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Sustainable development planning in The Bahamas, one map at a time

The Andros Master Plan will provide a roadmap for the island’s development and is the first island-wide plan explicitly accounting for natural capital.
aerial shot, Bahamas
Aerial view of cross-island waterways, tidal flats, and coastal forests on Andros.  Photo by Jackie Mandoske

The pressure to get this assignment right is enormous and the variables I have to work with don’t fit neatly into a spreadsheet or programming language. It feels like no map, table, or narrative I could ever create would adequately represent the hopes and dreams of these communities.  

I find myself at a large conference table covered with 250 maps on which the people of Andros Island in The Bahamas have annotated the geography of their lives.  In black pen, there are circles around favorite fishing spots, arrows pointing to areas of frequent flooding, and small Xs noting hotels, restaurants, and important infrastructure like docks, packing houses, and airports. In blue pen are the things the community would like to see in the next 25 years: hospitals, technical schools, an international terminal at the airport, improved marinas for fishermen and tourists, a paved road, revamped town centers, a cruise ship port.

The problem is that the maps don’t match, and they even contradict one another: Where one person has envisioned a new bridge, another has marked an important fishing spot. My job is to coalesce these visions for the future into four discrete scenarios, so that we can use them to explore how decisions made today will affect the natural habitats that underpin the wellbeing of people of people on this island.

All of this will be incorporated into the Andros Master Plan, which will provide a roadmap for the island’s development and is the first island-wide plan explicitly accounting for natural capital to be created as part of The Bahamas’ national development planning process: Vision 2040.  Fortunately, I’m not alone in this effort.  The Office of the Prime Minister is spearheading this effort in collaboration with The University of The Bahamas, SEV Consulting Group, the Inter-American Development Bank’s Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Program, and a team of researchers led by NatCap Lead Scientist Katie Arkema.

Andros at the forefront of National Planning

The contrasts of Andros strike me on my first visit there.  While it is the largest island in The Bahamas, an archipelago of more than 700 islands in the Atlantic Ocean, it is also one of the least densely populated.  Our team takes a small, 5-person prop plane from Nassau, the country’s capital and situated on its own island, due west to Andros, making an extensive detour to fly over the Westside National Park, which covers the western approximately two-thirds of the island; we watch a flock of flamingos take off over the expanse of mangroves—more than 20 pairs of large pink wings and long pink legs swooping through the sky—and drift boats fish the shallow waters for the elusive bonefish.

Back on the ground, as we drive along the populated coast to meet with community members, we continue to see and hear about the wealth of natural resources: the highest concentration of blue holes and the legendary bonefishing flats, which draw the tourists who support high-end lodges and well paid guiding jobs; the third largest barrier reef in the world, where fishing can earn you enough to put your kid through college or provide food security to your entire family; and abundant coastal forests, seagrass, and sand flats that buffer the coasts from storms and provide traditional medicine.  And in the same breath, we hear about the desire for greater economic opportunity—access and attractions for tourists, technical training, prosperous jobs—and for critical infrastructure such as roads, water, hospitals, and schools.

The central challenge for the Government of The Bahamas, and by extension for us at NatCap working to support this effort, is to design a sustainable development plan that will harness the island’s natural assets without sacrificing the very ecosystems that underlie its economy and ensure the wellbeing of its citizens.  

Vision 2040, The Bahamas’s formal national development planning process, set out to address these challenges both in urban settings like the capital and in the less densely populated “family islands,” like Andros. Dr. Nicola Virgill-Rolle and Brett Lashley from the Office of the Prime Minister led the innovative process to design the Andros Master Plan, which was formally released earlier this year.  The Inter-American Development Bank’s Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Program is supporting the work; their focus on coastal resilience and human and natural capital have advanced this type of work here and throughout the Caribbean.  The goal of the Andros Master Plan was to identify public and private investment opportunities, policy recommendations, zoning guidelines, and other management actions, to guide sustainable development.  Virgill-Rolle and Lashley are deeply vested in accounting for the ways in which ecosystems underlie Androsians’ desires for their future. They eagerly made multiple trips to Andros to elicit stakeholder input, connected us to national efforts and relevant plans, and pushed us to incorporate key elements from the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

A tested approach

Annotated community maps (1 of 250 shown, far left), mocked-up scenarios (example shown under the Intensive Development scenario), and stakeholder feedback are all shown here as part of the iterative process towards, coalescing around a preferred development scenario.
Annotated community maps (1 of 250 shown, far left), mocked-up scenarios (example shown under the Intensive Development scenario), and stakeholder feedback are all shown here as part of the iterative process towards, coalescing around a preferred development scenario.

The central government’s interest in integrating natural capital into development planning in The Bahamas was an opportunity for us to advance the coastal zone management work we developed in Belize.  From 2010-2013, NatCap worked closely with Belize’s Coastal Zone Management Authority and Institute to inform the country’s Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan, which was approved in February 2016 and is the first of its kind in Central America and the wider Caribbean.

In Belize, we developed models that quantify the services provided by corals, mangroves, and seagrasses.  Though model iteration and extensive stakeholder engagement, we evaluated alternative scenarios and then developed a preferred plan, which then became the backbone of the formal Integrated Coastal Zone Management Plan.  The process helped to bring together multiple agencies to take a coordinated approach to managing the country’s resources.

Since our partnership in Belize, we’ve replicated and then built on this approach on Andros by adding tools to help balance inland development needs.  We’ve since analyzed the effects of alternative scenarios on freshwater and agriculture and incorporated terrestrial habitats like coastal forests of pine and coppice into our workflow.  We’ve also explored ways to include social and cultural factors that matter to people, such as how many nature-based tourism jobs are likely to be lost or gained in each scenario and risk from coastal hazards to different demographic groups with varying social vulnerability.  

Over the course of two years, the team returned to The Bahamas and Andros eight times.  Community meetings became not only a place for Androsians to communicate with us, but also with each other about the future they want for their island.  

On one visit, we present our best effort at coalescing the 250 maps that once overwhelmed me into four alternative future scenarios— ‘business as usual’, a ‘conservation’ scenario that limits development and maximizes the setting-aside of lands and waters, a ‘sustainable prosperity’ scenario that prioritizes strategic development and resource protection, and an ‘intensive development’ scenario that emphasizes the creation of infrastructure, hotels, housing, and other forms of development.  After creating scenarios, we modeled the effects of each on nursery habitat for lobster, recreation and tourism, coastal protection, and the provision of freshwater (among other services).

We’re there to get feedback from Androsians about which town centers and new marinas should be prioritized, where invasive species and erosion especially need to be addressed, and more.  Participants remark on and nod over the places our coastal protection model has identified as high hazard or where tourism could be strengthened.  And in the same room together, they go back and forth about development trade-offs—why it should be a ferry, not a road, to cross the tidal creek, and how a cruise port could adversely affect high-end nature-based tourism.  On this penultimate trip, with the full analysis laid out, Androsians resoundingly prefer the ‘sustainable prosperity’ scenario. They want smart investments in priority infrastructure in select locations and training programs that will allow them to leverage the natural places and resources that sustain their livelihoods while enriching the island lifestyle that makes Andros home.

A lone mangrove propagule. Photo by Katie Arkema

What now?

A lone mangrove propagule. Photo by Katie Arkema
A lone mangrove propagule. Photo by Katie Arkema

Last year, two major hurricanes—Matthew and Joaquin—hit The Bahamas hard.  The town of Lowe Sound, which on previous trips had been filled with bustling fisherman, was heavily damaged by 15 feet of surge and on our last trip was strewn with astray roofs, downed electricity poles, and displaced furniture.  This year the season is shaping up to be equally hazardous.  Hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Maria–which have devastated other areas in the Caribbean–have narrowly missed The Bahamas.  In both preparation and in recovery, one silver lining of these disasters is that they’ve served as a catalyst for actualizing our work in the Andros Master Planning process.

Resulting at least in part from our work together, Virgill-Rolle and Lashley have changed the conversation at the Prime Minister’s Office and the central government to recognize the value of coastal habitats in protecting coastal populations and, armed with a national hazard viewerbuilt on our analyses, they can continue engagement about the places where coastal habitats are most important for protecting people and property.  Because the planning process on Andros was supported by the Inter-American Development Bank, making the link between the plan and action is easier: financing for restoration is now under development to restore mangroves where they matter most and local consultants are carrying out the work.  Finally, as the people of Andros chart their path forward, both in response to hurricanes and not, they have community consensus and a sustainable development plan that offers a roadmap of where they’re heading.

The impact of the Andros Master Plan extends further than its own coastal waters.  Learning from the Andros process, the Office of the Prime Minister has discussed replicating the approach on other family islands, with an emphasis on stakeholder engagement and incorporating natural capital.  They also know that, as Androsians call for better jobs, updated hospitals and schools, and food security, the Andros Master Plan is just the beginning of comprehensive national planning and finer-tuned town planning.

At NatCap, in partnership with local nonprofits, we’ve gone on to explore the value of marine protected areas in The Bahamas in an ongoing conversation about how coastal areas are used, now and into the future.  And our deep engagements in The Bahamas (and in Belize) have taught us, and others throughout the Caribbean and elsewhere, that sustainable development planning is most effective when it targets investments that benefit people and nature.

Katherine Wyatt is a NatCap Ecosystem Services Analyst at Stanford (on our Seattle team)

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