If there’s one thing that pisses off Derek Walcott, it’s the Caribbean governments’ blatant disregard for the development of the literary arts and their seeming indifference to the plight of the region’s writers and artistes.
Over the years he has had some choice words for successive governments in his homeland, St Lucia, citing the absence of a theatre and a museum on the island – to this day – as a shame and a betrayal of the people. He’s in St Lucia for Nobel Laureates Week (January 20 – 26) a celebratory event organized annually by the government in honour of the island’s two Nobel Laureates, the late Sir Arthur Lewis and Walcott himself. Sir Arthur was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1979 while Derek Walcott received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. Both men were born on January 23.
The press caught up with Walcott and took the opportunity to solicit comments from him on the state of the arts in St Lucia. Initially, his response was measured, evincing his awareness of the economic challenges facing the island.
“I don’t want to make a judgment that is going to incriminate any one party or any government. Saint Lucia is going through a very tough economic crisis and naturally the arts suffer. What we have to do is keep thinking that no matter what the crisis, the arts are a necessity. But we have to have the money to sustain them. So, yes, more should be done but we need to look for subsidies for sustaining the arts. We still do not have a museum or a theatre – and that’s criminal. And no party should excuse itself for not doing that for the people. These things are not for the artistes, they are for the people of Saint Lucia.”
Walcott was a bit more acerbic when he was informed that the year-old St Lucia Labour Party government had created a new ministry called the Ministry of Creative Industries. He seemed shocked at the title.
“That’s the name of a ministry? Someone who was creative did not do it? It’s not a nice title. I don’t know what creative industries means!”
But what really ticked Walcott off was when a reporter told him about the new multi-million dollar luxury resort dubbed Freedom Bay that is about to be built in Soufriere, on the island’s west coast, in the vicinity of the celebrated Pitons. The developers are the five-star Six Senses Resorts and Spas Group, owners of 26 resorts and 41 spas, most of them in Asia and the Middle East. The Pitons, which are known the world over, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and as one travel writer noted, they’re “even more beautiful in real life than they are on film or postcards.” In order to gain World Heritage status for the twin peaks, the government had to designate a 2,909 hectare site near the town of Soufriere, inclusive of the Pitons linked by the Piton Mitan ridge, as a Terrestrial Conservation Zone subject to strict controls on housing, resort and agricultural development. It’s called the Pitons Management Area (PMA). However, according to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, 68% percent of it is in private hands and risks being approved for luxury development.
“Where is this hotel going to be located?” Walcott demanded. “Have they begun it yet? When are they starting? And exactly where is this place? Will you see it in any projection of Petit Piton? And nobody has objected to it? They have not objected to it in parliament? So the deal was approved by the Saint Lucian government. I am ashamed of my country because that’s whoring and you can quote me on that. If you are telling me right, that there is going to be a hotel built at the base of Petit Piton, visible as a hotel, then that is whoring and I am ashamed of my country. There can still be time for protest but what can you say when a country approves of its own disfigurement?”
He wasn’t done yet. “How can they find the place to build a hotel at the foot of the Pitons and they can’t find a spot to build a museum. That’s the rage that I have, the anger that I have. When I see something like that happening in comparison to what is not happening and the excuses being given . . . My brother Roddy died working for the arts in Saint Lucia. He never saw a museum go up or a theatre go up. I suppose I too will die and not see it happen either—it is shameful.”
Within 24 hours of his rebuke, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Sylvester Clauzel, responded on local TV station HTS, in a bid to clear the air. He indicated that the Freedom Bay project falls within the region where construction and development are allowed, and is in keeping with the rigid criteria for development, as well as the guidelines of the World Heritage Committee. He said the resort “is not visible and does not imperil the site’s outstanding universal value.”
Vouching for the resort owners, he assured the public that they had vowed to adhere to the government’s development guidelines and principles for the area. The developers also promised that the property would have a low profile and low carbon footprint, he added.
He conceded, however, that there are procedural issues which need to be addressed “regarding what type of developments are allowable to ensure they do not undermine the integrity of the natural environment.”
Irrespective of whether or not Walcott had been misguided as to the exact location of the Freedom Bay project, on the basis of precedence he has legitimate cause to be concerned.
According to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre a land use policy exists with regards to the Pitons Management Areas but it had been “ineffectively exercised by the ministry of Physical Planning and Development.” It added, “Despite the integrated [Land Use and] Development Plan and specific guidelines, the designation seems to have accelerated the sale of plots for resorts and multiple homes on the almost pristine and visually sensitive land between the Pitons.”
In recent years the administration of the Pitons Management Area had been so lax the World Heritage Committee (WHC) threatened to place it on the List of Heritage Sites in Danger, with the strong possibility of the Pitons being censured or delisted – a direct result of government approvals for developments that breached the WHC’s conventions. In July 2012 the Sustainable Development Minister, James Fletcher managed to gain a reprieve from the WHC by assuring it that the St Lucia government would change the governance and administrative structure of the PMA by, among other things, extracting it from the Ministry with responsibility for Physical Planning.
All the same, it was the planned construction of a hotel at the base of Petit Piton back in 1991 that ignited a conflict between Walcott and the then St Lucia government headed by former Prime Minister Sir John Compton. At the time the government gave the nod for the construction of the Jalousie Plantation resort in an area recognized as an Amerindian burial site. During the construction of tennis courts a large chunk of the site was bulldozed and indiscriminately covered over. Subsequently, conflicts ensued between fishermen from the area and the hotels’ security guards when the guards tried to keep them off the beach which was deemed private property. Walcott joined members of the St Lucia National Trust and local environmental activists in condemning the project. He decried it as a sacrilege and said it was like ‘opening a take-away concession in Stonehenge’. The construction went ahead anyway and, to date, the hotel is still functioning.
In his book Lapses & Infelicities, publisher of the St Lucia-based Star newspaper, Rick Wayne gives a riveting and detailed account of the Jalousie saga, and quotes a foreign reporter who observed about the government’s motives, “All they care about are the rich tourists they felt certain would come in droves to Jalousie once their resort was open for business. Visitors will have no reason to venture outside the periphery; every luxury will be provided for their enjoyment.”
Characteristically outspoken and forthright, Walcott is known to be a man who doesn’t normally pull his punches, not even in the midst of Nobel Laureates Week celebrations at which he’s the guest of honour. This time around he is not only disappointed in his country, he is clearly hurt. The government surely could not have been surprised by his reactions.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 18, 2013
In the earlier version of this article part of Walcott’s comments (alluding in part to his brother Roddy) was inadvertently omitted. That part of the quote has been inserted.