On Foreign Investment

It’s not easy living in an archipelago. Oh, it’s fun, to be sure. We have seven hundred islands, and lots of bright blue sea. It’s great for promotion to visitors. But for governing, for developing — well, it’s one big headache. It’s expensive, it’s often wasteful, and it’s ultimately frustrating. And no matter what we do, apparently, Family Islanders still pick up their georgie bundles and move to the city.

Given this state of affairs, the idea of using foreign capital as a tool to assist in the development of the whole archipelago seems to be a good one. We’ve got lots of land going a-begging and not many people taking it up. What’s more, much of it seems to be land that’s not good for very much. But it has wonderful sea-views, balmy breezes, and beaches that rate among the best in the world.

Enter foreign investment.

It seems to be a great idea, by which the whole country can be developed with very little extra cost to the government at all. By creating second homes, colony villages, gated communities, resort developments, marinas, golf courses, fish farms, citrus farms, and so on around The Bahamas, we can create jobs quickly, and encourage some of the people currently overcrowding our very small capital island to move out to populate the land that is currently unused. It’s a virtually pain-free means of developing remote areas of the archipelago without any real risk. Wonderful.

Except.

Except that the method’s not that free of pain. And it’s not that easy. And the returns — well, the returns are not what we imagine them to be. Foreign investment is the oldest form of development known to the modern Caribbean, and most of us are still living with the legacy of the first wave of it. It works fine as a get-rich-quick scheme — for the developers. For those of us who remain here, though, the price we pay in the long run for the development is terribly high.

You see, we inhabit that part of the planet that was seized and settled by the original foreign investors — otherwise know as European imperialists — for their own economic purposes. Ever since the so-called “discovery” of the New World by Christopher Columbus, investments in this region are designed to benefit people far, far away.

Consider Christopher Columbus’ own words, penned over five hundred years ago, when he first set eyes on the Bahamian islands.

This is so beautiful a place, as well as the neighbouring regions, that I know not in which course to proceed first; my eyes are never tired with viewing such delightful verdure, and of a species so new and dissimilar to that of our country, and I have no doubt there are trees and herbs here which would be of great value in Spain … Here is no village, but farther within the island is one, where our Indians inform us we shall find the king, and that he has much gold. I shall penetrate so far as to reach the village and see or speak with the king, who, as they tell us, governs all these islands, and goes dressed, with a great deal of gold about him — Christopher Columbus, 19 October 1492

Those are the words of the first advertiser, the first promoter of tourism, the first scout for later foreign investors. Then, as now, The Bahamas was regarded as little more than a beautiful source of revenue — for someone from far away. Columbus has no thought for the King and for his subjects beyond finding the source of their gold, and, after that, using the trees and herbs of the area to the benefit of Spain. What did he say? I could conquer the whole of them [the people] with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased. Nothing at all about making the people’s lives better.

I’m not so certain that Columbus and his Isabella and Ferdinand didn’t set a precedent when it comes to foreign investment that is still prevalent today. After all, the welfare of our people, of our environment, of our way of life, of our culture — in short, our very existence — are unlikely to be at the forefront of any investor’s minds. Why should they be? All an investor’s seeking is a return on his or her investment — the quicker and the bigger (generally) the better. If it’s not at the forefront of our government’s negotiations — well, then, we get situations like Royal Oasis and the citrus plantations in in the wake of Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne.

Here’s the thing. Why do we still rely so heavily on people to sail in from beyond the horizon to do our development for us? Why do we offer them our gold for the glass beads they give us back? The Lucayans knew no better. But we do.

I agree that to expect the Government of The Bahamas to shoulder single-handedly the responsibility for developing the entire country is unreasonable. I agree, too, that injecting capital into remote areas of the archipelago is important. But surely there’s as much to gain, or more, from encouraging Bahamians to participate in that process. Why don’t we start giving Bahamians the same kinds of concessions we give foreigners to invest in Family Island development?

We are a small nation perched on the edge of a great one. When you look at The Bahamas from space, our islands look like beads scattered from the paw of some great beast. But they’re ours, and they’re all we’ve got. We need to be super-careful what we do with them. Because if we’re not — well, we can just ask the Lucayans what they think.

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