Landmark Environmental Case in the British Virgin Islands

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A precedent-setting legal case seeking to stop the construction of a tourism development that could affect fisheries in protected areas is being heard in the British Virgin Islands courts this week. The case, brought forth by the Virgin Islands Environmental Council, seeks judicial review of a decision by the former NDP Government to grant approval for the construction of a five-star hotel, marina, and golf course that would destroy the biologically important Hans Creek Fisheries Protected Areas in Beef Island. At risk is one of the most important mangrove systems in the BVI, providing a vital home for hatchlings and juvenile fish, lobster and conch. The case was inspired in part by the Save the Guana Cay Reef action in the Bahamas.

The case marks the first environmental and public-interest challenge to a government decision in the BVI. The Virgin Islands Environmental Council (VIEC) is a coalition of local fishermen, concerned residents, scientists and environmental activists seeking to protect the fisheries. Unable to secure the assistance of a local lawyer, the group reached out to Fred Smith, the Freeport (Bahamas) attorney that argued the Save Guana Cay Reef case. Smith’s timely encouragement and advice enabled VIEC to file their claim against the decision within the six-month time limit for bringing judicial review.

A council spokesman said: “This is a landmark case that addresses a number of important issues which will impact on the future of environmental law and practice throughout the Caribbean. The outcome of this case will definitely impact the way other large projects currently under planning review are dealt with, leading to a more sustainable future for the BVI. The case will serve to define more clearly the government’s responsibility in adhering to environmental laws when granting or refusing planning permission.”

The case against the development, which is expected to have “far-reaching consequences for the protection of the fragile Caribbean environment,” has the support of Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group, who has paid for a team of barristers, led by the former chairman of the Bar Stephen Hockman QC, to fly to the group of islands and seek to stop plans to build a marina.

Arguments in the case are expected to end today.

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