“We loyal sons and daughters all
Do hereby make it known
These fields and hills beyond recall
Are now our very own.”
– from the National Anthem
Barbadians woke up with alarm last month to the news that a tourism company, Chukka Caribbean Adventures, was being given serious consideration by the Mottley administration to run Harrison Cave, our premier land-based attraction, and one our island’s national treasures.
While Minister of Tourism Kerrie Symmonds would neither confirm nor deny published reports that the Jamaican operator was a favoured bidder to operate Harrison Cave, he did say that Cabinet “made a decision (which) is now subject to negotiation with the intended concessionaire, and that negotiations will be done by a college of negotiators”.
With its wide-ranging regional footprint, Chukka Caribbean Adventures operates over 60 tours in Jamaica, Belize and Turks & Caicos Islands. The company employs 700 people with almost 500 of them working in Jamaica – including the famed Dunn’s River Falls and White River Valley (Ocho Rios), Montpelier (Montego Bay), Good Hope (Falmouth) and Sandy Bay (Negril).
But since it was developed by Government in 1981, Harrison’s Cave has not suffered under state ownership control, with additional investment and the corporatising of a state agency, Caves of Barbados.
Local explorers first explored the watercourses of the cave in 1795, naming this gem for the area’s prominent 18th-century landowner, Thomas Harrison.
But it was not until 1974, that Swedish adventurer Ole Sorensen was commissioned to provide detailed maps of these natural geological vistas of unparalleled underground beauty. This work set the scene for investigating the tourism potential of the area and work soon began to excavate new tunnels, divert the underground streams and provide a safe environment for visitors to the attraction.
Over the last 38 years, Barbadians and guests have been mesmerised by this subterranean jewel, formed by the incessant drip of rainwater through our limestone cap. The calcium-rich water coursing through the caves continues to nourish the evolution of staggeringly beautiful stalactites and stalagmites.
Man, woman and child have stood in awe at the “The Great Hall”, measuring over 15 metres in height. After the “The Great Hall”, the trams operating in the cave stop at “The Village”, where the stalactite and stalagmite formations have joined together to form columns. Other areas of interest include “The Chapel”, “The Rotunda” and “The Altar.” Visitors travel through the Boyce Tunnel via tram to all depths of the cave.
And there are still more vast cathedrals of calcium in the cave system in this, the heart of Barbados, to be developed further for our national pride and joy.
We take note that over the course of almost two decades – 1989 to 2008 – the Ministry of Environment and Drainage’s reconstituted Natural Heritage Department has singled out Harrison Cave, alongside the Flower Forest, Welchman Hall Gully, Hunte’s Gardens, Jack-in-the-Box Gully, the Aerial Trek Zipline Adventures and C.O. Williams’ Flowers – all occupying our island’s central uplands – to form De Heart of Barbados, now a registered trademark and brand.
The declared triple-pronged focus of De Heart of Barbados has been the “natural, cultural and built heritage of the “Harrison’s Cave Communities, and nature-based tourism”, identifying a protected Zone of Special Environmental Control for the protection of the “system of gullies and caves that are conduits for the underground aquifers for our potable water”. What fate this integration in a semi-privatised cave?
But the current heart of the matter with Harrison Cave is the secretive nature of Government’s divestment programme for this premier attraction.
Like Ole Sorensen, Tony Mason and Allison Thornhill plumbing the dark depths of the St Thomas gullies in 1974, Barbadian taxpayers now find themselves having to navigate unlit information pathways to this reported plan to possibly hand over control of the cave to a Jamaican concessionaire.
Nothing short but full transparency and public disclosure will do with regard to all arrangements and lease documents surrounding the divestment.
A number of questions require urgent responses.
Is Chukka Caribbean Adventures going to be offered a long-term or a short-term lease? Will this lease extend beyond the term of the current administration?
What is the track record of this Jamaican company in operating such an ecologically sensitive asset as Harrison Cave – whose stalactites and stalagmites have evolved over the course of several millennia?
Will this entity be formally monitored by a state-appointed body of environmental experts such as, for example, the Coastal Zone Management Unit (CZMU), to ensure the safety of the very delicate formations within the Cave?
The nation from Chukka Caribbean Adventures hails has a Contractor General overseeing government procurement and tenders processes. We do not. When will an independent tender agent, on a legal par with the auditor general and the Crown prosecutor be introduced here?
The time has long passed for vital decisions around the divestment of invaluable assets that form part of our collective birthright – especially in times of economic distress – to be made away from the glare of parliamentary scrutiny, regardless of any actual or proposed financial gain.
Alongside these fields and hills beyond recall, we must now embrace all of our gullies and watercourses – as we have done our beaches, imperilled as they are by hotel development.
Our patrimony must not be traded for a mess of pottage.