BY: Kinship Fellows’ Watershed and Coastal Resiliency Affinity Group members: Dan Tonnes, Christian Henry, Scott Gillilan, Csaba Vaszko, Tanya Bryan and Fernando Bretos.
[For a photo slideshow and webcast of the Affinity Group's July 2013 webinar, scroll to the bottom. All photos taken by Neil Ever Osborne, iLCP.]
Eleuthera. The name evokes a sense of escape and seclusion in a Caribbean paradise. Its name originates from the Greek word eleutheros, or “freedom.” Located in the Bahamian outer islands, Eleuthera is a long, thin island in the shape of a fishhook. More than 100 miles long and, in most places, less than a mile wide; it abounds in sandy beaches and mangrove-filled coves that have liberated many an urban resident from the hustle and bustle of stateside life. From a developer’s standpoint, Eleuthera is a gold mine with pink sand beaches and proximity to US markets. But things are not all what they seem.
Until the early 1980s, Eleuthera, particularly the southern coast of the island, was a chic getaway, drawing scores of high-end tourists to ritzy all-inclusive resorts featuring golf courses rivaling Pebble Beach and deep-water marinas. Passengers, mostly urban glitterati from the northeast US boarded direct flights from JFK to Rock Sound, the main settlement in South Eleuthera while yachts from Miami weighed anchor at the marina at Powell Pointe. Two hours were all that separated cold, noisy Manhattan to playing 18 holes on seaside greens.
Powell Pointe, a massive development at Cape Eleuthera conceived by Pan-Am airlines founder Juan Trippe, featured 16 miles of pristine beach coastline and boasted its own 6,500 ft-long airstrip.
Eleuthera’s heyday was short lived. By the mid 1980s, resorts lay abandoned, left to rot in the Bahamian sun. Others like the Club Med Eleuthera held out a little longer. It wasn’t until Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999 that Club Med’s owners found a well-timed alibi to shut its doors. Eleutherans waited and waited for a promised rebuilding phase that never came. Jobs disappeared all over the island and many Eleutherans left for greener pastures in Nassau. The “little island that could” became a poster child for unsustainable tourism products in the outer islands while Nassau fairly exploded with successful developments, gobbling up government resources, interest and the nation’s young and ambitious youth. The list of failed development is vast: Powell Pointe, Cotton Bay and others. All built with great fanfare now standing as ruins and cautionary relics.
How could something so promising come crashing down so fast? Why was there no regulation in place to prevent such a calamity of bad investments and poor management, all in such a picturesque island with a vivid island culture and easy access to large US population centers? How can tourism thrive in a remote, windswept island like Aruba and not on Eleuthera with its perfect climate, world class beaches and marine environment?
The answer was left to a group of Kinship Conservation Fellows representing the Watershed and Coastal Resiliency Affinity Group. From April 11-20, 2013, a team of nine conservationists from three countries convened on the island of Eleuthera, Bahamas to evaluate two properties either at-risk for or undertaking traditional development models to consider alternative and specific market-based conservation strategies. The expedition was financially sponsored by Kinship Foundation and ProPesca and hosted locally by the Burrows family and The Island School. The expedition was organized by Kinship Conservation Fellows Dan Tonnes, Christian Henry and Scott Gillilan, with three additional Kinship Fellows Csaba Vlasko, Tanya Bryan and Fernando Bretos in attendance. Accompanying them was a handpicked team of professionals that included a group facilitator, a conservation photographer, a hotel and leisure consultant and a land planner/architect. The expedition was organized as an “immersion:” testing the idea that a hand-picked group of diverse conservation specialists could, with a minimum of pre-project professional collaboration, assemble onsite, rapidly assess relevant physical, socio-economic and market conditions in the project areas, and generate realistic and actionable conservation project ideas.
The objective of the immersion was to conceive and vet plans for sustainable development on two distinct properties, Burrows Pond (Turtle Lake) and Cape Eleuthera, that could stand the test of time, provide revenues and livelihoods for stakeholders while helping to quell the outward migration of Eleutherans. The two project sites on the island of Eleuthera were chosen for conservation-market assessments and future project development because of family and professional ties to to each site within the Affinity Group. Though located on the same island only 50 miles apart, the two sites are a study in contrast; the 4,000 acre Cape Eleuthera site has been extensively altered by decades-old development that includes a now defunct golf course, and marina. It is bordered by the deep Atlantic Ocean and the shallow and flat Carribbean Sea on the other side. The site is 30 miles from the nearest settlement. By contrast, the Turtle Lake site is much smaller at 68 acres and is within a short drive of the government seat of Governor’s Harbor and airport. Despite their differences, each site represents a potential new approach to future land use and monetization of natural resources in a manner that enhances and preserves natural amenities rather than degrading them.
The first site subjected to a market conservation analysis was Burrows Pond (Turtle Lake). Turtle Lake is a nearly pristine 68 acre inland blue hole, (tidally connected to the Atlantic ocean one mile away) that is threatened by pending development and only two miles from Governor’s Harbor. Its waters are steeped in cultural and natural history emblematic of Eleuthera and the Bahamas.
Surrounded by mangroves and soaring ridgelines with two ocean views and native scrub, this area plays host to several species of birds and fish, though little is known about the baseline ecology of the lake and surrounding uplands, much less the unique marine cave system beneath the lake surface. Edwin Burrows, an early settler of Eleuthera, and grandfather of Dan’s Eleutheran-born wife, Shavonne, farmed the land for pineapples and other crops stocked fish caught from both the Atlantic and Carribbean into its waters and harvested them after they grew, by all reports, ”very large and well.” He also introduced sea turtles, some of which successfully reproduced and those offspring continue to live in the lake today nearly 50 years later, still of reproductive age.
Several years ago, developers installed a small network of roads and a boat launch on the southern edge of the lake (not seen in the picture), intending on selling dozens of cookie cutter small developable lots. There is concern that unabated development could severely alter the condition of the lake and dampen future sustainable economic opportunities in its watershed. Exploring opportunities for the long-term conservation of the lake ecosystem while also creating new economic diversification avenues and opportunity for local stakeholders was a priority for the group, who also aimed to identify diversified economic avenues that fostered lake and watershed conservation while facilitating better understanding of its unique ecology.
The second property that the Kinship team visited was Cape Eleuthera. There they identified a strategy to create sustainable development opportunities. Cape Eleuthera/Powell Pointe is the south-eastern 4,000 plus acre tip of Eleuthera and contains the footprints of several generations of failed all-inclusive developments that surround the Island School and Cape Eleuthera Institute, our hosts for the majority of the immersion. The current generation of development is at a standstill due to persistent low market demand. The Island School stands as a working model of successful and philanthropically supported education and development and is recognized as one of the only sustainable developments on Eleuthera. High school students spend a semester learning about conservation, along with more traditional academic subjects. The school generates a surplus of electricity through wind power and collects rain on roofs for use by residents as a demonstration of its environmental commitment. After gaining understanding of The Island School’s sustainable inhabitation technology, capacity, visions for future program expansion and existing neighboring development infrastructure, the team provided the Island School with potential mechanisms to assess the Cape property and explore alternatives that are grounded on sustainable and conservation development models.
Project Site Recommendations
1. Declaration of Turtle Lake as the Edwin Burrows Turtle Lake Preserve: Future uses of the lake should celebrate the distinct heritage of the Burrows Family, the vision of Edwin Burrows, and the strong desire of the family for a unified path forward. The preserve does not have to be a legal structure but rather a statement of purpose and intention created by the family and effectively a stewardship guidance document. The definition of “preserve” would give voice to family member intentions to create a legacy of protection and conservation of the natural values of the Lake. If a preserve status is designated it can become a centerpiece of a marketing effort for nature-based experience income streams discussed in following sections.
2. Future uses of the lake and surrounding watershed should have benign effects on its unique environment: Future uses of the lake should be designed to generate revenue streams that, at least in part, serve to directly or indirectly lead to the preservation of the lake and surrounding land. In addition, research to better understand the lakes biota, bird community, mangroves and upland vegetation should occur, in addition to how these natural resource assets could be used to sustain the local oceanic and upland environments of Eleuthera and beyond.
3. Create a Destination Tourist Recreation Experience: Developing and branding Turtle Lake as a “must see destination” nature preserve, paddle water sports and recreation site could fill a local void. In more advanced phases, this would require additional onsite amenities and services that made Turtle Lake more attractive and appealing to a wider range of both casual and destination tourists. This could include harnessing the under-exploited birding tourist market with guided bird walks or custom guides and the development of a birding trail. Many tourists could be attracted to a “Swim with the Sea Turtles” branding campaign that includes opportunities for turtle viewing, photography and conservation education.
1. Augment previous energy directed towards development of marine protected areas & repurposes land for agriculture & wind energy production: Cape Eleuthera is located at the union of the deep Atlantic Ocean and the shallow and flat Caribbean Sea. This union of vastly different water bodies provides for diverse and productive marine habitats that have already been identified as candidate marine protected area sites. The establishment of reserves of some of these waters, as part of an inclusive and comprehensive decision-making process with local stakeholders, would provide important areas for research and may attract business such as scuba-dive resorts that would see formal marine protections as an amenity to attracting clientele.
Repurposing some the altered land of the Cape site for local agricultural production and island-wide wind and solar energy production would also enhance the resiliency of Eleuthera by reducing electrical costs and the costs of importing food that can be produced on-site.
2. Re-purposing existing development for institutional conservation educational/research facilities: Re-purposing the marina facilities and buildings to support the creation of satellite research and education campuses from one or more University based in North America or Europe focusing on ocean, reef and marine biota health and flats ecology would be synergistic with The Island School and showcasing and understanding the local natural resource assets of Cape Eleuthera.
3. Create separate eco-tourism development/model harnessing the assets of both the Island School and existing resort: Create a a destination eco-, recreational-, conservation-tourism operation in strategic proximity to The Island School. The entire project, from conception to build-out and operations could be incorporated into Island School research, study and demonstration of sustainable tourism in the Bahamas, including market development/feasibility studies, green building, business planning, tourism development, entrepreneurial training, project development, management and hospitality training.
To end the week, the Affinity Group was also pleased to be able to participate in a one-day Symposium on Tourism and Coastal Development hosted at the Island School. This symposium brought together local governments and community leaders, business owners and citizens to discuss an alternative path for the future of Eleutheran investments in tourism. In this way, our small group ideas were expressed and challenged in a larger setting with people who would be charged with carrying on the work of stewardship locally. The Symposium was widely covered by news and television media, and the pursuit of conservation outcomes locally has moved closer to the core of organizational priorities and awareness.
Overall this experience was a positive one for all involved and allowed us as Fellows to come together in a way that was not possible without the Affinity Group. We were provided with the opportunity to immerse ourselves in Eleuthera and use many of the Kinship principles to create unique, environmentally sound economic opportunities for the island and its inhabitants while greatly strengthening the Kinship Fellows network.
- Interested in hosting a similar collaborative meeting? Read the Affinity Group’s Guide for Regional Chapter and Affinity Group Organizers.
- The work of the Affinity Group is being used in a Design Studio hosted by Architect and Professor Clark Stevens of Woodbury University School of Architecture, who participated in the working group process on Eleuthera. Read more about it here.
WEBINAR: Click below to join us for the story of how the Kinship Fellows’ Watershed and Coastal Resiliency Affinity Group applied their Kinship tools to design solutions to development challenges on Eleuthera, a small island in the Bahamas. Featuring Scott Gillilan, 2009 Fellow; Christian Henry, 2003 Fellow; and Dan Tonnes, 2009 Fellow.