Believe me, it was pitiful to watch on the government television channel the Senate hearing on the land swap deal between the government of the Virgin Islands and the Virgin Islands National Park Service. In July, I testified in front of the legislative body on St. John, with a packed house of people like sardines where the senators listened as people gave their testimonies about the land swap of Whistling Cay for a parcel in Estate Catherineberg.
At this public hearing on St. John, senators also gave their thoughts on the land swap deal where probably all of them said that it was a difficult discision to be made. To be honest, the senators had very little to go on in making a decision because they were still in the dark with so many questions as the governor didn’t provide enough information in the bill about the proposed land exchange.
In fact, the testifiers educated the senators with so much information that they were overwhelmed and came away from the public hearing with more questions than answers. One thing was made clear by the people of St. John: no swapping Whistling Cay for Estate Catherineberg. Many people believed that Estate Catherineberg should be given to them without giving up Whistling Cay. At the public hearing on St. John, alternate sites to build the school were mentioned, which the senators claimed they knew nothing about.
Nevertheless, as I sat there in front of the television and watched Mr. David Silverman plead with the senators with his offer of a 13.2-acre parcel of land for the government to build the school, I must applaud him for his effort in trying to help. However, this is not the first time our government has had ideas about swapping land or selling land that belongs to the people of the Virgin Islands for sweetheart deals with big corporations or other entities of the federal government.
In the 1960s, politicians killed agriculture on St. Croix, particularly the administration of Gov. Ralph Paiewonsky, to allow Harvey Aluminum Company and later the Hess Oil Refinery on the south shore of the island. This move destroyed Krause Lagoon, which was owned by the people of these islands. The lagoon was a major fishing heaven for our fishing industry of the Virgin Islands. The late Gov. Paiewonsky looked at the lagoon as useless along with the rich agricultural land around our only “Everglade” of the Virgin Islands.
Thousands of Crucian farmers flooded the streets of St. Croix’s two towns demanding justice for agriculture. The late Sen. Augustin Doward said, “Why should a corporation like Harvey own half of St. Croix?” I won’t go into detail how our government sold us out of the south shore of St. Croix. However, I will say this: hundreds of people died from various diseases over the years, some are still sick today, while the St. Croix’s south shore coastal land, marine environment, and underground water resources are destroyed and contaminated by the industrial complex pollution.
In the 1990s, there was another attempt to swap the people’s land of the Virgin Islands with a big company. This time it was the Beal Aerospace Company. How many people of the Virgin Islands remember this land-swapping issue that became national and international news? Believe me, our politicians in the Virgin Islands have short memories. Although the legal counsel of the Legislature at that time told the senators it was illegal to swap the Great Pond Estate, which belonged to the people of the Virgin Islands, to the Beal Aerospace Company, most of the senators voted for it to be swapped.
The deed of Dec. 17, 1974, by and between Frank Wiesner and the Government of the Virgin Islands stated, “it is the desire of the Grantor, Frank Wiesner, for the benefit of all the people of the Virgin Islands of the United States, that they together with visitors to its shore, shall have a parcel of land on the south shore of St. Croix for public beach, park and other recreational facilities, and … it is then the Grantor’s further desire that the people of the Virgin Islands of the United States and visitors to its shores shall enjoy the benefits of this land and historical structures located thereon in perpetuity.”
To make a long true story short, the people of St. Croix sued the government of the Virgin Islands and won the case where our government was found guilty as charged of swapping our land to a corporation. I would say to the people of St. John and the entire Virgin Islands community, let us sue the government for their illegal action of swapping Whistling Cay, the people’s cay, to the Virgin Islands National Park Service.
In 1978, Act 4104 of the 12th Legislature was passed to protect government-owned offshore islands and cays for the people of these islands and visitors alike. This act never stated of any swapping of our cays to anybody else other than for us and generations to come and enjoy the recreation thereof.
Furthermore, in the V.I. Code, “No portion of a ‘shoreline’ as defined in section 402 of chapter 10 of Title 12 of this code, shall be sold, leased, or otherwise disposed of by the Government of the United States Virgin Islands; excepting only leases for concession stands when such leases are approved in accordance with this section.” Whistling Cay fits right into this definition of the laws of the Virgin Islands. There are other laws that extended to the colonial history of the Virgin Islands that can apply to Whistling Cay.
Virgin Islanders, all is not lost to our beloved Whistling Cay. We are in a spiritual battle mentally, like David and Goliath. Believe me, David knew size doesn’t matter. It is the heart, courage, determination, and commitment that matters. We can apply the same principle and same level of thinking to our social political fight for Whistling Cay and the challenges we are facing. We must think bigger than the challenges, be bigger than the obstacle, which is our government, and act as if it is impossible to fail but be victorious in holding onto Whistling Cay in perpetuity for the people of the Virgin Islands.
— Olasee Davis is a bush professor who lectures and writes about the culture, history, ecology and environment of the Virgin Islands when he is not leading hiking tours of the wild places and spaces of St. Croix and beyond.