by Sir Arthur Foulkes
Any statement short of a book about the importance of land to human beings is likely to be inadequate. The land is everything. It is where we live, where we establish communities and nations, and whence we draw sustenance and wealth. Even those who go down to the sea in search of wealth are dependent on the land.
In some cultures there is a mystical reverence for the land as the source of life and living, and at the centre of most of history’s conflicts has been the issue of who will control the land.
The Native Americans who revered the land were appalled at the callous disrespect the invading Europeans showed towards the land they so coveted. The Natives were on the losing side of that conflict and the ones who survived were relegated to reservations on their own land.
Not everyone has appreciated the value of Bahamian land. A British officer by the name of McCabe condemned it as “Land of cursed rocks and stones, land where many leave their bones”.
But he was really more incensed at the white townspeople of Nassau than he was at the land itself, and he described them as “rascals, rogues and peddlers, busy scandalizing meddlers”.
Much later there were others who fell in love with the sheer beauty of this land but had little regard for the black natives. One of these was the author Rosita Forbes who wrote disparagingly about the natives in a British magazine called Queen.
She was put in her place by a brilliant and eloquent native named Eugene Dupuch. He advised the lady to go to the Bow Street magistrate’s court any Monday morning to see her own countrymen “bearing testimony on whiskied breath to the frailties of all mankind”.
Wallace Groves, an American who had been convicted of mail fraud in his own country came to the Bahamas with a fantastic idea to build a new city out of the pine barrens of Grand Bahama. It was to have been an industrial city but that was not too successful so in the Sixties he turned to tourism.
Another brilliant but not so benevolent Bahamian named Stafford Sands seized on this idea and attempted to exclude black Bahamians while opening up Freeport to white foreigners. When the King’s Inn Hotel opened in 1965 every single employee down to the doorman was from Malta.
Why Malta? Because they were British and would have been able to vote after acquiring the other necessary qualifications. Such a city of 250,000 would have changed forever the social and political face of the Bahamas.
Others came looking for Bahamian land and wanting to do constructive things on it. There is a long list of them which includes Sir Harry Oakes, Sir Oliver Simmonds, Sir Victor Sassoon, Juan Trippe, Arthur Vining Davis and E. P. Taylor.
Mr. Taylor gave us one of the finest second home developments in the world with his creation at Lyford Cay. This gated community has sometimes been attacked as a symbol of privilege but it has brought tremendous benefits to the Bahamas.
The foreigners who live in Lyford Cay are mostly very wealthy people who can afford to maintain their properties whether they live in the Bahamas for three months or visit frequently during the year.
They have provided opportunities for a wide range of Bahamian merchants, artisans and professionals, and some have contributed generously to the cultural and social development of the Bahamas.
More wealthy, and genuine, second home owners went to other parts of the Bahamas, notably Eleuthera, Harbour Island, the Exumas, Abaco and the Berries. They contributed handsomely to the development of the country.
But there have always been others who wanted a piece of the Bahamas for speculative purposes or a quick buck. Back in the Sixties Frank Magnuson’s development – if it can be called that – catered to this class by offering land in Exuma on the instalment plan, low down-payment and low monthly payments.
Many on both sides of the Atlantic bought lots unseen and some never saw what they bought. Some of these lots are being offered on the internet up to this day and some have been bought by Bahamians.
Now there is a great Bahamian land rush in progress aided and abetted by no less an entity than the Government of the Bahamas. There are today thousands of lots of Bahamian land on the international market.
The PLP, which vehemently criticized the FNM Government for giving concessions to foreigners for resort development, this same PLP is presiding over what promises to be the biggest sell-off of Bahamian land in history.
Ironically, what went largely unnoticed was that the FNM Government made it possible for thousands of Bahamians to get land, especially in the Family Islands, by regularizing Bahamian occupation of Crown Land and by making more Crown Land available to Bahamians for commercial and residential purposes.
Today the PLP is approving multimillion dollar developments from Grand Bahama to Mayaguana but it is difficult to tell what is really going into genuine tourist resort development and what is going into the development of residential property for sale to foreigners.
Right here in Nassau, what was touted as the PLP’s great investment coup seems heavily weighted on the side of land development for residential purposes.
In what has been appropriately described as the biggest ever giveaway of public land, the PLP has turned over a big hotel and hundreds of acres of prime land to the developers – or promoters – of Baha Mar for little over $40 million.
Now there is Mayaguana where 10,000 acres of public land is being sold to foreign developers at about $340 an acre with the government as joint venture partner. These investors are not coming with millions ready to build a 250-room resort in Mayaguana. That is promised for later.
They are creating a small boutique resort which looks very much like the classic land developer’s bait to attract and entertain prospective lot purchasers. In most such developments this is regarded as part of the cost of sales.
An interesting aspect of all this is that most of this land is to be sold by foreign real estate dealers with little or no benefit to Bahamian realtors.
Apparently the PLP Government thought is was quite wonderful to announce that in one residential development Bahamian real estate agents would be included. They should be included in all.
Commissions to the tune of millions of dollars are going into the pockets of foreign agents rather than to Bahamians and hence into the local economy. These foreign agents must wonder, as they laugh all the way to the bank, how Bahamians could be so foolish.
Mrs. Allyson Maynard Gibson, former Minister for Investments and now Attorney General, was quoted in The Journal as saying, “ … More than ever before, investment to the Bahamas is focused on the second-home and high-end residential community markets”.
Does the PLP Government really believe that all these thousands of lots will be sold to wealthy people who can afford second homes?
Already foreign land speculators and those building houses for rent on the internet are causing tensions in places like Harbour Island as they lower the tone of the place and compete directly with resorts owned by Bahamians and foreign investors. Others are simply prospective settlers looking for opportunities to compete with the natives.
The PLP Government should stop and seriously consider whether its new development model focused on massive land sales to foreigners will not cause economic, social and political grief for Bahamians.