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Development Planning Unit
Government of the British Virgin Islands

About Our Country> Environment: Current Status 


Land Use
The rapid population growth, particularly in the last ten years, has had a marked impact on the development of the BVI. The population has increased by 47% in the last ten years, approximately 34% of the population resides in the Greater Road Town area, the seat of Government of the BVI.

Of the 38,248 acres (15,499 ha) of land that make up the Islands, approximately 61% is privately owned and 39% is considered Crown Land and belongs to the BVI Government.

Settlement planning and the rational use of land and other natural resources has become increasingly important in the BVI in recent years. The function of settlement planning has been characterized largely by development control as a regulatory procedure, with less emphasis on planning as a facilitator of investment opportunities and development. The complexity of human settlement planning in the BVI is compounded by the vibrancy of an economy based largely on tourism. To date, the legislative, administrative and technical provisions for Town and Country Planning in the BVI have been very modest. Development planning has not been undertaken in a comprehensive manner.

The Land Development Control Ordinance, 1969, is the principle piece of planning legislation. Under the Ordinance a person or an entity wishing to develop land is required to obtain the permission of the Development Control Authority. In addition a person or an entity intending to erect a building or undertake construction activity on a site is required to obtain the approval of the Building Authority under the Building Ordinance.

The Development Control Authority consists of a chairman, three members of the public, the Chief Engineer Public Works, the Chief Physical Planning Officer and the Chief Conservation & Fisheries Officer.

In certain special areas of the BVI other permissions are required. For instance in Wickhams Cay, a section of Road Town, the approval of the Wickhams Cay Development Authority is also required. In National and Marine Parks areas, the National Parks Trust is empowered to approve or permit development under the authority of the National Parks Ordinance and the Marine Parks and Protected Areas Ordinance. Where a development proposal is made for the use of Crown Land including the seabed, the proposal must be approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources & Labour and the Executive Council (the Cabinet of Ministers).

With respect to development plans, some plans have been prepared, but the machinery for their implementation has been far from adequate. While the pace of development remained slow and the population was small, the lack of control over development did not result in any serious damage to either human or natural environments. However, that is no longer the case, on Tortola to a high degree, and on other islands to a lesser degree, the pressures on land and the coast for residential, hotel and commercial development is creating a critical situation. Commerce and industry are finding it increasingly difficult to find land or accommodation. At the same time much of the scenic beauty of the islands is being put at risk by uncontrolled reclamation, the scarring of hillsides for housing and access roads. Such activities reduce the quality of life for the residents and the ability to sustain the tourism industry, which is dependent on the natural scenic beauty of the islands.

Housing and construction activities have increased markedly over the 1980's. This is evidenced by an examination of growth in total acreage of developed land on both Tortola and Virgin Gorda, see Table. Over the fifteen year period there was a 400% increase in the acreage of developed land in Tortola.

Total Acreage of Developed Land in Tortola
and Virgin Gorda between 1976 and 1991


Area of Developed Land



(acres) (hectares) (acres) (hectares)
Tortola 600 243 3,000 1,215
Virgin Gorda 250 101 1,200 486

(Figures are not available on the breakdown of specific uses)
Source: Conservation and Fisheries Department

Development and subdivision applications also provide an indication of the rate of growth of the islands, see Table. The largest increase in development applications was for residential construction, where the number increased from 60 in 1980 to 227 in 1991, a 278% increase.

Changes in the Number of Development
Applications between 1980 and 1991

Year Subdivisions Development
(US$ m)
1980  137 for 217 lots 117 94.41
1991 161 for 515 lots 286 149.15

Source: Conservation and Fisheries Department

There is no formally approved development plan for the BVI. However, a set of guidelines has been prepared for the consideration of development proposals. The underlying inference of the guidelines is that any site may be developed for almost any purpose, provided certain rules are observed with respect to building height, density setbacks, car parking provisions, water supply, sewage and waste disposal and reservation of land for communal use including roads. The fact that the guidelines do not deal with matters of land use means that, although they have had some effect on the manner in which plots are developed, they have no impact on the distribution or type of development occurring throughout the BVI.


Use of the Coastal Zone and Seabed

The coastal zone is one of the most varied and one of the most heavily impacted areas of the environment in the BVI, in addition it is one of the most important economic areas, most of the tourist industry is located in and is dependent on the coastal zone.

The coastal zone consists of many different sub-systems e.g. beaches, mangroves, cliffs, coral reefs, sea grass beds, these are all interconnected such that impacts on one sub-system affect the entire system.

The total length of beaches in the BVI is 49 miles (79 km), shows a breakdown of beach length on an island basis.

Total Length of Beaches

Island Beach Length
miles km
Anegada 16.0 25.75
Virgin Gorda & North Sound 11.5 18.50
Beef Island, The Dogs, Scrub, Lesser & Greater Camanoe, Guana 7.6 12.25
Tortola 6.2 10.00
Ginger to Norman Islands 4.5 7.25
Jost Van Dyke, Little Jost Van Dyke, Thatch 3.3 5.25
Source: Conservation and Fisheries Department

Anegada, the flat limestone island, has the greatest length of beaches.

The major threats to the beaches are sand mining and badly placed developments. The major source of construction sand in the BVI has traditionally been beach sand. In the past with a low level of concrete construction, this did not present a major problem, however, in recent years with the high rate of construction, several beaches have been severely eroded and in places disappeared altogether as a result of sand mining. At Josiahs Bay in Tortola, the beach has retreated inland more than 30 feet (10 m) over the past 20 years, and this is almost totally due to sand mining.

The Beach Protection Ordinance of 1985 prohibits the removal of sand from the foreshore and from the beach if the sand removal is likely to cause inroads by the sea. The legislation is inadequate and has been so proven in court, the term "inroads by the sea" is subject to many interpretations.

Recently several small scale near shore dredging operations have commenced to produce construction sand, this often has a dual function such as deepening to produce a marina. However, often the offshore sand has a high percentage of silt and shells and is not favoured by contractors for construction purposes. Sand is highly priced in the BVI, around US$ 30 per cubic yard.

The beaches are also under threat from potential sea level rise. There are no permanent tide gauges in the BVI, so the actual rise has not been documented. Hurricanes and winter swells also cause beach erosion, the impact of these storms is increased by near shore deepening resulting from dredging activities and badly placed development in the active beach zone. Under the Development Control Guidelines, buildings have to be set back 50 ft (15 m) from the high water mark, in actual fact this inadequate setback is not always fully enforced. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 illustrated the inadequacy of this guideline when the south coast highway on Tortola was severely damaged along 4.3 miles (7 km) of its length, and one hotel on Peter Island built partly on reclaimed land was totally destroyed.

Regular measurement of the beaches by the Conservation & Fisheries Department has shown that on Tortola, between 1989 and 1990, 66% of the beaches had eroded and had decreased in area by 20% over the two-year period. Since the land mass in the BVI is so small, many of the streams or ghuts as they are known locally are dry except during heavy rainfall. The increased clearing of land for development, and leaving cleared land unvegetated for long periods of time, has resulted in increased soil erosion. Most of the eroded soil is carried by the ghuts into the sea during heavy rainfall thereby adversely impacting on the systems such as coral reefs and sea grass beds. Near shore waters are often a brown colour after heavy rainfall.

Mangroves form an interface between the land and the sea and represent a significant resource in the BVI. The table shows the areas of mangroves on the five major islands of the BVI.

Total Mangrove Areas
(This includes associated habitats such as ponds, salinas)

Island Area
acres hectares
Beef Island 88.3 35.72
Anegada 1,086.0 439.39
Jost Van Dyke 4.9 1.99
Tortola 250.0 101.18
Virgin Gorda



Total 1,451.0 586.89
Source: Survey Department

The total area of mangroves in the BVI is 1,451 acres (587 hectares). Despite the fact that this is a significant area, many of these mangrove areas are already severely stressed and are facing increased development pressures.

The importance of mangroves is appreciated by certain sectors such as fishermen and conservationists, but generally the public regard these areas as useless swamp land which provides little useful function. The Conservation & Fisheries Department are trying to change this perception through a public education programme in the schools and community.

Reclamation is the major threat facing mangroves in the BVI. With the exception of Anegada there is little flat land, and with the economic emphasis on the marine charter boat industry, many mangrove areas have been lost through reclamation for marine service industries, tourist developments, hotels etc. Perhaps one of the most environmentally damaging aspects of the widespread reclamation is that most of it is small scale and as hoc. Thus the coastline, particularly in Tortola, provides a jagged outline. There is insufficient bulk heading and often reclamation takes years to complete.

Mangroves are also used as garbage dumps and they suffer from land based pollution. Small-scale cutting for the production of fish pots and charcoal is not a major threat relative to reclamation and land filling.

Mangroves are very vulnerable to hurricanes as was seen during Hurricane Hugo in 1989 when considerable areas of mangroves were damaged. However, this hurricane also showed how in places mangroves protected low lying land from more severe damage.

The Government is concerned about the loss of mangrove areas and through the Conservation & Fisheries Department has set in motion a programme to manage the remaining mangrove areas. This programme is described in Section

Associated with mangroves are salt ponds and salinas, these also have a very low public profile. Several of the ponds in Tortola have been used as solid waste dumps, when the dump is full a new site is located and the old dump covered with soil. The impact of drainage from the dump to nearby wells and the sea has never been fully evaluated. In addition valuable habitats, particularly for birds have been lost. These ponds used to serve an important function as sediment filters, now the runoff with its sediment load runs directly into the sea.

The Government owns the seabed as far as the high water mark and thus effectively owns most of the mangrove areas. In order to fill or reclaim an area of mangroves, a permit is required from the Ministry of Natural Resources & Labour, however, the permitting system, especially in terms of checks and penalties is in need of total revision. In practice many people start reclamation without obtaining a permit and there is no provision for penalizing offenders.

Coral reefs are an important natural resource in the BVI, they provide an important marine habitat for fish and other species, they serve as a tourist attraction and provide protection for the coast and beaches. The Horseshoe Reef which covers 30 sq. miles (77 sq km) Southeast of Anegada is the largest reef complex in the Lesser Antilles. Reefs also occur around most of the other islands and are an important resource fulfilling many functions both environmental and economic. Table 9 shows the linear length of fringing reefs in the BVI.

Within recent years the coral reefs have come under increasing threat from ships anchors, souvenir collectors, harvesting for jewellery, sedimentation from land based runoff, dredging, coral bleaching and hurricanes. The last two stresses are largely a function of global and natural events and as such cannot be controlled by the BVI alone.

Based on the work of the Conservation & Fisheries Department a qualitative estimate of the linear lengths of severely impacted coral reefs was prepared together with a list of the most severely impacted areas, see Table.

The major focus of the BVI's tourism product is yacht chartering and as such anchor damage is a major factor both from the yachts and small cruise ships. Associated with the anchor damage are ship groundings both by yachts and larger vessels which cause extensive physical damage. Increasing numbers of tourists, most of whom either dive and/or snorkel may impact the reef by touching and breaking coral and taking souvenirs.

Linear Length of Fringing Reef

Island Length of Fringing Reef
miles kilometres
Anegada and Horseshoe Reef 31.7 51.0
Tortola 30.5 49.0
Virgin Gorda and North Sound 16.2 26.0
Norman Island to Ginger Is. 10.0 16.0
Jost Van Dyke 10.9 17.5

Beef Island, Camanoe, Guana & The Dogs

6.2 10.0
Little Thatch & Great Thatch 5.6 9.0
Great & Little Tobago 5.6 9.0
Total 116.7 187.5

(The length of the reefs was measured from the 1:25,000 topographic map combined with local knowledge of the Conservation & Fisheries Department).

Source: Conservation and Fisheries Department

Land clearing for development, combined with the clearing of mangroves has increased the volume of sediment being deposited on the reefs. This is especially noticeable in the near shore area where sand dredging is also a factor. Harvesting of coral, especially black coral, for jewellery, although small in volumes has had damaging effects. In addition recent hurricanes have damaged the reefs, especially Hurricane Frederick in 1979, Tropical Storm Klaus in 1984 and Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Pollution has also damaged the reefs, pollutants have included land runoff (sewage, nutrients, industrial waste), solid waste dumped at sea, antifouling paint, oil and even several thousand bobbins of industrial thread which were washed onto the reefs after a ship sunk in 1989.

Overfishing of the reefs has long been identified as a major problem. Local fishermen traditionally utilise trap fishing methods, catches have declined in recent years, and certain marine species especially turtles, lobster, conch and whelk have shown a significant reduction in numbers caught. However, with the present data base it is impossible to quantify these stresses or their effects.

List of Heavily Impacted Coral Reef Areas

Qualitative estimate of the total length of impacted coral = 20.5 miles (33km)

Estimated percentage of impacted (damaged) coral
= 18%

Heavily impacted areas:
Portions of Horseshoe Reef, Southwestern Virgin Gorda and North Sound, Beef Island, Portions of Peter Island especially Deadmans Bay, Jost Van Dyke especially White Bay, Great Harbour and Long Bay, Areas along the southern coast of Tortola including East End, Fish Bay, Baughers Bay, Slaney, Nanny Cay and towards West End
Source: Conservation and Fisheries Department

There is no comprehensive legislation covering coral reefs. The Government owns the seabed and therefore the coral reefs within the Territorial Sea. Coral reefs within the marine parks are covered by specific legislation see Section IV. In 1990 the Horseshoe Reef southeast of Anegada was declared a protected area under the Fisheries Ordinance. Under this order it is illegal to harvest any marine product or to anchor any vessel except by special license from the Minister. However, the Government's capability to enforce this order covering a very large area is limited. In addition three licenses have recently been issued for fishing in this area.

The Taking of Marine Products Order of 1991 prohibits the taking of any marine product using SCUBA gear and also prohibits spearfishing on the Horseshoe Reef.

Another measure that has been taken by Government to reduce the damage done by mini cruise ships, especially by anchoring and overcrowding, is to limit them to a list of designated beaches. However, this list has not been backed by legislation.

Seagrass beds, another important marine resource, have not received as much study or attention as coral reefs. Nevertheless they are known to be an important resource and habitat in the BVI. Their areas have not been measured or mapped in any national survey. However, from localised cases, it is known that they too are coming under increasing threat from land based sedimentation, dredging and anchor damage. There is no specific legislation relating to seagrass beds.

The Turtles Notice of 1986 established a closed season from 1st April to 30th November when it is illegal to catch, slaughter or take the eggs of any turtle. Turtle surveys conducted between 1987 and 1993 show that the leatherback turtle rarely nests in the BVI any more, only thirteen nests were confirmed in 1993, whereas in the 1920's several leatherbacks used to nest each night on certain beaches. Hawksbill and green turtles are more abundant in the BVI, although as yet there are no quantitative population estimates for these species.

Whales and marine mammals that migrate through BVI waters are not protected by any specific legislation.

The sea itself, a vital part of the marine resources, is experiencing increasing pollution from many sources. Perhaps the major pollutant is sewage from the land and boats. Much of the sewage treatment within the BVI is based on individual septic systems. In Road Town, the main centre of population, there is a sewage collection system with primary treatment, the effluent is piped offshore through a 600 foot (183 m) long outfall. An effluent plume is often visible moving downstream from the outfall.

The charter boats also present a pollution problem, few of the marinas have pump out stations and there are no regulations concerning holding tanks. Bacterial water quality monitoring which has been conducted regularly since 1988 by the Water & Sewage Department and the Conservation & Fisheries Department, indicates pollution problems at some marinas and some popular beach sites.

It is also thought that high nutrient loads, particularly phosphates, in the marinas may be contributing to the nearshore ecological decline, although to date no data have been collected on nutrients. The pumping of boat bilges and the disposal of engine oil into the sea are serious problems, especially since there are no designated areas to dispose of these wastes. The Ports and Marine Services Regulations 1988 make it an offence to deposit any pollutant in the Territorial Sea, but this provision is not enforced.

There is a major oil tanker route to the north of Anegada and thus the possibility of a major oil spill affecting BVI's waters. An oil spill contingency plan exists and is currently being updated, but the BVI does not have the equipment or capability to deal with a major spill.

Pesticides are not a major pollutant in BVI waters due to their limited use in the agricultural sector.


Parks and Protected Areas

The BVI has been a leader in the area of Parks and Protected Areas in the Eastern Caribbean. The first national park was established in 1964. The establishment and management of parks and protected areas is viewed as an important means for preserving the natural and cultural heritage for future generations.

The BVI National Parks Trust (NPT) is a statutory, corporate body, established in 1961 to manage, preserve and promote areas which have been legally designated national parks by proclamation of Executive Council. The Marine Parks and Protected Areas Ordinance of 1979 provided for the expansion of the system to marine areas. The NPT also manages cultural areas (historic structures and buildings) which have been declared national parks. The 1961 NPT Ordinance provides for the establishment of national parks, fifteen terrestrial and one marine park have been declared. The terrestrial land parks comprise 791 acres (320 hectares), this represents 2.1% of the total land area of the BVI, and while a small percentage, it is nevertheless a significant one.

From its inception in 1961 the NPT has been a leader in conservation and has helped to chart the path for conservation oriented development in the BVI. One of the most important factors has been a close relationship between the NPT and the private sector. A point worthy of note is that one of the pioneers of conservation and national parks in the BVI was also instrumental in constructing the first tourist hotel (Little Dix Bay Hotel) in the BVI. Another example of the close relationship with the private sector is the co-operation between the NPT and the BVI Dive Operators Association who within recent years have worked together to install a system of mooring buoys to protect the coral reef systems from anchor damage.

In 1984 a professionally staffed NPT office was established. Throughout the decade of the 1980's the NPT with technical assistance from the Eastern Caribbean Natural Areas Management Project (ECNAMP), now the Caribbean Natural Areas Resource Institute (CANARI), prepared a System Plan for parks and protected areas in the BVI. This plan sought to define a system of parks and protected areas which would incorporate the existing parks into a larger system of comprehensive ecological units which would preserve the most important aspects of the physical and cultural heritage of the BVI.

Terrestrial and Marine Parks in the BVI

Park Name Area

Terrestrial Parks:

Sage Mountain 92.00 1964
Devils Bay, Virgin Gorda 58.00 1964
Spring Bay, Virgin Gorda 5.50 1964
Cholera Burial Ground   1966
    revoked 1978
Queen Elizabeth II Park 0.70 1974
Fallen Jerusalem Island 30.00 1974
Virgin Gorda Peak 265.00 1974
West Dog Island 24.00 1974
Dead Chest Island 34.00 1977
Fort Point, Virgin Gorda 36.00 1978
Botanic Gardens 2.87 1979
Mount Healthy Windmill 0.90 1983
Prickly Pear Island 234.00 1988
The Baths, Virgin Gorda 6.90 1990
Diamond Cay, Jost Van Dyke 1.25 1991

Marine Parks

Wreck of the Rhone 764.00 1980
Source: Conservation and Fisheries Department

The System Plan describes in great detail the physical characteristics, boundaries and biological diversity of the proposed systems and recommends management categories and strategies for each. The System Plan was approved by Executive Council in 1987. The objectives outlined in the System Plan were as follows :

1. Maintain representative ecosystems in the natural state;
2. Maintain ecological diversity and natural processes;
3. Conserve genetic resources;
4. Provide environments for education, and research;
5. Protect habitats for endangered species and other critical species such as seabirds;
6. Conserve watersheds and control erosion and sedimentation;
7. Maintain areas that are vital to the productivity of commercial species;
8. Manage natural areas that are important to economic development, particularly tourism, recreation and fisheries.

The System plan proposed that twelve additional areas should be declared as follows :

1. Southwestern Virgin Gorda, to include the area from Fort Point to Round Rock to the Copper Mine, this includes five existing national parks;
2. Anegada and the Horseshoe Reef;
3. North Sound, Virgin Gorda;
4. The Bight, Norman Island;
5. The Dogs;
6. Sandy Cay, Green Cay & Little Jost Van Dyke;
7. Cane Garden Bay;
8. The Tobagos;
9. Beef Island - Hans Creek, Banana Bay and The Wharf;
10. Guana Island, White and Muskmelon Bays;
11. Fat Hogs Bay, Tortola;
12. Great Camanoe - Cam and Lee Bays.

The proposed system is shown in Figure 5, as can be seen when declared it will cover a significant area of the BVI. However, in the five years that have elapsed since the System Plan was accepted by Government, none of the proposed areas have been declared. In order to fully implement the System Plan new legislation is required, draft legislation has been prepared since 1987, but not yet finalised.

The Marine Parks and Protected Areas Regulations of 1991 gives the NPT specific authority regarding offences and collection of fees in a marine park.

The NPT plays an important role in conserving the remaining forests in the BVI. These forests perform many important functions including the reduction of the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, protection of watersheds, a source of medicines and a habitat for many rare plants and wildlife. The Sage Mountain National Park has the only remaining pre-Columbian moist forest in the BVI. A rare tree fern is also found at Sage Mountain. Gorda Peak National Park in Virgin Gorda contains deciduous forest shrub thickets and cactus shrub. This shrub-type vegetation plays an important role in the island ecosystem, the roots bind shallow soil and prevent erosion, and provides a habitat for reptiles and butterflies. The Iguana pinguis or rock iguana endemic to Anegada thrives in this habitat.

However, there is often conflict between livestock farmers who use lands within the parks and at the boundaries of the parks for grazing. There is also indiscriminate felling of trees, especially mangroves, for posts, fishpots and charcoal burning. Commercial gardeners also remove rare plant species for landscaping. The Protection of Trees and Conservation of Soil and Water Ordinance, 1954, prohibits the injuring of any tree in a forestry area and empowers the Governor in Council to declare any tree or land protected in such critical areas as forests and watersheds, however, it is not fully enforced.

The wetlands, salt ponds and mangroves, are the home of numerous seabirds. The Anegada salt ponds used to support a large population of flamingos. These habitats are increasingly threatened by dredging, reclamation and the construction of marinas.

Green spaces and natural landscapes are being swallowed up by the increasing demand for hillside lands with good views for housing. Many invaluable architectural structures which form part of the cultural heritage are being replaced by modern buildings.

The BVI is increasingly being promoted as a yachting destination. Increasing numbers of visiting yachtsmen create problems for the marine parks and protected areas especially as regards the proper disposal of solid and liquid wastes, and the damage to critical habitats such as coral reefs and sea grass beds.

Increasing numbers of visitors also places pressure on the terrestrial parks. As yet the carrying capacities of the parks has not been determined and there is no policy as regards controlling the numbers of people visiting these parks. It has been estimated that over 50% of all the visitors coming to the BVI will visit The Baths in Virgin Gorda (a unique granite boulder landscape bordering the sea). Similarly many of the proposed parks and protected areas identified in the System Plan are habitats for rare and/or endangered species. Many of these include bird sanctuaries which are protected by the Wild Birds Protection Ordinance. There is an urgent need to assess the carrying capacities of the terrestrial and marine parks and to pass regulations if necessary to effect these carrying capacities.


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