St Helena Online

Tag: Environmental Audit Committee

St Helena tops the league table for unique species

St Helena's false gumwood is now under threat. Picture by Vanessa Thomas
St Helena’s false gumwood is now under threat. Picture by Vanessa Thomas

Charles Darwin glossed over it, but now St Helena has been officially recognised as Britain’s wealthiest spot on Earth when it comes to natural treasures.

The island is home to a third of the endemic species that are found on British territory around the world – that is, plants and creatures that appear naturally in only one place.

A “stock-take” by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds puts it far ahead of second-placed Bermuda. But it also highlights severe ignorance in London about the ecology of Britain’s far-flung territories, and a lack of strategy for protecting it.

Pan tropical dolphin, by David HigginsClick for a gallery of St Helena’s natural wonders

St Helena even beats the iconic Galapagos Islands – seven times over – when it comes to unique invertebrates (judged on land mass).

Sadly, spiders and insects don’t attract eco tourists in quite the same way as the natural wonders of the Galapagos, but perhaps that’s just as well, given the massive strain that tourism has brought to those islands.

Their human population has grown five-fold since the 1970s, when it had the same number of people as St Helena has today. And with three airports and a stream of cruise ships visiting, they’re under daily threat of alien species being brought in and causing havoc to a fragile eco-system.

Bio-security is already being strengthened on St Helena in readiness for the opening of its first airport in 2016.

Sasha and a she-cabbage, by David Higgins
Sasha and a she-cabbage, by David Higgins

A press release from The Castle in Jamestown describes the island as “a mid-Atlantic life-raft of rare and irreplaceable species”.

Concerns about protecting agriculture and public health are cited as further reasons to control what comes in to the island.

The RSPB’s findings have been welcomed by Linda Houston of Shelco, the group planning to build an eco resort at Broad Bottom on St Helena.

She said: “This is great news and underpins the importance of a low volume, high value tourism strategy for St Helena.

“As illustrated by our approach to invasive species clearance and the establishment of [our] wirebird sanctuary, St Helena’s biodiversity is a central component of our scheme.

“In our work at Broad Bottom we aim to encourage innovation and knowledge transfer amongst local and international renowned centres of excellence, which can be applied across the island.”

The RSPB’s stock-take of Britain’s overseas territories is the first one ever to be undertaken.

It was commissioned after a cross-party body of Members of Parliament in London attacked the British government for failing in its duty to protect the environment in its overseas territories.

The Environmental Audit Committee said the government did not even know what it was supposed to be looking after.

The survey brought together all known records from the past 300 years. 

Many of the species recorded in those archives are now lost, including the St Helena olive that was rescued from apparent extinction by George Benjamin BEM, who first woke St Helenians up to the importance of their endemic plants.

He also began the planting of gumwood trees on the east of the island that evolved into the Millennium Forest.

A battle is currently being fought to save the false gumwood tree, which has died out in one of its two last remaining outposts. Just seven adult trees survive in a single location, and efforts are being made to harvest and propagate its seeds.

The same delicate technique recently saved the bastard gumwood when it became the world’s rarest tree, with only one specimen surviving.

Jeremy Harris, director of the St Helena National Trust, said: “Over 14 million years, St Helena has developed a totally unique biosphere of incredible diversity protected by thousands of miles of ocean.

“Five hundred years ago, it was discovered by people who brought goats and rats and other species that had a huge impact on its fragile environment.

“What remains today is still clearly remarkable and unique and of international significance. St Helena, now more than ever, needs our protection and care as the airport approaches, bringing with it new risks and challenges.”

Senior Veterinary Officer Joe Hollins said the opening of the airport would remove the “quarantine effect” of a five-day sea voyage to reach St Helena.

“Biosecurity on St Helena is necessarily being tightened,” he said.

“We already have laws in place for live animals and related genetic materials, and for fruit, vegetables, plants and related products; and the Bees Ordinance protects our disease-free bees and honey.

“But remaining loopholes to be closed include certain meat, dairy and fish imports.”

RSPB report highlights woeful ignorance and lack of plans

Glaring gaps in knowledge about Britain’s overseas territories and their wildlife are highlight in the RSPB’s report on its findings.

“Whole groups of species remain almost entirely undiscovered,” says the report, which was funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

“Whilst some excellent conservation work is underway on the ground… the UK Government still has no strategic overview of where the most urgent priorities lie, or even a simple understanding of actions undertaken, such as the number of nature reserves established.”

The UK’s environment department, Defra, has “no dedicated evidence plan for the OTs”, and its advisory body on nature conservation has no strategy for dealing with “biodiversity knowledge gaps”.

It says: “The OTs hold at least 1,500 endemic species, compared to around 90 endemic species in the UK. This is equivalent to 94 per cent of known endemic British species.

“Much of the endemic OT fauna and flora is threatened, although only 145 species (9 per cent) have ever had their global conservation status assessed. Of these, 111 (77 per cent) are listed as Globally Threatened.”

The RSPB adds that there could be 50,000 unrecorded species in the island territories – more than two thousand of them endemic.

READ MORE: 

George Benjamin: the man who saved the St Helena ebony
St Helena National Trust
Tourism threat to the Galapagos Islands
The UK’s Wildlife Overseas: RSPB report
Picture gallery: St Helena’s natural wonders

UK ‘doesn’t even know’ about island eco threats, say MPs

The UK has been accused by a Westminster committee of failing to protect endangered plants and creatures in its overseas territories.

The Environmental Audit Committee said the UK was not taking proper responsibility for the 517 globally threatened species in its care.

Its chairman, Joan Walley MP, said: “The UK government doesn’t even know precisely what it is responsible for, because it has failed accurately to assess and catalogue those species and habitats.

“During our inquiry, the UK government expressed vague aspirations to ‘cherish’ the environment in the overseas territories, but it was unwilling to acknowledge or to address its responsibilities under United Nations treaties.”

The EAC report reveals that the government’s environment department, Defra, has refused to allow any of its staff to visit the territories.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has long had staff working on St Helena, estimated the UK needed to spend £80 million over  a five-year period to protect the wildlife in some of the most ecologically rich places on the planet.

During the committee hearings, St Helena was singled out for introducing controls on development, thanks to efforts to minimise the ecological impact of its new airport.

The air access project has sparked intensive efforts to study and protect the island’s wildlife, including 45 plants and 400 invertebrates that are unique to the island.

The UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum welcomed the findings of the Environmental Audit Committee.

It said: “The EAC finds that successive governments have failed to give sufficient priority to safeguarding 90% of the UK’s biodiversity.

“The present government is criticised for being unwilling to address its responsibilities despite fine words in the 2012 White Paper, The Overseas Territories: Security, Success and Sustainability.”

UKOTCF Executive Director Dr Mike Pienkowski said: “Time is not on our side and, given the level of concern expressed in the report, immediate action is required.”

In an article for the St Helena Independent, Vince Thompson writes: “It remains to be seen if the Men from the UK Ministries, who appear to be so easily confused when questioned in detail about their Overseas Territories, find the report so overpowering they will actually take action on the report’s recommendations.”

The sensitivity of island ecology was illustrated by conservationist Dave Higgins, the man writing action plans for St Helena’s conservation areas, in an interview with the Yorkshire Post.

He told the paper the “museum rarity” of the island’s ecology was both frightening and exciting.

“The 823m-high summit of Diana’s Peak, which is 50 hectares of mountain range, holds more endemic species than any European country,” he said.

“Almost half of the invertebrates living in the islands’ national parks cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

“To date conservationists know of 200 species of endemic invertebrate just in the Peaks. Some of these are reliant on a single tree species.

“Local conservationists tell me that if we lose one of our endemic plant species there could be a suite of invertebrate extinctions.

“All around these biological jewels lies the threat of non-native species and habitat loss. The island’s wonder is under constant siege.”

St Helena and Ascension appear to fare better than many of their sister territories in the Caribbean, which are under greater pressure from both tourist developments and climate change.

St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha make up one of 14 UK overseas territories. The others are the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the British Antarctic Territory, the British Indian Ocean Territory, Gibraltar, Anguilla, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos, the British Virgin Islands, the Pitcairn Islands, and the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus.

READ MORE:
Government must to more to protect biodiversity – UK Parliament website
Yorkshire ecologist now our man in St Helena – Yorkshire Post

SEE ALSO:
St Helena gets top rating for environmental protection
Secrecy leaves islands at risk of corruption, warns RSPB
MP ‘shocked’ by tales of environmental failings

UK’s top lawyer could help end St Helena secrecy

Britain’s Attorney General could be asked to help St Helena and other UK overseas territories draw up laws on freedom of information.

Dr Peter Hayes, the diplomat in charge of overseas territories, raised the possibility during a committee hearing in Westminster.

But he also referred to a set of rights, drawn up by the United Nations, that already give people on St Helena the right to receive information. That has not stopped the island’s executive council meeting almost entirely in secret and denying access to minutes.

He spoke after his boss, Foreign Minister Mark Simmonds MP, had warned that hard-pressed island governments might not have spare “capacity” to bring in transparency laws. 

Dr Hayes said: “Through our own Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, we have a meeting of law officers which tries to help the territories deal with their capacity constraints on implementing all of these various bits of legislation.

“We would be very happy to suggest to Dominic Grieve that he might mention at the next meeting that freedom of information has been raised at this committee, but I just wanted to flag that there is a lot of work to do across a lot of very important areas.”

St Helena’s Attorney General, Ken Baddon, attended the previous meeting for lawyers from the territories, in December 2012.

Dr Hayes, who visited St Helena in March 2013, said: “There is a broad sweep of areas where we would like to see legislative development in territories: many of the core human rights legislation, the UN covenant on civil and political rights… safeguarding children, restorative justice… there is a broad work programme ahead of us.”

He said that he was “not suggesting that [freedom of information] is not important”, but “I just wanted to flag that there is a lot of work to do across  a lot of areas.”

Mark Capon MP, who had raised the issue at the environment committee hearing, said: “Freedom of information has come across in our inquiries that if it was improved could help move things forward.”

The United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was extended to St Helena in May 1976 – meaning people on the island were entitled to receive information as part of their right to freedom of expression.

By meeting in secret and keeping refusing to release minutes of its meetings, St Helena’s executive council appears to be acting in clear breach of that right.

Article 19 of the covenant says:

Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds…

It adds that these rights should only be restricted “for respect for the rights or reputations of others” or “for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”.

ExCo’s policy of making decisions in secret also conflicts with the spirit of St Helena’s own Constitution, which says:

Except with his or her own free consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his or her freedom of expression.

[This includes] his or her freedom to receive information and ideas without interference.

The constitution does set out circumstances in which information can be withheld from the public, but they do not appear to justify the practice of keeping all meetings and minutes confidential.

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