Sunday, April 21, 2024

Island Issues

Bahamas: Aga Khan's Plan for Bell Island Stirs Eco-Controversy

With a controversial development in a national park, a debate is brewing in the Bahamas over whether privilege trumps protecting the environment.

(Bell Island Image Copyright F. Vladi)

The Bahamas may have a reputation as a laid-back island chain where the world’s elite can come and go with relative anonymity, but an environmental controversy has propelled one billionaire private island owner into the spotlight. The Bahamian government has long taken a strict approach to permitting development in the protected Exumas National Land and Sea Park. Critics of the ruling Free National Movement party, however, say that they have compromised ecological principles when it comes to the development of Bell Island by the Aga Khan, who reportedly purchased it in 2009.

The Aga Khan, a well-known figure in elite social circles, is the 4th of his line to act as head of the world’s Ismaili Muslims, a branch of the Shi’a faith. An inherited title meaning “noble ruler”, the Swiss-born Aga, also known as Prince Karim al-Husseini, is the chair of one of the largest private development networks in the world, funding diverse works relating to the environment, disaster reduction, and the preservation of art and cultural treasures.

Having a sizeable inherited wealth, in addition to receiving tithes from millions of Ismaili Muslims each year, the Aga has no shortage of funding for his charitable works. His personal fortune is said to exceed $1 billion, and his tastes run towards the extravagant; stables of racehorses, a Sardinian yacht club, private planes, and, of course, a certain island in the Bahamas that may be causing him more grief than he bargained for.

(Image from the Govt. of Canada Archives)

Bell Island lies within the Exumas Land and Sea Park, one of the grandfathered private islands from before the Park was established in 1959. The Aga applied to dredge the area of the island to create a marina for his 150-ft super yacht, which, much to the chagrin of environmental groups and local citizens, was approved by Environment Minister Earl Deveaux, who has been widely pilloried in the local press for accepting rides in the Aga’s helicopter. The dredging reportedly began in the summer of 2011, and while government officials claim that no real ecological damage will occur, critics say that the sanctity of the Park has already been compromised.

The destruction to the island, according to a statement by an Opposition party member in the Bahamas Press, has been serious; he described with video footage how dredging has eradicated 13 acres of the surrounding sea bed, once a habitat for conch, lobster and corals. Hills on the island were excavated for their soil, and a pond that once housed protected Bahamas ducks and other wild fowl was now barren. He criticized the Bahamas National Trust, who he said received a $1 million donation by the Aga, and has remained silent on the environmental damage.

However, Neil McKinney, President of the Bahamas National Trust, said that the dredging was only impacting a few acres, and the Aga had acquired all proper permits. A spokesperson at the Aga’s estate in Chantilly, France, also denies the allegations that the Aga’s development has been harmful, or even significant. “It is certainly not true to say that he has harmed the environment in any way,” the employee told the Daily Mail. “On the contrary, he has kept to a strict adherence of environmental standards. The island he bought had two owners before him. It was never pristine and untouched. He is merely renovating a fairly small building that is already there.”

View further details about this story:

Daily Mail

Bahamas Press

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