By Gabriel J. Christian
It is January 2021 and the government of Dominica, by its pronouncements and actions, seem intent building an “international airport.” That even though we are amid a global economic downturn and no airport in our region is operating at a profit. Indeed, the state has had to subsidize every airport in the region. What is the question for which a so—called international airport is the answer? If the question is air access, there is no reason why such cannot be provided for by an efficient short haul airline with links to the US Virgin Islands, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Antigua, and Barbados. That can be done without the damage to our environment, the injury to the nation’s future food and water security, and the attendant debt burden that such a new airport in our country would entail.
The issue of the viability of a new airport must, of necessity, involve an economic analysis. Is the land to be sacrificed being put to best use, when it encompasses some of the most fertile and water affluent areas of our island?
We all know that economics is a social science, which deals with production, distribution, and consumption functions. It is all about making choices regarding the allocation of scarce resources, so as to make their best possible use and satisfy human wants and needs. In economics, we often go through the terms needs and wants, but have we really understood their differences?
Needs point out the something you must have for survival. On the other hand, wants refers to something which is good to have, but not essential for survival. As an individual, family or nation, for the purpose of spending and saving money wisely, every person must know the difference between needs and wants.
I argue that such an airport is a fool’s errand or a potential boondoggle because the basic analysis of needs versus wants has not been done. This is why:
There is no public discussion (or unveiling for purposes of such discussion) of any “international airport study” that clearly outlines for the Dominican public a cogent cost benefit analysis that favors such a facility being built now. Why the rush?
Such a study would have to do a comparative analysis of regional airports and show how that new airport would be paid for over time – to include specific focus on profitability. Absent profitability, the airport risks being a white elephant and a drain on government’s finances. The absence of such accountable and transparent governance of such a major undertaking is a bad sign as it prevents intelligent dialogue on the subject. Yet we are told that the project is well on the way BEFORE such a discussion has taken place. Not only is the absence of such national discussion anti-democratic, but it also speaks to the absence of best accounting and project finance practices without which Dominicans will end up as the losers.
In our work In Search of Eden – Essays on Dominican History, Irving W. Andre, and Gabriel J. Christian, 2002), it was revealed that the US Atlantic Command had completed two airport studies for the Dominica Freedom Party led administration of Prime Minister Charles. At pages 586-587 it was disclosed:
The Freedom Party administration, to its credit, utilized its close links to the US government to obtain feasibility studies for an airport [.i.e., “international”] project. The US armed services Atlantic Command report noted that two on-site surveys by top US armed services experts were performed. Once, in January 1990 and again in October 1991. An October 25, 1992 review of both studies revealed.
The proposed undertaking is a massive endeavor. The Eden Estate (proposed airport site) is located at the extreme northeast of the island two hours by passenger car from the capital Roseau…Four water courses, the Eden River, Kraibo Gutter, and two unnamed streams must be culverted and covered. Depending on final orientation an elevation of the runway there, 4.8 million cubic yards of earth would have to be cut fill (sic). The area is thickly covered with banana trees and forest, with some grazing land. The negative environmental impact of such a reworking of terrain cannot be minimized. In addition, the steady destruction of prime agricultural land endangers local food production. Already slipping in domestic food production, especially in livestock, that lack grazing lands, Dominica’s food security would be further threatened by the project.
The experts further noted:
Dominica has recently commenced 727-180 (cargo variant: flights) into Melville Hall Airfield. The team was surprised by this unexpected capability which has been demonstrated. Melville Hall has significant geographical restrictions – a river at one end of the runway and the sea at the other, and approach obstructions on the landward side. But the operation of the 727 into the field, even with these restrictions raises the possibility that something can be done to upgrade Melville Hall which would make it more attractive for passenger operations. [Reference to the 727-air service refers to the Amerijet flights from Miami to Dominica]
The above report is instructive in pointing out the environmental degradation and injury to our nation’s food security where such land and water resources were to be damaged. In addition, the report speaks to the alternatives, to include better use of Melville Hall Airport. The development of short-take-off-landing (STOL) aircraft for long haul flights favors retention of the airport infrastructure in place – with improvements as needed. Further, an efficient short haul air transport link to regional hubs should suffice to service the air travelers coming into Dominica for the niche tourism we possess.
If we are serious about the involvement of Dominicans in the governance of our affairs, I humbly request that the government publishes for wide distribution the airport studies in its possession.
As a Dominican in the Diaspora, I have had luggage stolen in Antigua and suffered the difficulties of having to overnight in other islands. Therefore, I want air access into Dominica that avoids me and my compatriots such indignities and inconveniences. However, that is a want, not an absolute need for our survival.
We well may meet that need for improved air access where night landing and improved avionic technology allows for Dominicans to come in on the same day, they leave Europe or North America. Therefore, I would want to see to see change that favors same day arrival or arrival with minimum hustle. However, our needs must come before our wants. Having an international airport is no panacea. Witness the many nations with so-called international airports where their quality of life is below that of ours.
Our hotels are underutilized. Our economy is in the doldrums. Would a new so-called international airport materialize the air passenger traffic required to make such an airport viable? Are we not yet clear that Dominica is best served by hyping our unique “Nature Island” brand which is a niche brand? Let us work to make that brand high end/high value and stop thinking we can compete with the sun and sand tourism of Bahamas, Jamaica or even Antigua. We simply do not have the terrain or what they have to offer. I posit we have something better to offer – a lush, beautiful island, amazing landscapes, crystal clear freshwater springs, where we can feed ourselves and our guests from our own gardens.
What we need in Dominica is a renewed commitment to boosting our economic fortunes with the competitive advantages we have. What are those competitive advantages? Our three biggest competitive advantages reside in our educated human resources, fertile soil, and abundant fresh water.
Human Resources Development – A Need not a want
I am a proud Dominican; even more so when our students consistently score well at overseas universities. In the December 2018 commencement at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES) President Heidi Anderson lauded Mark Joseph of Dominica as the top graduate that year. See here https://www.umes.edu/PR/News-Articles/2019/Mark-Joseph,-record-setting-honors-graduate/. In 2015, we established an MOU for collaboration between UMES and the Dominica State College. Not much has been done with it, despite our best efforts.
In 2000 our law firm assisted the crafting of an MOU between the University of New Orleans (UNO) and the Government of Dominica led by deceased Prime Minister Rosie Douglas. Twenty years later the plans to set up a campus of UNO on Dominica remains stuck in a rut. It is such human resource development partnerships we need now more than ever to prepare our people for a world focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. However, do we have a government that embraces the need to attract such human competence?
Our human resource is our best resource. We are in an information technology driven age. Dominicans, at home and abroad, have shown great competence in what it takes to build a competitive knowledge-based economy. However, such would require a dedication to respectful teaming and persevering in the path of sustainable development as proposed in the Diaspora Policy Paper prepared by the Dominica Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2005. That paper focused on the need to unite our human resources in beneficial development endeavor. Yet, this government has consistently denied Dominicans at home and abroad primacy in policy making, economic development and planning. Instead, Dominicans are pushed to the economic margins as the regime relies on passport sales to line the pockets of its cronies, with minimal transparency in the vending of our birthright. The Academy’s Dominica Diaspora Development proposal may be read below. See here – https://www.dominicagardens.com/uploads/9/2/0/3/92034718/dominica_diaspora_policy.pdf
Water and Food Security – Needs not wants.
The disaster inflicted on our economy by the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic in 2020 requires us to move quickly to boost food security. We need to develop school gardens, expand agro-processing, and grow more of what we eat. That is an absolute need as we are unsure of what the global economy will look like once the pandemic abates. What we can be sure of is that people will continue to need food and clean water. We cannot survive without food and clean water. If we are without the resources to import our food needs, starvation will be at our door. We need to act now and stop this fascination with pie-in-the-sky projects bereft of sound planning.
It is that same unsound planning that led to the Moroccan gifted hotel being built in a swamp at Portsmouth. Is that not the same brilliant leadership in engineering and economics that built a hotel on a swamp that now seeks to brings us the new airport? Almost a decade after ground was broken on that gift by Morocco of a hotel, it is yet to be opened. The reality is we have no tourism draw on Dominica that needs such an investment in a new airport. Our hotels, except for a few chosen ones, are chronically under-utilized. Unless we are building the airport for the global expansion of some foreign power eager to spread its wings and desirous of fresh water and fertile soil, such a project must not be proceeded with – certainly not at this time.
We have fertile soil with which to boost our agriculture and so enhance food production. It is for that reason our organization Rebuild Dominica has pursued food technology programs on Dominica. See – https://rebuilddominica.org/tag/umes/. Our sister organization the Dominica Academy has long focused on the need to advance competence in botanic sciences and its link to food security. See here – https://www.dominicagardens.com/
Climate change is upon us and has led to an increasingly parched planet. Who would have thought that in 2021 we would pay more for water than gasoline? A gallon of regular gasoline in the United States is an average $2.49; a bottle of water is approximately $1.50. Dominica has the best water affluence in the Caribbean. What has been done by this government to create a fleet of water ships to serve the other water poor Caribbean islands? Or a thriving network on Dominica of water-based plants producing different types of water: Distilled water, saline solution, vitamin fortified water, glucose infused water, sparkling water etc. The list goes on. In fact, nearby Guadeloupe and Martinique have lost most of their rivers. We must do more to preserve ours – but have more water resources than they do. It is feasible that we can supply water by undersea flex-pipe to those two nations closest to us. This is the sort of innovation in water industry we need, based on our competitive advantage. That is the sort of innovative thinking that can result in progress where we embrace our own.
We hear talk that someone else is to be asked to build the airport for us. What is the catch? There is no free lunch; except where our country may well be the meal. Chinese build China. Germans build Germany. This inferiority complex born of a mendicant mentality is what makes us believe we must sell our birthright or go begging foreign nations to do for us that which we can do for ourselves.
We may want a so-called international airport, but that is not what we need. I am ashamed to state that on my last visit to the island the men’s toilet at the Douglas/Charles Airport had neither soap, toilet paper nor a toilet seat. It is obvious that the parlous way government property is kept across the state, absent keen property management practices, dictates that we learn to attend to the basics of first taking care of what we have already built. We have two airports, both often poorly kept, that is a fact. Yet we want to build a third.
What we need is good governance that uses our competitive advantage to derive income. We need therefore to focus on our human resource competence, food security derived from our revived agriculture, and innovative water-based industry. When we can wisely distinguish between needs versus wants, operating within a democratic framework of open and transparent governance, we shall have a better Dominica. We shall not get there with any easy fix such as the boondoggle of a new airport we may want, but do not need.