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“The small island of Barbuda is preparing for a ruling on land ownership and environmental protection, known as the ‘Billionaire Club’.”


While standing on a truck after a helicopter ride to Barbuda’s small airport following the devastation of Hurricane Irma, Prime Minister Gaston Browne spoke to the residents. He urged everyone to evacuate the Caribbean island for their own well-being as Hurricanes Jose and Maria were expected to make landfall soon. The prime minister stated that citizens would be allowed to come back once it was deemed safe.

In 2017, the devastation of Barbuda was widely documented as being “catastrophic”, resulting in severe damage to homes, infrastructure, and means of livelihood, leaving the residents in a state of hopelessness.

The government declared a state of emergency and required those who were evacuated to stay on the larger neighboring island of Antigua for a period of 30 days. Many residents would not come back. Prime Minister Browne stated that Barbuda suffered 95% destruction and predicted that it would cost around $300m (£245m) to reconstruct.

In a matter of weeks, large equipment began operations on the building location of a personal airport for wealthy American investors who had already designed lavish residences and exclusive hotels.

Two residents of Barbuda in 2018 obtained a temporary order to stop the building of an airport, citing concerns about its impact on the island’s delicate ecosystem. The government of Antigua questioned the legality of the citizens’ objection. The case was appealed in 2021, with the main argument being about the legitimacy of the Barbudans’ right to oppose government proposals for land on Barbuda. In 2022, the court ultimately ruled that they did not have the legal standing or right to do so.

This week, the UK privy council is set to reach a final decision on the matter. In 1981, Antigua and Barbuda gained independence from the UK, but still maintain a constitutional monarchy under Charles III and are part of the Commonwealth. As the top court of appeal, the privy council’s ruling could have widespread implications for activists in the Caribbean who are challenging governments’ actions that are deemed to be harmful to the environment.

A general view of damage and debris in the area of Codrington lagoon after Hurricane Irma swept through the island of Barbuda

Barbudans view Hurricane Irma’s devastation as a chance for promoting what has been labeled as the most extreme land takeover in the Caribbean. Developers, supported by politicians’ desire for foreign investment, have aimed to transform a large portion of the island into a luxury resort for the wealthy. The Antiguan government refutes this claim and asserts that the land is rightfully theirs to utilize as they choose. “This administration is confident that it has attracted the kind of investment in Barbuda that will ultimately benefit our nation,” a representative stated.

Much of the population of about 1,700, who have mostly returned to Barbuda, has been fighting back against what they claim is an erosion of their communal land rights by stealth legislation, which has exacerbated social and economic disparities, human rights violations and environmental crimes. The UN body on human rights has expressed “deep concerns” over the sprawling resorts.

The people of Barbuda are committed to ensuring that their island does not follow the path of its more affluent neighbor, Antigua. Antigua is known for its luxurious hotels and extravagant homes lining its 365 beaches. The Barbudans were concerned when Browne suggested last year that Barbuda should become a larger and more extreme version of Jumby Bay, Antigua’s private island resort.

In September, during a speech at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Germany, Browne advocated for imposing “legally binding responsibilities” on protecting the environment rather than leaving people to endure suffering and destruction.

Gaston Browne, left, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, and Arnold Loughman, attorney general of Vanuatu, attend a hearing at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas (ITLOS) on 11 September in Hamburg, Germany.

In the following month, he attended the United Nations in New York to advocate for a treaty to prevent the spread of fossil fuels. In Barbuda, individuals involved in a legal case claim that his government’s choices have disregarded the concerns of residents who fear irreversible harm to their island’s ecology.

John Mussington, a marine biologist, leads the agriculture and fisheries department of the Barbuda Council. He asserts, “Contrary to popular belief, Barbuda was not rendered uninhabitable by the hurricane.” He clarifies, “The UN report on the extent of damage stated that 95% was damaged, not destroyed. There is a distinction between the two terms.”

The goal was to evict all of us and prevent us from returning to Barbuda. By eliminating the population, the land could be redeveloped as a blank slate – terra nullius (land without an owner). Mussington returned several weeks after being forcefully displaced.

The tradition of communal land ownership in Barbuda originated when the Codrington family, who had been leasing the island since 1685, departed. They were given £8,823 under the Slave Compensation Act 1837 for the release of 411 enslaved individuals. The former slaves were left to fend for themselves and have since continued to work the land for many generations. Communal land was a crucial aspect of daily life, and every resident of Barbuda had a say in how it was utilized as they were all considered stakeholders with rights.

The unspoiled nature of Barbuda has attracted many tourists, including Princess Diana, who has a beach named after her with 11 miles of pink sand. However, this beach is only one of the places in danger due to the effects of climate change and ineffective land management, which are causing the protective sandbar to erode constantly.

Birds fly above trees on a shoreline.

The Codrington Lagoon National Park (CLNP) spans 16 miles (26km) and is a valuable natural asset. It boasts mangrove forests, vast seagrass meadows, and vibrant coral reefs. The park is home to a variety of marine creatures, including the rare hawksbill and leatherback turtles. In the skies above the crystal blue waters, the largest gathering of frigate birds in the western hemisphere can be seen daily.

CLNP is a formidable bulwark against coastal erosion, exemplified during Hurricane Irma, and is protected under the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, a treaty signed by nearly 90% of UN member states, including, since 2005, Antigua and Barbuda. But critics claim the agreement is not being upheld.

Mussington states that the island is currently undergoing numerous poorly planned developmental projects, indicating inadequate land and marine management.

According to the speaker, mangroves are being relocated in areas under construction with the misconception that their removal will not affect the environment. Additionally, natural sand dune vegetation, which acts as a barrier against hurricanes, is being removed to make way for hotels, golf courses, and large homes. These projects have been approved by the government and have caused significant changes to the island’s coastal dynamics, which were already impacted by years of sand mining.

The alteration of water composition in the lagoon has disturbed the balance of ecosystems, endangering the island’s scenic environment and the well-being of its residents.

According to Mussington, the Antiguan and Barbudan government viewed Hurricane Irma as a chance to benefit themselves. They are wary of the delay in restoring water and electricity to residents, and believe there was a deliberate attempt to prevent Barbudans from coming back.

An aerial view of an airport construction site amid trees and vegetation

According to Mussington, this is an example of “disaster capitalism”. The prime minister initially estimated that $250 million to $300 million was necessary in aid before the UN conducted any assessment.

“Previously, our main request to the government was for an independent audit of all goods, services, materials, and finances that were provided for Hurricane Irma relief. However, we have yet to receive this account,” he states.

The government of India provided a grant of $1 million for the “resilient restoration of crucial public infrastructure.” Rather than focusing on repairing the hospital or school first, the government chose to allocate a portion of the funds to fixing the post office. As a result, the post office was repaired before the health facility.

Mussington explains that the rights of Barbudans to their land have been gradually diminished over many years. This process began in 1976 with the implementation of the Local Government Act. The Antiguan government recognized the value of Barbuda and, subsequently, a sand mining business was established. This led to an increased awareness of the financial benefits that could be gained from Barbuda’s land, resulting in the initiation of land leases.

The Barbuda Land Act of 2007, passed by the UPP government under Baldwin Spencer, was considered a significant law in safeguarding individual rights and communal ownership of land.

However, ironically, the decision to legally protect land rights made them susceptible to changes. In 2016, the Browne administration revoked the Barbuda Land Act. According to Barbudan MP Trevor Walker, this action was deemed as “unforgivable” by the Antigua Observer.

Instead, a new law was introduced that permitted the privatization of land without approval from the Barbudan Community Council. This caused tension and suspicion between the central government in Antigua and the Barbudan residents. As a result, the residents were forced to obtain land titles for the land they were already living on.

Kelly Burton, the manager of Barbuda’s national parks, states that the Land Act was derived from the constitution, which is protected by the Local Government Act. This act cannot be altered without a two-thirds majority, according to Burton.

Therefore, they proceeded to repeal the Land Act and proceeded with their plan to sell land in Barbuda.

Typically, obtaining land requires buying an already established lease. The initial step is to submit a letter of intent to the Barbuda Council, the governing body. A town hall meeting is then held, where a majority vote is necessary. If approved, the plan is sent to parliament for review. If it gains approval, it then goes through cabinet approval and is ultimately signed by the British governor general. Many of the leases granted to developers do not follow this process.

A line of people being served food in a makeshift canteen

In 2017, the people of Barbuda saw Hurricane Irma as a chance to remove those who have been labeled as “deracinated imbeciles” by Browne. These individuals have opposed the developments and advocated for tourism projects that are environmentally friendly and sustainable.

Browne has criticized the concept of communal land ownership, comparing it to “welfare.” He also expressed a desire to put an end to debates about shared land ownership. He stated, “We are clearly stating to all citizens and residents that we have one registered Land Act that will dictate the process of selling, leasing, and managing land in Antigua and Barbuda.”

Jackie Frank, a previous leader of the Barbuda Council and daughter of an MP involved in creating the initial Land Act, suspects that the government’s intentions are to turn Barbuda into a haven for the wealthy. “To become part of that exclusive group, one must possess a private jet,” she explains. “This leaves minimal space for the locals of Barbuda. Our island has been overlooked and ignored. If we allow for these actions to continue, it’s not just our land that will be lost, but our identity as a community.”

Browne highlights the issue that Barbudans lacked the ability to secure insurance for their homes prior to Hurricane Irma due to the absence of ownership deeds. He believes that the revisions made to the Land Act are empowering.

Mussington remains doubtful. According to him, Browne claimed that the aid given was not meant for repairing homes, but for renovating public buildings. This led people to believe that they should apply for a title deed, obtain it, and then take out a loan from the bank to fix their own house.

Indicating a rundown structure, he explains: “This used to be the police headquarters, where law and order were maintained on the island. It was a public building, and it remains in the same state as the hurricane left it. So, what was the main concern?”

Aerial view of white sand beaches on the coast of Barbuda

Numerous beaches, such as Princess Diana Beach, are currently limited to residents of the area. Local advocate Gulliver Johnson expresses, “This is an ongoing issue on the island, with stricter restrictions and increased security measures, including frequent security guard patrols and surveillance cameras, to deter Barbudan citizens from trespassing.”

I am willing to work as a servant or cleaner if I am given a portion of the land. However, I do not appreciate outsiders coming in, taking my land, and then expecting me to work for them. This situation is reminiscent of apartheid, where we will need special permission to go to areas occupied by foreigners.

Alliances between developers and the government are a key bone of contention for Barbudans, who claim cronyism in the relationships with foreign celebrity investors who are given honorary titles.

John Paul DeJoria speaks into a microphone at a public event

John Paul DeJoria, a wealthy American businessman who created popular hair products and tequila, has been chosen as an ambassador for Antigua. He is also working on the PLH project, which aims to promote peace, love, and happiness. DeJoria is collaborating with JB Turbidy, from FireSky Ventures that is involved in the high-end Christophe Harbour resort in St Kitts, and Steve Adelson, of the Discovery Land Company, known for their work on the Baker’s Bay resort in the Bahamas.

The Barbuda Ocean Club includes two important ecological zones, Palmetto Point and Coco Point. Palmetto Point will feature 400 high-end villas priced up to $10 million, an 18-hole golf course, a beach club, a farm and family park, and a social club. Approximately 600 acres (240 hectares) have been designated for this development. Coco Point is partially in use, but local fishermen have expressed concerns about restricted access to the sea due to “No Trespass” signs.

In 2015, Antigua’s Prime Minister Browne appointed actor Robert De Niro, who co-owns Paradise Found developers, as the special economic envoy for the country. However, the development of the disused K-Club hotel site, which has been occupied by Paradise Found for a long time, faced a legal obstacle due to a court case questioning the constitutionality of the “Paradise Found (Act) 2015” law. This law had removed the previous requirement for developers to consult with local authorities.

Trevor Walker and Mackenzie Frank, members of the Barbuda Council, were unsuccessful in their challenge after the privy council determined that they were unable to prove their legal right to the communal property through documentation.

Aerial view of Cedar Tree point in Barbuda

De Niro was unable to be reached for comment but asked by CNN in 2018 about his Barbuda development, he said the goal was to help the island get back running after Hurricane Irma. “The most important thing [is putting] the people first and then the hotel. Those things can be done simultaneously, but it’s a big endeavour,” he said.

The private council hearing this week is regarding the construction of an airstrip by the Discovery Land Company.

The Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), a British non-governmental organization (NGO), has been providing legal assistance to islanders in their legal battles since 2019. The challenge is sponsored by GLAN.

“The questionable actions of some dealings, such as the misleading narratives, forced displacement of native Barbudans post-hurricane, and multiple layers of questionable conduct, transactions, leases, legislation, and political influence, all give rise to concerns about the integrity and validity of these dealings,” stated Gearóid Ó Cuinn, the founding director of Glan.

A private property sign on a beach in Barbuda

The activists have expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of proper procedures, such as proposals and approvals, in the construction of multiple expensive projects without the Barbuda Council’s consent. However, the communication between the developers and the Barbudans has worsened, as the activists have boycotted meetings.

In September 2022, Glan supported 22 individuals who were charged for participating in a protest against the Palmetto Point development. However, the trespass charges were dropped. Glan has raised concerns about the damage to the island’s wetlands to the Ramsar Secretariat in both 2020 and 2022. However, the secretariat has not indicated any steps they will take to address the issue. The Antiguan government’s Development Control Authority (DCA) has also expressed worries about violations of Ramsar policies. The DCA is under the jurisdiction of Maria Bird-Browne, the prime minister’s wife, who is responsible for land and urban renewal.

A metal fence across a sandy road

Browne has issued a warning to potential protesters. He stated that those who plan to engage in acts of economic sabotage, hindering the development of the country and causing unemployment, will be held accountable by the law for any violations.

The government of Antigua and Barbuda refutes any claims of unfair or improper actions. A representative stated that the decision for development was not solely in the hands of the prime minister, but also involved the DCA.

“The Browne government has not approved any projects that are in violation of the State’s laws or that pose a threat to historical land rights and the environment,” he states.

I strongly deny any accusation of land acquisition, delays in restoring utilities after Hurricane Irma, fraudulent actions to secure funding for projects on Barbuda or elsewhere, lack of consultation or violation of the Ramsar Convention, questionable behavior in regards to lease processes or environmental impact assessments, or any conflict of interest. I did not prioritize foreign investment over following proper legal procedures.

A number of Barbudans are dissatisfied. According to Mussington and Johnson, the island’s environment is at risk of irreversible damage and the funds are being used to build a foreign-owned asset that could deplete the country’s resources.

Barbudans have been divided by years of conflict as they await another court decision.

Due to the constant presence of trucks and heavy equipment, the unpaved roads on the island have turned into dusty and pothole-ridden paths. The houses in Codrington village are covered in a layer of dirt, while the mangroves and seagrass beds are shrinking, serving as a persistent reminder to the resilient residents that they are still fighting a battle they refuse to concede.

According to a statement given to the Guardian, PLH stated that the Barbuda Ocean Club serves as a prime example of sustainable development in the region. They also mentioned that the project has greatly enhanced the environment, infrastructure, quality of life, and economic prospects for the residents of the island who are also their neighbors, friends, and colleagues.

PLH claims to have “reversed 40 years of neglect” on the island and says it entered into legally compliant lease agreements with the Antigua and Barbuda government and the Barbuda Council in February 2017, “following a fully transparent and inclusive process”.

According to the spokesperson, PLH has invested a significant amount of money, specifically in the tens of millions of US dollars, towards Barbuda and has also implemented environmental initiatives.

We are currently working on more projects to restore the environment. These projects are still in the planning phase and we aim to begin them in 2024. We are collaborating with Antigua and Barbuda’s Ministry of Environment, reputable environmental specialists, and local employees who are part of our monitoring efforts.

Source: theguardian.com