Conservationists have warned that a planned $2.6bn resort development in St Lucia which aims to attract Chinese investors could threaten vulnerable species and change the character of the island.
The project, known as Pearl of the Caribbean, will feature a resort, marina, casino, racecourse, shopping mall, apartments, villas and a free trade zone over about 800 acres at the southern tip of the island near the town of Vieux Fort and the international airport.
The St Lucia government and the developer, Desert Star Holdings Caribbean Star (DSH), have touted potential economic benefits from the ambitious scheme, arguing that it will bring sorely needed jobs.
But the island’s national trust is among those expressing fears that a proposed causeway linking the mainland with the Maria Islands nature reserve may have a devastating effect on the shoreline and endemic rare species, the St Lucia whiptail lizard and worm snake.
“We have some deep concerns about the protection of the natural environment because we are aware of the fragility of some of our endemic species,” said Julius James of the Vieux Fort Concerned Citizens Coalition for Change.
He said that the group is not against foreign investment or the project in itself, but feels that the terms of the deal are over-generous to the developers. James said that the scheme has been approved without adequate public consultation even though it has “enormous economic, social, environmental and developmental as well as political implications” and could affect the livelihoods of those in traditional industries such as fishing and farming.
The project calls for some land to be leased to the developer for $1 an acre, with the purchase price set at between $60,000-90,000 per acre. In January the government issued a “fact sheet” in which it said it “will ensure that the developer who has an excellent track record when it comes to the environment, takes the necessary steps to preserve the environment.”
At the northern end of St Lucia a separate plan to build a dolphinarium tourist attraction on Pigeon Island national park is also provoking strong local opposition.
“What makes St Lucia unique is what attracts tourists here,” said Tracey Devaux, daughter of the late St Lucia conservationist Robert Devaux.
“There’s lots of places with beaches, lots of places with sun and warm weather. It’s the natural heritage of the island, the mountains, the history, the culture. If we don’t protect that and it’s gone and we just have ugly big hotels everywhere, people don’t have any reason to choose us over anywhere else. And when the environment gets destroyed … the developers will move on to somewhere else after they’ve destroyed what we have.”
To build the Pearl, the St Lucia government has partnered with DSH, a Cayman Islands-registered affiliate of a Hong Kong-based thoroughbred horse company run by Teo Ah Khing. He is a Malaysian-born architect and entrepreneur who founded the China Horse Club, an exclusive group of wealthy businesspeople which owns international racehorses and is aiming to expand the sport in China.
On a visit to the island last November while on a Caribbean tour, Prince Harry took part in a sod-turning ceremony for the racecourse with Ah Khing and Allen Chastanet, the prime minister.
In a press release after the deal was signed last year, the China Horse Club said the project “will be able to house more than 1,000 racehorses and have the capacity to hold feature racing carnivals, establishing St Lucia as a racing and entertainment centre in the Caribbean and leveraging off the international appeal of the sport to promote St Lucia to a diverse audience base.”
About 180,000 people live on the 240 sq mile island, and at an estimated $2.6bn, the development would have a major impact: according to the World Bank, the GDP of the island, which is heavily reliant on tourism, was $1.4bn in 2015.
Last year the country followed several of its Caribbean neighbours in launching a citizenship by investment programme, which grants investors a St Lucia passport within a couple of months if they put money into projects such as the Pearl of the Caribbean.
In January, after discussions with DSH, the government made the programme more attractive to potential investors, including reducing the single-applicant cost by half to $100,000.
Increased Chinese influence could have political ramifications. The island is currently one of the few remaining countries with diplomatic ties to Taiwan instead of its rival, Beijing, following a 2007 decision to switch relations. “Support those who give you the most,” the then St Lucian foreign minister, Rufus Bousquet, reportedly said that year.
According to the China Post, a Taiwanese newspaper, six of Taiwan’s 21 allies are in the Caribbean.