Critics Have Cabot Saint Lucia Questions

This week, I’m updating my Cabot Saint Lucia story with the reaction of critics of Ben Cowan-Dewar’s golf resort to the “unofficial” announcement that the Saint Lucian government planned to ensure beach access for locals and to cancel Cabot’s leases on coastal land known as the “Queen’s Chain.”

As I explained last week, Cowan-Dewar and his partner Mike Keiser are in the process of turning a peninsula on the northern tip of Saint Lucia into yet another luxury golf resort and real estate development. (They paid CAD$17 million for their 360 acres and told the Caribbean Journal Invest on February 2 that land sales to date have exceeded USD $120 million. The developers are planning on a total of 300 homes bordering the course, many of them to be built using Cabot’s “recommended” architects.)

Lot 52, Cabot Saint Lucia

Lot 52 at Cabot Saint Lucia, overlooking Cas en Bas beach. Asking price: USD$1.5 million for 14,725 sf (Source: Cabot Saint Lucia website)

But their plan has been controversial for a laundry list of reasons, including archeological concerns around an Amerindian burial ground on the site, environmental concerns about the use of freshwater and the potential pollution of fishing grounds and the destruction of the natural environment, and general concerns about the loss of public access to a number of popular beaches.

In response to such concerns, on February 2, Saint Lucia’s Minister of Infrastructure, Ports, Transport, Physical Development and Urban Renewal, Stephenson King, appeared on Choice TV’s State of the Nation with host Calixte George, Jr and made the “unofficial” announcement that the government would protect beach access and revoke Cabot’s Queen’s Chain leases.

This week, I’ve received a copy of an open letter sent to King as well as to Saint Lucian Prime Minister Philip J Pierre, Tourism Minister Ernest Hilaire and the chair of the Development Control Authority (DCA), Ignatius Jean by the Concerned Citizens Advocacy Group — authors of the original petition about Cabot Saint Lucia. The group poses a number of questions, which I will summarize below, about King’s announcement.



Whereas King promised to maintain public access to Donkey Beach, Secret Beach and Cas en Bas Beach, the advocacy group states that there are, in fact, five beaches along the coast where Cabot is building — the other two being 2nd Beach and Pebble Beach — and wants access to all five protected.

The letter asks for clarification that the entire Queen’s Chain will be returned to the state and that a legally binding method will be found to ensure it cannot be leased in future. The group wants Cabot to remove any works it has situated on the Queen’s Chain and to repair any damage already done.


Burial ground

The group lists 10 “coastal elements” of particular concern, beginning with the Lavoutte Archaeological Site (the burial ground), which it wants declared a protected area with the construction (at a “suitably protected position”) of an interpretive center and “related facilities.” In 2009 and 2010, the Lavoutte site was the subject of a multidisciplinary project to:

…rescue the most vulnerable portions of the site, assess the site context, and extensively analyze the material and skeletal remains.

Lavoutte excavation Saint Lucia

Source: “Life and death at Lavoutte, Saint Lucia, Lesser Antilles”

In a 2012 paper, researchers led by Corinne Lisette Hofman of Leiden University wrote that the rescue work was:

…fundamental to our understanding of the Late Ceramic Age occupational history of the Lesser Antilles, including specific information on settlement location, paleodemography, health and subsistence, exchange of goods and ideas, and mortuary behavior. This project demonstrates both the paramount importance of protection and rescue of endangered archaeological sites and the significant scientific value of their study.

When I spoke with Alison King, chair of the Council of the Saint Lucia National Trust, she said proponents of Cabot Saint Lucia in government had succeeded in confining discussion of the archeological value of the site to a “very small place” and that an archeologist brought in to examine the site was not permitted to look any further afield. Had he been permitted a broader remit, King said, “it’s highly likely that they would have uncovered…other archeological remains.”



One of the traditional reasons for the state retaining ownership of the Queen’s Chain land was for “defense,” and while not discounting the traditional meaning of this as “military defense,” the advocacy group suggests a number of other things the island needs to be defended from — like the effects of climate change (including rising sea levels and increased extreme weather events), coastal erosion, stresses from tourism and crimes such as “drug trafficking, sand-mining, turtle poaching, human trafficking and so on.”



The group argues that whereas various forms of “commerce and industry” can “certainly be considered as serving the benefit of the people and the nation,” the COVID epidemic has shown the world that public spaces” where people can enjoy “healthy pastimes” are “crucial to the health of nation.”

Places to pass time with friends and family, exercise, meditate, teach, relax, play: these are vital and have both social and economic impacts.

Similarly, the letter argues:

…the ecosystem services provided by healthy natural spaces must be held in high value. Our land’s ability to withstand natural disaster, to provide healthy food, to clean and cool air: These are all for the benefit of the State.


Meaningful consultation

The letter calls for public discussion of issues including giving citizens the first right to access or use Queen’s Chain assets for economic gain; terminating any existing Queen’s Chain leases and opening negotiations regarding the “gradual removal of built assets” from the area; limiting development to “small, eco-friendly, minimal construction;” and ensuring any leases granted are not for “extended periods or emphyteutic leases.”

(An emphyteutic lease is one of those things Saint Lucia inherited when it got Quebec’s Civil Code — it’s a type of long-term lease invented by the Greeks.)

The advocacy group wants an immediate meeting including but not limited to “the Save Cas en Bas Beach Group, fishers, horse-riding stables, tour guides, photographers, exercise coaches, youth groups and schools who have made use of the are in the past” to discuss how to “better regulate and share the assets of the area ensuring safety and ecological health of the area.”


Canadian connections

Finola Jennings Clark, one of the signatories of the letter, pointed me to another controversial Saint Lucian development with a Canadian connection.

This one involves a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site and a top executive at Montreal-based Dollarama.

The heritage site is the Pitons Management Area (PMA), described by UNESCO as:

…two adjacent forest-clad volcanic lava domes rising abruptly from the sea to heights greater than 700m. The Pitons predominate over the Saint Lucian landscape, being visible from virtually every part of the island and providing a distinctive landmark for seafarers. The combination of the Pitons against the backdrop of green tropical vegetation and a varying topography combined with a marine foreground gives the area its superlative beauty (World Heritage Committee, 2016).

The Pitons first made the World Heritage List in 2003 but by 2010, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) was warning that status was in jeopardy due to “new and unapproved commercial development within the region.”

Petit Piton, St. Lucia. Gros Piton in the background.

Petit Piton, St. Lucia. Gros Piton in the background. (Photo by Konstantin Krismer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The PMA escaped being added to the “Sites in Danger” list, but the IUCN’s 2020 Conversation Outlook for it is “significant concern,” and the main source of that concern remains “poorly controlled development within the site.” The report states:

The Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) study provides important guidance for the management of the site, particularly with respect to the development pressures, thus the integration of the developed guidelines into relevant legislative frameworks and their complete implementation will be essential for the protection of the site’s values. However, it is of significant concern that the LAC recommendations have not yet been given legal standing through enacting of regulations.

The particular development causing waves right now is that of Geoffrey Robillard, a Dollarama senior vice president (he heads the company’s import division) who wants to build a home in the PMA. (The IUCN has actually observed that the heritage designation can have the unintended — and perverse — consequence of making such sites even more attractive to developers).

Robillard bought 76.6 acres within the PMA in January 2016, shortly after receiving  “Approved Developer” status from the Saint Lucian government. His plan (according to this 2020 government statement) was to build “a large multi-family villa and other amenities to be used as vacation unit and luxury rental units.”

In September of that year, Robillard submitted a “touristic proposal” to the DCA, including a “concept for approximately 0.4 hectares or one acre of the area which also proposed a long list of amenities to be built.” The DCA recommended the government reject the plan on the grounds that it was “not in keeping with the rules that govern the area” and the government did.

In 2017, Robillard came back with another plan, this time for the construction of a “one storey single family residential building” covering 264.4 square meters on the same area. This plan, according to that 2020 government statement, was approved by the DCA.

But concerns about losing the PMA’s World Heritage prompted a petition — which had received over 8,000 signatures when I checked it on Tuesday morning — calling on the government to “halt all construction” on Robillard’s project. The petition says the development’s:

…existence, expanse and composition threatens the natural beauty, historical significance and heritage of our people and country. Further, the development plan reveals unconstitutional limits to access and ease of movement by Locals, to the Public Beach adjoining the property.

Construction apparently has been halted and on February 10, Shawn Edward, the Minister with responsibility for Sustainable Development, told reporters the government would “spare no effort in ensuring that if anything happens there, it will not jeopardize the World Heritage Status that we currently enjoy.”