Wednesday, September 15, 2021
• Group’s Bahamian head pegs nation’s loss at $450m-$500m
• Assets Minnis administration ‘dropped the ball completely’
• And questions: ‘What does it mean to be Bahamian?’
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamian head of a technology-driven underwater exploration group yesterday asserted that this nation has lost between $450m-$500m due to their proposal being “stalled” by government for three-plus years.
Matthew Arnett, P08’s chief executive and co-founder, told Tribune Business its bid to “monetise” up to $100bn in gold, precious metals and other artifacts scattered among multiple shipwrecks in Bahamian waters has been grounded by the Minnis administration since mid-2018 despite assurances it would receive all approvals necessary to proceed.
Describing the experience as “sad” and “absolutely disheartening”, he said the various roadblocks erected before his group had caused him to question “what does it mean to be a Bahamian” when foreign-led and financed rivals were able to secure the same permits he and his team are seeking.
Voicing hope that tomorrow’s general election will provide “a new opportunity” for P08 to realise its ambitions, Mr Arnett said that despite having all equipment, technology and financing in place - including a “validated” $25m letter of credit that was presented to the Government - it has failed to make any headway on plans to unlock the economic value contained in the country’s underwater treasures.
P08’s ambitions, contained in business plans and proposals seen by this newspaper, focus on marrying underwater exploration with blockchain technology. The latter would record, value, locate and maintain ownership records for all recovered Bahamian artifacts, with non-fungible tokens issued to their owners as a means of providing “stored value” for these recoveries.
Mr Arnett argued that this would solve the challenges that had prompted successive administrations to previously impose an 18-year moratorium on issuing underwater exploration licences, as the Government’s lack of expertise and resources meant it had been impossible to police such activities - whether involving licensed or unauthorised treasure hunters entering Bahamian waters to plunder the nation’s historical patrimony.’
The Bahamas has typically earned nothing from artifacts recovered in its territorial waters, but which frequently pop-up for sale at US auction houses. Suggesting that P08’s blockchain usage would provide the necessary transparency and records to counter this, Mr Arnett said the group’s plans would also result in “the majority” of artifacts and sales proceeds remaining in The Bahamas.
Its proposal also calls for the creation of The Bahamas Archaeological Treasure and Maritime Museum & Interactive Marine Park in Freeport, which would showcase finds to both the Bahamian public and tourists. Advocating that this will result in greater reinvestment in The Bahamas, P08’s plans suggest the museum alone could generate an annual $80m economic impact from attracting a new type of heritage tourist.
But, despite having a head start, P08 has been overtaken by Carl Allen and Allen Exploration, who succeeded in bypassing them to successfully secure an underwater exploration/treasure hunting/salvaging licence. And the Walker’s Cay owner is now in the process of setting up a Grand Bahama-based museum of his own as revealed by Tribune Business on Monday.
Mr Arnett, speaking from Vietnam where is working with that nation’s government on technology “incubators” and “accelerators”, said P08’s 30-plus team of Bahamian and international staff began researching the viability of blockchain and its use in underwater exploration/treasure hunting towards the end of 2016.
Having completed this process, they then submitted the necessary forms to the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation (AMMC) in 2017 to begin the quest for government approvals.
“We started back in 2017 with the technology in terms of how do you monetise in an ethical way that has transparency and benefits for The Bahamas,” he explained. Selected by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) as the 2018 winner of its “demand solutions” competition, P08 planned to use its Bahamas ambitions as the springboard to launch itself and its technology on a global scale.
“The deal with The Bahamas was to be the linchpin,” Mr Arnett revealed. “I wanted The Bahamas to be the first place where we proved the technology and viability of this so other governments would open their countries to us, and we agreed.
“The technology would solve the problems that were the reasons for the moratorium in the first place. The Government has given out 77 licences over the years, and only had one payment to the Treasury of $300,000. We found that to be an atrocity to the Bahamian people, and this was the reason why this was done and we tried to set up the museum and push for the museum.”
Asserting that he possesses a letter showing P08’s project was approved by the AMMC, Mr Arnett said the group was told in June 2018 they would receive full and final approvals from the Government within 30 days. They are still waiting, and he named Joshua Sears, the Prime Minister’s senior policy adviser, and David Davis, permanent secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, among officials they could not get an answer from.
“From that moment forward they just stalled and stalled and stalled,” the P08 chief told Tribune Business. “They gave numerous reasons why it was delayed. The feedback we got was that ‘it’s on this person’s desk’; ‘it has to be taken to Cabinet’; ‘a parliamentary paper has to be drafted’; ‘it’s coming, we’re just waiting for a signature’. They dropped the ball completely
“We continued to fight and push forward to ask for meetings. It was always another story: ‘It’s on this person’s desk and has to be reviewed there’. When we needed them to step in and deliver, and cross the line, they didn’t deliver.”
Mr Arnett said P08 was told that the last step in the approvals process required a signature from Dr Hubert Minnis, and he added: “That’s where we stopped. He never granted us a meeting. He said: ‘Meet with Kwasi [Thompson, minister for Grand Bahama]. Kwasi did nothing to help us.”
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and others tried to move P08’s proposal forward in conversations with Mr Thompson, but Mr Arnett said: “It reinvigorated us, but then we hit another wall. They [the Government] are saying: ‘Who are you to get it?’ I cannot make it in my own country. You are not welcomed in your own town.”
P08’s proposal estimates there are some $100bn worth of treasures and artifacts on the ocean floor in Bahamian territorial waters due to multiple shipwrecks that have occurred over the centuries. Its goal for 2019, had it obtained a government go-ahead, was to target between three to four wreck sites with a collective cargo value estimated to have a value of more than $5bn-plus.
Its plans talked about partnering with Magellan Deep Sea Exploration for underwater location and recovery, while naming well-known industry players among P08’s management team. For instance, its vice-president of exploration back in 2018 was named as Dr David Gallo, an oceanographer and explorer, who for 30 years was director of special projects at Wood Hole Laboratories.
Asked to quantify the “opportunity cost” to The Bahamas and P08 of the project’s three-plus years wait to move forward, Mr Arnett told Tribune Business: “I think that’s a great question. It puts it all into perspective.
“I was sat down with a consultant in the IDB’s office, and he told me that P08 has the opportunity to be the first ‘unicorn’ in the Caribbean; a $1bn company. The opportunity cost here is not only kept to us; we’re close to a 100 percent debt-to-GDP ratio now because of the twin disasters of Dorian and COVID.
“If we had been able to continue our work, we would have created jobs and brought in revenues for the Government because they’re supposed to get 25 percent. I would say at this point they’ve lost between $450m-$500m. This is the opportunity cost at this point; what could have happened from 2018 to now. Without a doubt. Money, everything was ready to go. It was something to be proud of as Bahamian-owned.”
Suggesting that his figures might under-estimate the extent of the potential “opportunity cost”, Mr Arnett said The Bahamas - and Grand Bahama especially - had also lost out on the chance to become “a world leader” on blockchain technology and the use of non-fungible tokens.
He added that P08’s plans also called for the creation of a Grand Bahama-based school that would teach Bahamians coding and programming, thereby creating a highly-skilled workforce to advance the Government’s “technology hub” ambitions and entrepreneurs to develop other technology-based companies and industries.
“The technology allowed this to be transparent and traceable,” Mr Arnett said of artifact recovery. “It would allow the majority of what was found to remain in The Bahamas. Now, it will be sold at auction in Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
“The intrinsic value of assets would be digitised, so the owner could still trade in them and do things. The museum would be the repository for keeping them safe. At the same time, we would have tourists coming over to view the museum and so forth. It would be a place of education, so young people could explore ideas, and think of becoming an archaeologist or robotics engineer.”
The P08 chief added that the museum would also feature virtual experiences showing actual salvage and artifact recovery on the ocean floor, thus giving visitors a taste of underwater exploration.
Asked how frustrated he was by the Government’s treatment of his project, Mr Arnett replied: “They treat Bahamians like that when we’re promised this is our time, our country, and we need Bahamians to stand up and rise....I think if I didn’t have faith I would have completely given up everything and been in a fit of depression....
“What does it mean to be a Bahamian? What does it mean to be a Bahamian? That’s what I wrestle with at night. It’s sad. We need something new. We need to break through. We need people to lead us forward that not only understand the opportunity but have the ability to be fair and transparent.
“You cause more people to be active in the economy. That’s what we need to make our country a safe place. It’s all connected. All I want is a fair deal, nothing more. I don’t want special treatment. I want a fair deal; a fighting chance.”
Mr Arnett said he was equally concerned for other Bahamian entrepreneurs who had suffered similar experiences, adding: “My heart hurts for them. How many people suffer and move away from The Bahamas? How much more brain drain is there because the door is shut in our face?
“Are we not privileged enough? Are we not good enough? What does it take to access and get a seat at the table? That’s my call. There may be other Bahamians not as strong as I am, and do not have the same support system to go on and keep fighting. It’s every man for themselves. That’s why the country is so dishevelled.
“There are many young Bahamians who feel they will never get a fair shake in their country. How do you own a stake? Do you have to be from a privileged family? A lot of people feel like there’s no hope.”
Neither the Free National Movement (FNM) nor the Progressive Liberal Party’s (PLP) election campaign manifestos mention underwater exploration/treasure hunting, yet the industry - if properly managed and regulated - has the potential to generate a multi-million dollar boost for the Public Treasury - not to mention economic activity - at a time when The Bahamas needs every cent it can get post-Dorian and COVID-19.
One industry source, asked about the industry’s potential value to The Bahamas, simply responded: “Billions”. They added: “The second and third most valuable wrecks in the entire western hemisphere are located off Grand Bahama.
“It would be an entire industry. It has the ability to effectively put Freeport back on the map. You’re talking about billions in artifiacts, and I mean billions. You’ve got from conservation of artifacts to research to study to inventory. The question is where is the transparency and the accountability.”
Another added: “People have been coming into our waters for decades and pilfering this. They’re coming in, taking it and putting it on the US market. Bahamian officials have shared how things are being sold in the US that are found in Bahamian waters. The last administration put a moratorium on this to try and fix it.”