Associated Press Writer

NASSAU — Environmentalists are angry that the Bahamas government is leaning toward approving a request by a billionaire philanthropist and Muslim spiritual leader to develop his private island inside a marine park.
The Aga Khan wants to dredge two channels around Bell Island within the Exuma Cays to accommodate mega yachts, service barges and up to 20 boats in an inland marina.

The project would require the dredging of nine acres of seabed in the Bahamas’ oldest state park, as well as the excavation of five acres on land.

The park is known for its pristine environment and police fine locals and tourists and confiscate their boats if they are found fishing, camping or anchoring in protected areas.

However, the wealthy owners of 11 private islands within the park – among them actor Johnny Depp – can seek permission to develop their islands. Most construction has taken place on the islands themselves.

The Aga Khan’s plans call for one 14-foot-deep channel that would be 80 feet across and another channel 12 feet deep and 100 feet wide.

Environmental Minister Earl Deveaux has said he probably will approve the plan unless concerns are raised by the Bahamas National Trust, a nonprofit organization that oversees 25 parks and protected areas and receives generous donations from residents within the Exuma park.

The trust issued a statement mid-September saying it had conditionally accepted what it calls a “relatively low-impact” development.

“Our view was to permit reasonable access for the owner under strict environmental protocols,” it said but added that a final decision awaits additional environmental studies, including an independent survey of all dredging areas and possible relocation of marine resources.

The favorable comments have riled up environmental activists and others.

Sam Duncombe, who leads the Bahamian environmentalist group reEarth, said he would call for the resignation of the environmental minister and trust officials if they approve the plan.

“It’s a sad day in the Bahamas when we have to protect the environment from its so-called protectors,” he said.

Opposition political leaders also are calling for the resignation of Deveaux.

The Aga Khan is a spiritual leader of Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, a branch of Shia Islam with some 20 million followers. His

Aga Khan Development Network, a group of private, non-denominational development agencies, focuses on social, cultural and economic development. It is one of the world’s largest private aid organizations.