Abaco – An inside Look

The Compass - Abaco – An inside Look
The Compass - Abaco – An inside Look

The Abaco’s are extremely beautiful and in many ways harness the true beauty of island life and island living.

Many tourists gravitate to this wonderful phenomenon, with its beautiful turquoise waters and truly pink, sandy, pristine beaches – one of which is listed in the world’s top ten beaches – just to get a glorious taste of paradise.

Stretching some 120 miles long, The Abaco’s, seem to form their own archipelagic chain of islands and cays over 650 square miles with coastlines “carved with bays, coves and protected harbours that feature full service marinas and resorts.”

Strolling down the settlements of Elbow Cay and Green Turtle Cay, you will experience that old English aura with their colonial architecture which has been wonderfully preserved in these areas where the Loyalists once settled. Marsh Harbour is also known as the Bahamas’ third largest city, with one stop light, and a relatively thriving commercial hub with five banks, real estate and law firms, insurance companies, hardware stores, gas stations and so much more.

It’s the place of my own family lineage in the heart of Cooper’s Town and boasts a topography with an ecosystem that’s at the heart of the island’s economy.

Yet, a part from being a paradise dream for many who visit the island, its residents have had their share of challenges.

In 2011, I travelled to Abaco to cover a story about residents protesting the poor electrification by the Bahamas Electricity Corporation, despite the fact that a new $105 million dollar power plant in Wilson City, was constructed to provide efficient power to the entire island and nearby cays.

Upon visiting the plant, it seemed to be a great investment but it had one big problem. The installation of Transmission Power lines which should have been installed before the completion of the plant were not carried out. It made absolutely no sense and is systemic of a lack of proper planning

Residents became disgruntled and took to the streets with placards and signs protesting those ungodly blackouts they were experiencing amidst the sweltering summer temperatures.  There was also insurmountable loss as residents complained of their failing appliances and other electrical items which were either damaged or destroyed by the many power surges.

In the tourism sector, restaurants lost inventory and profits as a result, as did local hotels because tourists became uncomfortable and congregated at the airport to get off the island.

However, in 2013, it seems as if this problem has been rectified somewhat because in June of this year, BEC announced that it would be considering providing electrical service to East End, Grand Bahama because of the “excess” generating capacity available  in Abaco.  This, after residents in that area complained about the exorbitant cost of electricity provided by the Grand Bahama Power Company.

So, apparently, there is now power to spare in Abaco.

With regard to the airport, unlike the airports in New Providence and Grand Bahama, travelers had to sit on the outside in the heat, cold or rain, to wait for their flights, and this actually vexed many international tourists and locals alike. Plans were underway for the construction of a new airport.

At that time, the then FNM government promised to address these issues, among others and so began, what is now the new Abaco International Airport. The people of Abaco expected much better from the government because of its strong political lineage. Former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham served the community of Abaco as a Member of Parliament for 35 years, before his resignation in 2012 after the 2012 General Elections.

In December 2012, however, PLP Minister of Transport and Aviation, Mrs.  Glenys Hanna- Martin revealed that to open the new Abaco International airport, it will cost the government more than $10 million in overruns. This includes a $6 million run way extension, $3.8 million to build a freight building, $ 230,000 for that building’s architectural fees and $1.9 million in other architectural fees.

The Leonard M Thompson International Airport in Marsh Harbour was first projected at $27.3 million and these additional cost, totaling $11,930,00 has hiked up the cost to nearly $40 million.

Despite all the noise in the market, however, the economy of Abaco seems to be thriving now and at that time (2011), with businesses doing very well and not subject to closure, unlike the scenario that business is in Grand Bahama are faced with.

According to some Abaco residents, the perceived robust position of Abaco’s economy was being threatened by a number of Government led initiatives. A part from the problem with keeping the power in, the construction of a multi-million government complex in Abaco, was also thought to impact the island’s economy in a negative way. Historically, the government rented local commercial spaces from the local business owners and once the complex opened, all of those government agencies would be moved all at once, leaving those offices subject to high vacancies and not so secure.

In a recent interview with a local newspaper, Abaco Chamber of Commerce President, Michael Albury in July 2013, said that the economy of that island was under attack. This, he explained was due to one of those earlier issues we highlighted: the continuous power outages – even with the new plant in operation.

One thing that the island has in common with Grand Bahama however, he revealed, was that of high aviation fees which has now threatened Abaco’s primary industry: tourism.

Guests, he explained, spend thousands of dollars on their vacation and go on fishing trips and experience the regattas and other things associated with island life, only to return to their hotels and cottages to find to find out that they can’t take a shower due to NO ELECTRICITY.

Residents were optimistic that when the Wilson City power plant came on stream last year that it would eradicate all of their electricity supply issues.

Mr.  Albury also noted that the aviation fees introduced were putting a major strain on small aircraft operators, with some of them even considering withdrawing their service to the island.

A part from all of these challenges, one of the main sticking issues in Abaco that seems to have gone unaddressed and always comes up year after year, is that of the influx of Haitian immigrants to the island. Unlike Grand Bahama, huge Haitian communities have sprung up across Abaco creating little segregated villages from the “Bahamian” population on the island.

Every year, tensions reach a peak where living together seemingly becomes unbearable as the Haitian communities continue to grow by the thousands.

Several years ago, I covered a story in Abaco about a Bahamian man who was so disturbed that a new Haitian community was being built up on the island that he took a bull dozer and tore down the new structures which were already outfitted with curtains, tables and other furniture.  He tore them down and then he challenged the government to tear down the home that he chose to build on just any piece of land that caught his eye – without title, deed or payment exchanged for the property: “squatting”.

He rationalized that if Haitian migrants can come into the country and do it, why can’t he?

Bahamian residents at the time spoke of the heated tensions that had boiled up in Abaco which had the potential to lead to some form of civil unrest. The thing is, Bahamians are said to be more afraid because they felt they would be outnumbered by the numbers in the Haitian community.

According to data compiled by W.J. Fielding, et al., published in The Stigma of Being “Haitian” in The Bahamas in The College of The Bahamas Research Journal, 2008, it revealed that while Haitian communities are mainly present on Abaco, New Providence, Grand Bahama and Eleuthera, on Abaco in 2005, Haitians represented 16.9 percent of the population and Haitian children accounted for 31.3 percent of those enrolled in school.

In Grand Bahama, the numbers are not so grand with Haitians representing only 5.4 percent of the population and 5.8 percent of students at that time.

This year, the International Organization for Migration’s research also concluded there are 20,000 to 50,000 undocumented Haitians living in the Bahamas while the number of registered Haitian migrant workers is only 5,000. It is estimated that more than 13,000 dependent family members are supported by these registered migrant Haitian workers as well.

The Abaconian Reporter, Timothy Roberts in an April 2013 article, calls the immigration situation in Abaco “the 800 pound gorilla that everyone wants to talk about from time to time yet there is no hope that it will be dealt with.”

Although in New Providence it is said that there are about 37 shanty towns. In Abaco,“The Mudd” and “Pigeon Pea” settlements have some of the largest shanty towns in the country – housing thousands. These areas lack proper sanitation and are a great health concern for residents.

Roberts wrote in his article “Recognizing the growing problem of shanty towns and illegal immigration in Marsh Harbour a group of people came together to form a group called Abaco Concerned Citizens. This group, and many others who have tried since to deal with the same issue, fell short of their goals in stopping the expansion of these towns due to what they say is a resistance from the Central government…

With these shanty towns being built in plain view could it be said that the government agencies are aiding and abetting? Previous to their move to the new government complex in Central Abaco, the Department of Immigration was located just a few hundred feet away from arguably the largest shanty town in The Bahamas. Beyond occasional raids on the communities little else is done to deal with illegal migrants.”

The islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco have similar challenges, some of which can be addressed immediately and others will just take some time. The two most prevailing issues are electricity and immigration. The continuous provision of electricity remains a primary concern and one would hope that with all of the power outages, this dearth would be reflected in the power bills no matter which one of these islands you live on.  The enforcement of immigration laws is something that is urgent in Abaco as well, as both the Bahamian and Haitian communities strive to live together in harmony.