Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves has commented on the situation in Canouan where protest over beach access continues, saying that an investor must be sensitive to the concerns of the people in the area where the investment is taking place.
Residents of Canouan have been struggling to maintain access to beaches in the north of Canouan, where the then New Democratic Party (NDP) government leased two-third of the island for 99 years.
All beaches in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are public but land access to the beaches in the north of Canouan are all through the resort there.
Construction reportedly for an electronic gate has triggered a fresh round of protest, which began last week.
“Something is happening in Canouan. I want to say the following thing. First, let us establish with crystal clarity that the people of Canouan, like citizens all over this country, have a right to protest and to protest within the framework of the law,” Gonsalves, who is also Minister of National Security said at a press conference in Kingstown, on Tuesday.
He, however, said that protestors do not have a right to damage property or assault anyone.
“And the people, those persons who are protesting in Canouan, they are saying that the developer in the north, … ‘you may have your right, your property right to put a gate and of a type where you want to put it.’ But they are saying ‘we have an apprehension; we have a fear … that you are putting up a gate rather than just have the boom … because your object is to keep people out’,” Gonsalves said.
He said this was his understanding of what islanders are saying, adding that residents of Canouan are saying this “on the basis that even where there was no quote-unquote gate, electronic gate, some of them had difficulties entering the premises legitimately”.
Gonsalves, a lawyer who is also minister of legal affairs, said he was being careful with his words.
He said that the developers would, clearly, have inside of the developed area some control mechanisms, adding that these may include not having vehicles speeding through or playing loud music.
“But persons who are having access through there going to the beach, some of them have reported that they had some challenges and that all what is required is for the developers to have a sensible conversation with the people,” Gonsalves said.
The prime minister continued:
“Because you may have a legal right to do something in relation to your property but any sensible investor has to be sensitive to people’s concerns and the environment in which he, the investor, is doing business.
“Am I talking as though I am endorsing the protest? I ain’t saying that. I am simply saying what our law is in relation to peaceful protest. We have the right to peaceful protest here as other people have it in Italy, France, London or New York.”
He said that the law limits the proximity to a government building or the Parliament where a public meeting is held.
“But I am making the point that generally that you have a right to peaceful and lawful protest. And I am also making the point that every investor would consider it sensible that whatever may be your legal right, notice, may be, it is always sensible to be sensitive to people’s concerns in the area in which you are doing business.”
The prime minister said there are other things he could say about Canouan but said that is “for another time in relation to certain matters.
“But I think that persons would expect me to say something about this lawful protest which is going on.”
Gonsalves said that when something like what occurred in Canouan happens, the commissioner of police would report to him.
“… and I will hear his report, the security report. I don’t direct the police as to what they should do in relation to their work. I stay in my lane; they stay in theirs,” Gonsalves said.
“But I will also inquire of the chief surveyor because if it involves anything about whether boundaries are appropriate—” Gonsalves said, adding that the chief surveyor and the minister of lands are visiting Canouan on Thursday.
“I have also called the head of planning to say to her there is this issue and I’d like her advice on it,” he said, adding that the head of Physical Planning will also visit Canouan on Thursday.
Gonsalves, however, noted that the planning laws for the country are somewhat different as they relate to Canouan because of the Canouan Act that was passed under the NDP administration.
The prime minister said he has also spoken to the attorney general on the matter, adding that he told the attorney general that because the solicitor general had been addressing some Canouan issues, he may wish to brief her.
“So, if you didn’t hear me say anything, it doesn’t mean that I am not doing my work. You all should be accustomed to me now for 20 something years how I do my work. I want to say that I have touched the bases that I am supposed to touch,” Gonsalves said.
The first thing I did was to require a report from Director of Grenadines Affairs, Edwin Snagg. I Got that report. There are institutions so I got a report from the commissioner of police,” Gonsalves said.
“And, of course, SVG is a place in which I would talk to people and people will talk to him. I don’t live on Mars. So, I say let me just make that particular comment for anybody who wants to hear me,” the prime minister said.
On Thursday, Snagg told iWitness News that the north of Canouan is a gated community and the area where the gate is being erected is not the public road, as some islanders have claimed.