A tour of the forest area off Carmichael Road, New Providence, early Friday produced stunning revelations and underscored the environmental crisis that has unfolded in an area of New Providence most Bahamians probably never think about.
A significant area of the pine forest has been cleared, squatters reside on the land, an illegal coal operation is evident, as is illegal excavation, and an illegal firing range.
“This area and this section is just roughly around 786 acres and from our mapping estimations, we’ve estimated 339 of that has been deforested or cleared over the last two years,” said Danielle Hanek, acting director of the Forestry Unit in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, before joining the tour with police and defense force officials as well as Minister of National Security Wayne Munroe and other government officials.
“In terms of the severe flooding that happened the middle of May when we had that storm pass through and all of these areas were flooded and persons experienced a high [degree] of flooding in the Carmichael Road area that never had flooding before, this is the result of that because you had this extensive loss of vegetation, and you had nowhere for the water to go and it just was run off.”
Many residents in western New Providence were impacted by severe flooding between May 13 and 14 after heavy rainfall.
Some homes and businesses were flooded out and many vehicles stalled from the high water.
Given the loss of vegetation in the forest — which officials accessed along a pathway next to the park near Bacardi Road — the water absorption process from rain has been impacted, Hanek explained.
The mass clearing of the forest will also have other impacts, she added.
“Wind absorption acts like a greenbelt, so breaking any wind that would transfer over from the north to the south of the island,” Hanek said.
“We no longer have that protection here, so when we have another storm, we will see more wind damage because this belt has been removed.”
Authorities did not say who they think is responsible for the illegal clearing of the land, but Munroe assured that authorities will get to the bottom of it.
“This government is serious about natural resources, about protecting the enforcement,” he said right before the tour started.
“We don’t care how long-standing the problem is. We will bring it to an end.”
We could not help but wonder how this level of deforestation was allowed to happen without anyone taking note.
Hanek blamed the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdowns, office closures and slowed pace of public service operations.
“That means for two full years we nearly did not do patrols, so that is where the increase [in land clearing] came from because there was no presence, even at minimum when we would drive through, that presence wasn’t here, and so during that time it escalated,” she said.
“So even when the restrictions were lifted and we were able to do patrols, etc., we noticed that they had increased [deforestation] and that’s why in 2021 in July the previous administration, we advanced a concern to the Cabinet and they formed the task force from last year so this has been in progress from then.
“So yes, it has been two years but we’ve been doing our best to accelerate it in terms of sounding the alarm on how important it is.”
Members of the Forestry Unit in recent times have been raising awareness over the unfolding situation, but it was the sensationalized Facebook Live broadcasts of controversial activist Lincoln Bain that caught the attention of many Bahamians, particularly those who frequently use social media.
Stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, a shotgun gun-toting Bain sparked a nerve when he claimed that illegal immigrants were burning coal and shipping it to Haiti — a claim that was not verified, but appeared to be widely accepted.
On Friday, Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) Lieutenant Commander Desiree Corneille, who heads the Bahamas Wildlife Enforcement Network (BWEN), said that at any point in time, there are six to eight charcoal kilns continually burning.
“They burn for about 10 to 15 days,” Corneille said.
“They produce quite a bit of coal that we know are on sale all around New Providence. They use the protected trees that are in the forest area.”
There is also a significant amount of quarry mining taking place on land that used to be forest.
On Friday, two bulldozers were parked at the site.
Officials are also concerned about the illegal firing range where shotgun and assault rifle casings can be found.
Regarding the squatters at the site, Minister Munroe advised them that they have 14 days to get off the land.
“We’re giving the general public, any transgressors, a fortnight, 14 days, to desist from their trespasses and their violations before operations commence,” he said at a press conference on Friday after the tour.
“We do not expect anyone to challenge the law enforcement officials that will come on these sites. If you are breaching the law, my best advice to you is to be completely compliant and do not – and I repeat do not – challenge law enforcement.”
On land in the middle of the forest, officials on the tour came across two old large yellow school buses (or perhaps old church buses as at least one of the buses had written across it, New Testament Independent Baptist Church).
A 30-year-old mother who spoke with The Nassau Guardian from one of the buses, said she lives there with her five-year-old daughter, her sister and her sister’s two children.
The women’s father lives in the other bus, she said, adding that they paid $400 for the old vehicles.
The bus the woman lives in has two beds, a dresser, a refrigerator and a hot plate. There’s even a parakeet and a fish bowl.
Another sister lives in a neighboring trailer.
The mother, who did not want to use her name, said she is a space cleaner and earns $241 a week, but she said that is not enough to make ends meet elsewhere.
“It’s very comfortable,” she said. “Every place gets a little hot but that’s about it.”
Asked how the children endure their living environment, the woman said, “We entertain them by phones, WiFi box.”
She added, “It’s just like a home, just not a house.”
The woman said the Department of Social Services has not been much help to her and her family and that they have nowhere to go.
“I don’t know what I could do,” she said.
“What is there to do? We don’t have any place else to go, so they’re just going to take us out and put us on the streets? If we could have done better, we would have done better. I can’t do any better.”