affairs of residents on the island and the developers. This issue should concern all of us. Moreover, the issue is much larger than beach access. Central to this debate is how we can renegotiate this deal that gives away prime real estate for ‘twenty pieces of silver.’
Some may argue that Canouan was a mosquito-infested island with little commercial value in 1990 when the deal was brokered. Apart from the slur on people who lived on the island, there is something we ought to know about land. It never spoils, and in these parts, rarely ever loses value.
Former PM Mitchell is acutely aware of this fact. He has a family interest in a Grenadines island. We are absolutely certain it did not and will not cross his mind to lease that island and give the lessee a right to sell freeholds.
In law, one cannot give what she doesn’t have. Therefore, this agreement is legally untenable. It is true that it has the support of an act of parliament, but governments pass and repeal laws all the time. Further, any agreement that exempts it from any section of the Constitution is presumptively unconstitutional.
Millions of dollars have already been invested, and this may be a long road to hoe. But there are legal minds that can be brought to bear on this issue. We have given away a treasure. The question is whether there are legal avenues for us to get something or everything back. We have clearly given up too much. James Mitchell is properly condemned for giving away Canouan. Gonsalves is 23 times more culpable. He touts himself as progressive, anti-colonialist, and anti-imperialist. Yet after 23 years in power, he facilitates and continues the sell-off of Canouan rather than protect our people and nation. As Fidel Castro said, ‘Some politicians enjoy sucking on the honeycomb of power.’
This is how the debate about Canouan should be grounded and not whether nationals should have access to the beaches. We have to revive the struggle for Genuine Independence, People’s Ownership and Control.
This piece, slightly revised, first appeared on June 10, 2016, with the title ‘Beach and Land.’