Maria Islands: The St Lucia eco-sanctuary mired in construction controversy

Much of St Lucia's appeal is derived from its spectacular setting, so recent development plans have caused some concern
Much of St Lucia’s appeal is derived from its spectacular setting, so recent development plans have caused some concern CREDIT: FOTOLIA

In the words of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott, who died in March, St Lucia’s is “a landscape furious with vegetation”. Its mountainous heart is cloaked in luxuriant rainforest: visitors can admire this lush interior at the Edmund Forest Reserve, for example, when hiking to the towering Enbas Saut waterfall that feeds a sequence of pools in which to cool off.

Its benign western beaches are ringed with coconut palms, and the cliffs of its wild Atlantic coast are spiky with cacti. Though the island is just 27 miles long, 14 miles wide and has an area of just 238 square miles, its National Trust oversees six national parks, excluding the fabled Pitons, the almost perfectly conical twin lava spikes, which have Unesco World Heritage status.

The Maria Islands Nature Reserve
The Maria Islands Nature Reserve

So it’s a cause for concern that the government is proposing to build a causeway that will link the Maria Islands Nature Reserve to the mainland, one that could endanger, if not destroy, the extraordinary wildlife in this environmentally exceptional little wilderness.

Among the endemic reptiles that call the two islands home is the world’s rarest snake, the Kouwés or St Lucia racer, and the critically endangered zandou or St Lucia whiptail lizard, not to mention pygmy and rock geckos that have survived among more than 80 species of plant and cactus. With a causeway will come, almost inevitably, rats, and if they eat the eggs, those populations may die out.

The St Lucia Whip Tail lizard
The St Lucia Whip Tail lizard

Not that these wildernesses and their spectacular white sand beaches have been completely off limits to visitors. Indeed the snorkelling here is some of the best in the Caribbean. (Though as the local marine biologist Sarah George has pointed out, it too is under threat because the construction of the causeway “will end up burying large areas of the reef and seagrass habitats, resulting in loss of vital nursery, breeding and coast fisheries grounds”.) But the National Trust, which organises guided trips, controls snorkeling excursions closely. Anyone with any sort of a health condition is asked to alert the Trust before making the short boat journey; cigarettes, alcohol, knives, matches and anything flammable are banned; you are asked not to make loud noises while on the island and expected to disinfect your footwear before you disembark. The islands are also completely inaccessible during the summer to protect nesting migratory birds.

The nature reserve as seen from the mainland
The nature reserve as seen from the mainland

The causeway – a petition against the building of which has been signed by almost 80,000 people, no little achievement give than Saint Lucia’s population is just 180,000 – is not the only controversial proposal to develop tourism in sensitive parts of the island.

A 700-acre project known as the Pearl, funded by an affiliate of the Hong Kong-based company Desert Star Holdings, is set to feature a resort, shopping mall, marina, casino and race course; the Saint Lucia Turf Club, is also under development in the south of the island. (Indeed, Prince Harry took part in a sod-turning ceremony when he visited the country last November.)

While in the north, there are plans for a dolphinarium on Pigeon Island, another National Trust-protected National Landmark, connected to the mainland by a causeway, though its interest is now principally historic rather than environmental.

The coastline around Pigeon Island
The coastline around Pigeon Island CREDIT: FOTOLIA

Tourism accounts for 65 per cent of St Lucia’s GDP, so on an economic level one can understand the imperative to continue to develop it, to seek foreign investment and broaden its appeal to visitors from Asia as well as the US and Europe. But to disregard its strikingly beautiful nature may make it a whole lot less appealing to visit.

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