Gasping to escape the suffocating smog in Beijing? Then consider the pristine shores of Guiana Island, the largest of a cluster of scenic islets off the north-eastern shores of Antigua – the main site of Yida International Investment Group’s dazzling new 1600 acre Special Economic Zone and tourist complex.
China’s Yida Group is marketing what could be the Caribbean’s largest construction project as the ideal location in which to enjoy unspoilt natural beauty in luxurious comfort. The irony is that to create such an idyll, they will destroy the local environment and contravene legislation designed to protect it, local conservationists say.
Yida and the government of Antigua and Barbuda are trying to attract investors, businesses and holidaymakers to a new Special Economic Zone consisting of a 300-room Hard Rock Hotel and Casino complex and numerous other commercial developments. Yida is reported to be investing around 2 billion east Caribbean dollars (US$ 750 million) in the development which is set for completion by late 2017.
But the Special Economic Zone, which already held a ground-breaking ceremony on April 30 without having presented a valid environmental impact assessment, is riling environmentalists. They point out that the Antigua and Barbuda government are breaking their own laws prohibiting development on the North East Marine Management Area (NEMMA), a protected stretch of coastline which is home to fragile mangrove ecosystems.
The current Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party government announced plans to develop Guiana Island in partnership with Yida just hours after defeating the ruling United Progressive Party in national elections in June 2014. The government says the project will create “thousands” of jobs but is yet to provide an exact number or say how many jobs will go to local, as opposed to Chinese, workers.
Major Chinese-funded tourist developments have popped-up in the Caribbean in recent years but disputes between investors and contractors have led to work grinding to a halt on sites such as the mammoth US$ 3.5 billion Baha Mar resort in the Bahamas.
Whistling ducks, nesting turtles
Guiana’s mangroves are almost the last undamaged ecosystem of its kind in Antigua, according to Fiona Wilmot, a Caribbean specialist at conservation group Mangrove Action Project. Wilmot fears that if developed according to Yida’s plans, endangered species such as whistling ducks and nesting turtles would “disappear from their last foothold”.
Antigua’s government refutes claims that the Special Economic Zone will irreparably damage mangrove ecosystems. Minister of Tourism Asot Michael claims project opponents are guilty of “mischief-making” and “bad-mindedness” and that fewer than 25 mangroves would be uprooted to make way for a pontoon bridge required to connect Guiana to Antigua proper.
But it is the disregard for the protected status of the NEMMA that is at the heart of the issue, says Wilmot.
“That many [mangroves] can disappear in a decent-sized storm,” Wilmot explains, pointing instead to the impacts on the island’s ecology, which she says will be “vast”.
According to Eli Fuller, a local tour operator and president of the Antigua Conservation Society, the island is an important nursery area for piscine species such as the Cubera snapper – an abundant fish in Caribbean waters but one which relies on mangrove roots to protect its offspring from predators.
Under Antigua’s 2006 Fisheries Act, the Fisheries Division can only grant permission to so much as “prune” a mangrove in the event that it benefits the environment. However, reports have emerged from Antigua indicating that project developers have already begun bulldozing mangroves without the necessary permit from the Fisheries Division or Antigua’s Development Control Authority (DCA).
And nor would depleted fish stocks be the only disaster caused by the creation of the Special Economic Zone, according to Fuller. Tourists who come to explore the natural habitats of Guiana Island would disappear with the creation of the Special Economic Zone, Fuller says.
According to Fuller, ministers and politicians don’t care about the offshore islands and coastline environments because they never interact with them.
“Their interaction is getting out of their cars and going for a paddle up to their chests,” says Fuller, who took Prime Minister Gaston Browne on a tour of Guiana Island last year.
Diálogo Chino attempted to contact the government of Antigua and Barbuda for comment but received no reply.
Founded in 2011, Beijing-based Yida focuses principally on commercial real estate investments, mining and metals, renewable energy and the horse industry and only recently began to invest overseas. Yida’s chairman, Zhang Yida, is the younger brother of Zhang Hongwei, an influential construction billionaire and investor with close ties to the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party.
Zhang Hongwei has secured lucrative contracts to construct government buildings in China and organised and participated in a horse festival attended by President Xi Jinping last year.
"In China, doing business is different from doing business in other places; you only spend 30 per cent of your effort on business, the other 70 per cent is spent on dealing with all kinds of inter-personal relationships." Zhang Hongwei was quoted as saying in a 2013 article by UK daily The Telegraph
According to Professor R. Evan Ellis, an expert on China-Latin America and Caribbean relations, the ease of access to the “personalistic” and “malleable” governments of the Caribbean suits Chinese businessmen’s preference for dealing with elites. Contacts in government can remove legal obstacles to developments.
Asot Michael declared in April that a Special Economic Act would be passed to “provide for drastic simplification of procedures, approvals, clearance and documentation of investment-related matters.”
Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua, who was recently appointed Ambassador-at-large by Prime Minister Browne, will court further investment for the project.
The atmosphere surrounding the Special Economic Zone is politicised and adversarial. According to R. Evan Ellis, opposition parties in the Caribbean do occasionally exchange information with environmental groups to try and muster resentment towards Chinese investors on environmental grounds.
Nonetheless, a video emerged online of Yida’s vice president Kenneth Kwok at an event sponsored by the investor claiming that those opposing the Special Economic Zone “will be left behind in the ashes of the previous administration, while we as a country rise like a phoenix towards real economic prosperity".
Kwok was subsequently fired.